This book has been in print for almost thirty years and it is a tribute to Regula Burckhardt Qureshi and her pathbreaking account of qawwali that she has had such a loyal readership in India and Pakistan, the home of this pre-eminent form of sufi music. Qawwali together with ghazal and khyal was one of the genres of music to be recorded on 78rpm discs from the early decades of the twentieth century. From the 1950s qawwali was also widely used in Hindi films giving it an audience and reach of the commercially popular song. In fact the setting of Hindi film qawwali is usually romantic, a pretext for the hero and heroine to sing coyly to each other which obscures the fact that traditional qawwali is sung mainly in a dargah and is a deeply religious experience. The latest (and notorious) example of transformed qawwali in Hindi film is the hit song “Kajara Rey” from “Bunty and Babli”. However there also existed patrons who often organized qawwali performances during Holi to mark the advent of spring, but such occasions have more or less gone out of fashion.
Burckhardt’s book with its formidable scholarship and academic rigour is an ethnography of qawwali as performance in sufi shrines in north India especially Delhi. There are very detailed descriptions and analyses of the qawwali experience (in which only men are allowed to participate), the repertoire of singers, the nature of the music and most importantly its place in sufi practice. The author reminds us that for centuries Sufi communities have sustained this musical tradition in the mahfil-i-sama (the assembly of listening) and it was through this act of listening that the sufi sought to activate his link with his spiritual guide, departed saints and ultimately god. Qureshi’s larger goal is systematic ethnomusicological enquiry which she defines as “establishing the meaning or significance of musical sound in terms of its social use and cultural function”. She asks: “How does qawwali, the music, articulate with qawwali, its context of performance? Or, in other words, how does qawwali musical sound become meaningful outside itself?” (p.5). She writes that qawwali embodies the ideology of Sufism and this in turn acts as a driving force for the performance. Interestingly she also demonstrates how this music affirms traditional social structures which at the same time promotes individual self-assertion. Qawwali she suggests provides a crucial entry into north Indian Muslim society, a vital communicative link that builds communities between performers and listeners and also between listeners.
Qawwali singers see themselves as professional musicians who defer to the higher status and rank accorded to Hindustani classical musicians especially vocalists, despite the fact that qawwali performers have special non-musical competence that sets them apart. One story of khyal does trace its beginning to the lineage of “qawwal bacches” (the families of qawwal offspring). The most illustrious vocalist from the qawwal bacche lineage was Tanras Khan (d.1884), employed in the court of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar of Delhi. Tanras Khan is celebrated as a maverick maestro of khyal and his life demonstrated that despite the hierarchy between classical and qawwali genres there was a constant circulation of musical knowledges. The great Alladiya Khan was forbidden to learn from qawwal bacches by his family (they were dhrupad singers originally from Atrauli) but he was so influenced by qawwal bacche Mubarak Ali of Jaipur that he named his new khyal style the Jaipur-Atrauli gayaki to pay tribute to his mentor. Qawwali singers often drew on the superior compositional skills of classical vocalists. The Atrauli maestro Mehboob Khan “Daras Piya” often composed exclusively for qawwali singers. In the last few decades the qawwali singer who most personified the link with classical music was the late Jafar Husain Khan Badauni who had extensive training from Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur-Sahaswan. But no qawwali repertoire is complete without the legendary Amir Khusrau’s compositions in praise of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, a vital musical link going back hundreds of years. This is a pioneering book that deserves wide circulation.
Partho Datta is Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.