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Mystical Sufi Muslim Music v. Rock, Pop And Bollywood

Qawwali is Sufi devotional and mystic poetry that promotes a tolerant form of Islam. It dates back centuries, but is losing ground to popular rock and Bollywood music.

Spinning to the music.
Spinning to the music.
Naeem Sahoutara

DELHI — On a humid Thursday evening in historic Old Delhi, dozens of devotees gather at the shrine of the 12th century Muslim saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

A group of traditional mystic singers prepare for tonight's performance. Around them the narrow streets buzz with vendors selling fresh rose petals and incense. The performers start with the Persian Islamic poem Kun Faya Kun, written by the subcontinent's famous poet, Amir Khushrau.

Qawwali is a Sufi form of devotional music that depicts a mystical and tolerant form of Islam. The Sufis preach about humanity and emphasize equal treatment for everyone. Their shrines, for that reasons, are visited by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Their poetry, explains the lead singer, Tahir Ali, is something like meditation. "Qawwali has a connection with the soul. It touches the heart of the listeners," he says. "Once it touches their hearts the whole body feels it too. That's why many people ask us to sing Qawwali in the Persian language. Not many people understand Persian, but they still enjoy the music."

The birthplace of Qawwali

Followers of different religions flock to this place every week, seeking fulfillment of their wishes. Some travel from as far as away as Europe and the Americas. Ali and his two brothers are visiting from Pakistan.

For Qawwali singers, performing at this shrine is like a dream come true. "Qawwali dates way back, even to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. But the style was different. It was sung only with a daf, a Persian frame drum," Ali explains. "After that the saint Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple, Amir Khusrau, took Qawwali to its peak. That's why this is seen as the birthplace of Qawwali."

Khusrau is known as the "parrot of the subcontinent" because of his great and melodious poetry. And his addition of music to the mystic poetry immortalized the form, says the shrine's caretaker, Syed Nizam Ali Nizami.

"Hazrat Amir Khusrau invented different musical instruments like the sitar and tabla drum," he explains. "His master, Nizamuddin Auliya, once asked Khusrau to develop a common language that people from different religions could speak and understand. So, he invented the Urdu language by including words of various languages including Arabic and Persian. Today, this language is widely spoken."

Over the centuries, the mystic music has also made its way into the film industries of India, Pakistan and other countries in the region. But Ali Nizami, who is a descendent of the saint, says that classical Qawwali is not often heard today. "To be fair, whatever you are listening to these days is not original qawwali," the caretaker says. "Before the singers used to sing the poetry of mystic poets. Today, some of it could turn listeners into infidels."

Preserving a vanishing tradition

As modern generations lose touch with the origins of the form, and rock, pop, and Bollywood music take over, one group in India is pushing to revive classical Qawwali.

"It was starting to fade. It didn't vanish altogether, because otherwise we wouldn't have been able to retrieve it. But it was fading. That's why we're making a real effort to promote it," says Ditti Ray, the program officer for the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, or the AKTC.

As part of a Qawwali revival project, Ray and her team have been documenting different forms of Qawwali. "There are only two groups still staying at the Nizamuddin Basti. And three or four groups have shifted to the old Delhi area. They're still considered to be the custodians of the traditional music of the Dargah shrine. And they sing a lot of Hazrat Amir Khusrau poetry," the AKTC program officer explains.

The team is also exploring outside Delhi, in places like Jaipur, Agra, Punjab and Kashmir. As part of the initiative, they launched a website featuring the entire works of poet Amir Khusrau, as sung by well known performers.

Singer Chand Nizam, a leading Bollywood star, is doing his part too by helping train young singers in classical Qawwali. From a small family house adjacent to the shrine, his Sikandriya family, he says, has been performing for the last 700 years.

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