Monday, 20 April 2020

Q is for ... Quaking ... n ... Quailing

Today is the turning point when the challenge gets into difficult terrain, the first of the letters that are the litmus test of survival. And I with my unpreparedness - am quailing and quaking more than usual, what else? But all is still not lost...managed to find a couple things. First, this is by a Bengali filmmaker, music composer and lyricist - Qaushik Mukherji, the lyrics are awful profane so if you understand Bangla and are sensitive then please don't click play. If you don't follow Bengali/are not easily offended - have a listen.

From the controversial avant garde to the pukka traditional - the next number is my only concession to Bollywoody music. However, it is based on a musical form called the Qawwali - an Islamic Sufi devotional which developed in the subcontinent centuries ago and is still sung in the Sufi shrines and dargahs. A very typical choral performance, this has been adapted for use in many Bollywood films. Qawwali uses Sufi metaphors of the 'beloved' and the 'wine-bearer' for God, and the tavern, wine and drinking for the material world. Even if these metaphors are unknown the lyrics can be taken at face value and still feel absolutely riveting. 

The reason why I chose a Bollywood Qawwali rather than an original one is simply because a real Qawwali performance can typically go on for half an hour or more. In a film it is necessarily more compact but less authentic. Note that in the clip there are actual performers 'Qawwals' called Nizami Bandhu who sing at the shrine/mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya, a 13th century Sufi saint in Delhi. However, the film has playback artistes singing the song. 

Queen. Quaint. Qawwali.

Since I have written half a post on Qawwali already so I might as well continue with the general object today is this cassette, pretty high on the quaintness quotient I'll freely admit, half my readers probably won't know what a music cassette is. Link given for your easy reference, you're welcome! The artiste thereon is late Begum Akhtar, she is popularly titled Malka-e-Ghazal or the Queen of the Ghazal. The Ghazal is an Arabo-Persian form which has been absorbed into the Indian sub-continent. It can be sung or recited independently and also as a part of Sufi spiritual music, including Qawwali performances as well. 

If we are to start at the beginning of Indian Islamic music, we have to go back to the 13th century. That's when the grandfather of Qawwali,  a guy called Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) was born to a Sunni Muslim father of Turkic-Central Asian origin and a Hindu mother in present day Uttar Pradesh. During the 13th century, the Mongol Empire relentlessly expanded in a wide swathe right across Asia and eventually into the eastern borders of Europe. Many Turkic and Central Asian peoples were displaced and migrated to India, among them Sufi spiritual leaders and their followers.  Amir Khusrau's father's family was among those who came away from the havoc wreaked by the Mongols and settled in India. 

Khusrau's father passed away when Khusrau was eight. Khusrau picked up the Turkic heritage from him - the father taught the son Persian, Turkish and Sufism which informed his later work. His mother moved back to her parental home after widowhood, so Khusrau grew up in his Rajput maternal grandfather's home where his deep seated love for all things Indian grew. His poetic genius was observed early - he wrote his first diwan of poetry in his teens. He was noticed by one of the princes of the ruling monarch, and thereafter became a much valued member of the court. In all Khusrau saw eight different kings/sultans on the throne at Delhi and served at various courts. 

In 1310, Khusrau became a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, by then his poetry and songs were sung popularly in the royal courts as well by the common people. Khusrau wrote primarily in Persian, but had knowledge of Sanskrit, Arabic, Hindustani/Hindavi, Punjabi and wrote in some of them as well. Many Hindavi verses and riddles are attributed to Khusrau though there is no definitive proof of their being written by him. He was a prolific poet and lyricist and many of his compositions are still sung in Sufi shrines across the subcontinent.  

He is credited with milestone developments in North Indian (Hindustani) classical music - the creation and standardisation of the 'Sitar' from the various types of Veena that were in use in the 13th century. He is also credited with the development of the forms of 'tarana'/'tillana' and finally of course, blending Persian, Arabic, Turkish and North Indian music into the Islamic Sufi music of the subcontinent called the Qawwali. 

What exactly is a Qawwali performance? It is essentially a Sufi practice of searching and uniting with God though music and whirling. Qawwali is the song that accompanies the whirling, but in many cases it is sung independently too. So basically it's a song in praise of God - a Sufi hymn if you like. Qawwali can be classified into different types based on their content,  a hamd - thanksgiving, a naat - praising the Prophet of Islam, manqabat - praise for Imam Ali or a Sufi spiritual leader, a marsiya - lament for the dead, usually over the family of Iman Hussein massacred at Karbala in 680 CE and finally a ghazal - a song using secular metaphors, usually an earthly love to stand in for the divine, or wine, winebearer and intoxication for spiritual quest, its object and ecstasy as mentioned earlier. A kafi is a form in Punjabi, a munajaat is a prayer of thanksgiving through a specific linguistic form credited to Jalaluddin Rumi. 

A Qawwali performance can have all or just some of the different types of songs. The instruments are simple, the Indian drums called tabla or a pakhawaj, a harmonium, perhaps a sarangi (strings). Clapping emphasises the percussion and lends itself to enthusiastic audience participation.

Sufism has very deep roots in India, the Sufi movement came to India in 10th/11th centuries. It shares some elements of mysticism with the Bhakti movement in Hinduism, which originated in the 8th century and swept through India by the 15th. India is a land of syncretism, there are as many Hindu pilgrims at the Sufi shrines, and those dedicated to Mother Mary, as there are Muslims pilgrims and Catholic ones respectively. But that may be a story for a different day and letter. 

Leaving you today with this performance by the Qawwals Nizami Bandhu of the same track from the film Rockstar. 

A-Z Challenge 2020 

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