July 2008


In recent times Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was greatly instrumental in popularizing Qawwali in many parts of the world. He managed to produce an altogether effect by mixing traditional Sufi music with western traditional music and thus creating Qawwali masterpieces.

 

Normally instruments which are used in Qawwali are different from each other. The main instruments used are tabla, harmonium, saringda, santur, dholak, kartal, bulbul tarang, sarangi, and rabab. Another trademark musical effect used in Qawwali is clapping of hands in a rhythmic movement. Qawwali has very little similarity with classical music like meend gamaks, taans and few other enhancement factors which are essential part of Hindustani classical music. It is also similar to classical music in its structure. Like using alap initially without any musical effect then slow rising tempo and finally increasing pace in the middle and towards the end. Raags normally used in qawwalis are; Khammaj, Kalyan, Bilawal and Kafi etc. but most fascinating rags associated with qawwalis are rags of Persia. Qawwali uses numerous tals. Common among them are fast kaherava of four to eight beats and breezy dadra tal of 6 beats.

 

Qawwali performance generally continues non-stop in a group setting with one main qawwal and several supporting qawwals. Audiences are also encouraged to participate in qawwalis. No wonder, this ancient version of Islamic devotional song has never lost its sheen and kept on mesmerizing people all over the world.

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Interestingly, development of Qawwali coincided with growth of bhajans of Hindus. All credit to the India’s cultural diversity because of which two entirely contrasting genres of music coexisted and prospered together. Example of Kabir, the famous bhajan singer demonstrates the above stated fact. He is equally respected by both Hindu and Muslims.

 

Qawwali in its true sense symbolizes the Sufi tradition. Sufism is an Islamic philosophy which aims to achieve the real truth and heavenly worship by unswerving individual experience. It is also known as tasawwuf in Arabian. Sufism emphasizes on remembering god in vocal form through Qawwali.   

 

Development of Qawwali hit a roadblock during the time of Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. But with the fall of mogul empire, it again regained its rhythmic popularity amongst the masses. Though, problems occurred during British Empire because of lack of patronage but at the same time, the practitioners found the required freedom to indulge in the passion of playing qawwalis all over the India.

 

Then came the golden period of Qawwali with the arrival of Indian film industry. Indian movies helped a great deal in spreading the popularity of qawwalis. On one hand Indian films helped in revival of this precious genre but at the same time, filmy qawwalis had started to acquire those ostentatious attributes. Many great qawwalis have been included in Indian movies. In fact, during certain time duration most of the movies had at least one Qawwali sequence. Qawwali had found its voice again, though not in its purest form but still mere presence of it was sufficient to energize the audiences. 

 

Qawwali is one of the most conventional forms of songs. It’s basically a version of Islamic song, popular in India and Pakistan.  Origin of the word qawwali is traced to Arabic word Qaol, meaning ‘axiom’ or ‘dictum’.  Singer of Qawwali is called Qawwal. Qawwali is sung in praises of God and represents spiritual aspects of life.

 

Historically, qawwali is said to be originated somewhere around the era of the birth of Muhammad.  The first time basics of qawwali were defined, it was during 10th and 11th century. Al-Gazli is credited to define principles of qawwalis. Though, even before him, other Islamic scholars had talked about spiritual side of this genre of music. The spread and popularity of qawwali in Indian and Pakistan is because of Chisti school of Sufism. This school is rumored to be started by Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti (1143-1234).  However, this has not been established as a fact, yet.

 

Another Muslim saint who helped in spreading qawwali was Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325).  Known as a pious man, he used qawwalis in his preaching, praising the deeds of God. Both Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti and Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya are famous resource of inspiration to many people and every year mass gathering is held at their tombs. But one man who stands above the rest when it comes to propagating the musings of qawwalis, it is Amir Khusru (1254-1324). His fame is because of his talents as Philosopher and musician. He helped in the evolution of qawwali by mixing numerous musical elements from different cultures. He used musical parts from India. Persia (Iran) and Turkey and produced an altogether different magical effect.   

Most famous Indian Bhajan singers are, Tulsidas, Mira Bai, Kabir and Surdas. Bhajans sung by these eminent singers were of supreme quality and they are still quite popular. They used high quality words or chants in their bhajans. Bhajans are all about love, whether it is love for god, love of woman’s love for man most aptly represented by Mirabai’s songs. Most popular bhajans were love of Radha for lord Krishna. It comes as no surprise that this Radha and Krishna devotional songs have been used in other forms of Indian arts as well. Bhakti songs represent direct communication with god through bhajans used in songs format. Bhajans never advocated use of any medium for interacting with god. It’s more of a soulful language representing devotion and dedication towards the grandeur of God.  

 

All these famous bhajan singers made mockery of religious institutions. They did not believe in use of religions while expressing their love towards god. Kabir never believed in his religion but his bhajans are equally liked by both Hindus and Muslims. When we look closely at lyrics used in bhajan, we will find that languages used in lyrics are mostly vernacular. On one hand this helped in popularizing bhajans and on the other hand it resulted into decreasing dependency on established languages. Many modern day classical singers like Bhimsen Joshi sang bhajans and helped in making them popular. 

Bhajans hold a very important place in Indian culture. One of the traditional hallmarks of Indian devotion, bhajans are basically songs sung in the honor of God. Like Gospels, The bhajan has a special place in Indian society. Historically bhajans are said to be originated and popularized between 14th to 17th centuries. The lyrics used in the bhajans are quite simple to understand but profound in thought and philosophy. Bhajans can be heard from the common people like farmers and merchants. Most of these bhajans carry multifarious spiritual truths.

During the Mogul period, a Hindu revivalist movement was going on, called as Bhakti movement. Bhakti movement heavily relied on bhajans. This movement aimed at salvation of masses through spiritual attainment. This movement wanted to awaken love for god amongst all people. Bhakti movement also preached about just pure love of god which did not include any traditional rituals. Bhajan played a crucial part in spreading this movement. Technically, bhajans can not be explained because of its unique distinction from any particular musical characteristics. It has a huge range within, right from commonly heard ritual chant to most evolved versions of music. Bhajans have a sense of devotion which makes it very different from other genres of music.

Bhajan contains a very simple and traditional structure. It has numerous antara and single sthai. Typically, the last antara contains the pseudonym of the author.