Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



An Islamic devotional musical genre, renowned for its lively delivery, popularly associated with Northern India and Pakistan but found all over Southern Asia wherever Muslim communities exist. While devoutly Islamic in nature, qawwali is also popular with Hindus, Sikhs and other religious groups. Like its Hindu devotional counterpart, bhajan, it has similarities with other light classical music forms from the region. Qawwali is a method of religious observance, closely associated with the Sufis, the Islamic mystical sect, and the flowering of Persian culture in the Indian subcontinent. 'Qawwali' (literally 'utterance' in Persian), like other Indian musical forms, is largely improvisatory in nature; it is reliant on the ability of the qawwal (qawwali singer) to mould the lyrics and rhythmic structure in such a way as to relate the emotional and religious content of the lyrics and stamp the performance with originality. The form originated with the Chisti order of Sufis in the early tenth century in Khorosan, who developed it to elevate the spirit and bring both performer and listener closer to God. The music's aim is to touch the listener and attain a state of grace or enlightenment, a stateless state known as Ma'rifat. Qawwali was taken to the Indian subcontinent by the Mughul empire, where it is usually sung in Persian, or latterly Urdu (the Indian language with closest semantic roots to Persian). Other languages in which qawwali is commonly sung include Parsi and Punjabi. Lyrically qawwali is noted for its rich use of religious and mystical symbol. By the late twentieth century qawwali was performed not only at religious shrines such as Ajmer, Rudauli, Data Durbar in Lahore and Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, but had also become a fixture in secular festivals and on concert stages all over the world; by overcoming racial, religious and caste divides at shrines such as Ajmer, the music also functioned as an important bridge between Muslim and Hindu communities. An example of the way in which mysticism suffuses the form, given in Regula Burckhardt Qureshi's Sufi Music Of India and Pakistan (Cambridge University Press, '86), is the account of the Sufi saint Qutabuddin Bakhtiyar-e-Kar who was inspired to ecstasy by the Persian mystic Ahmad Jam's couplet 'For the martyrs of the dagger of submission/The Unseen brings a new life every morning.' Each time the first line would be sung the saint would drop down dead, only to spring back to life with the second. After several days they ceased singing on the first line so he could find peace with the Beloved. Typically, qawwals are accompanied by a vocal chorus, handclapping, Indian drums such as tabla and dholak and (as in many Indian musical forms nowadays) harmonium. A typical performance will open with an instrumental statement or prelude on harmonium, a vocal solo, followed by a full vocal swell from the other vocalists and percussion accompaniment. Notable qawwals include Aziz Mian, the Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Qawwali has also been absorbed as an influence into filmi (Indian film music) to create a secular variant known as filmi qawwali. That the Indian film industry is second to none in rendering anything commercial is nowhere better illustrated than in its treatment of qawwali. Many Indians, especially Hindus, blur the distinction between the form's devotional original and the increasingly trashy popular derivative, but the only connection is the kidnapping of the word 'qawwali'. The first milestone on this road to ruin was Zeenat '44, the first film to introduce the genre. During the early '60s filmi was booming and migrated ever further from the music's origins; Al Hilal '58 had professional qawwal Ismail Azad singing, but the lyrics dwelt on female beauty and feminine shallowness. Barsaat Ki Raat '60 presented a host of male and female choruses, and a trend developed of presenting two parties in competition -- a qawwali group being called a party), for example, Mughal-e-Azam '60, incl. a qawwali battle of the bands; one male and one female party became a popular dramatic device. Good taste sometimes received a hearing; Garm Hava '73 included devotional lyrics sung by Aziz Ahmed Khan, Warzi and party and was shot on location at the shrine of Khwaja Salim Chishti near Agra. Normal service was resumed with Amar Akbar Anthony '77 which with a leap of the imagination transformed qawwali parties into Las Vegas chorus lines. Qawwalis From Films Volume 1 on EMI India is an anthology of filmi qawwalis, sourced from flicks such as Mera Naam Joker, Zanjeer, Painter Babu and Karma and sung by filmi stars (playback singers) of the calibre of Asha Bhosle, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manhar and Mahendra Kapoor.