In this fifth installment of our ‘Crazy Diamonds’ series, we continue our tributary look at those promising Pakistanis who experienced the flip side of genius – an awkward state of being that some describe as a kind of madness.
With long, unkempt hair, colourful kameez-shalwar and wild eyes he could’ve been one of the many fakirs or even a homeless vagabond, who for centuries have frequented the famous shrine.
But he was no ordinary fakir. People knew him as a young qawwal – or the singer and performer of Sufi devotional poetry and music, the qawwali.
People who often saw this young qawwal at the shrine also knew that he was highly educated. He was Aziz Mian. The man who would rise to become not only one of the most famous qawwals in Pakistan, but also perhaps the most unique and controversial.
It would be the qawwali that he wrote on a crumpled piece of paper on the grounds of the Ganj Bakhsh shrine that day that would lift his status and popularity to unprecedented heights.
Unlike most qawwals, Aziz Mian almost always wrote his own lyrics. And the lyrics that he scribbled at the shrine became the words to the epic qawwali, ‘Mein Sharabi’ (I’m an alcoholic).
After the qawwali hit the music stores, it became an instant smash, and Aziz Mian was no more a struggling young qawwal looking for an opening.
Born in 1942 in a lower-middle-class family in Delhi, Aziz Mian migrated to the newly created country of Pakistan in 1947.
Coming from a musical family, Aziz Mian began learning qawwali from the age of 10 at the Ganj Bakhsh shrine.
He started to drink, smoke and became addicted to strong, tobacco-laced paans at an early age, and was often arrested for committing petty crimes of vandalism and hooliganism as a teen.
Though restless and quarrelsome, he, however, managed to excel at school and then (in the early 1960s) went on to pick up multiple degrees in Urdu, Persian and Arabic literature from the Punjab University in Lahore.
Though he had been performing live and had already cut a few albums, it wasn’t until EMI-Pakistan released the first version of ‘Sharabi’ (in 1973) that Aziz Mian shot to fame.
On ‘Sharabi’, Aziz Mian also discovered and stamped a style of writing, composing and vocal delivery that he would retain for the rest of his career.
Taking the approach of the ‘quarrelsome Sufis/Fakirs’ of yore who in their state of reverse trance undertook loud emotional dialogues with God, dotted with a series of paradoxical questions, Aziz Mian would start slowly, break into a catchy chorus with his ‘qawwali party’ (qawwali group), and then suddenly stop and shout out his argument in a blistering display of speed-talking in which he would address God, complaining how he loved him but felt that he wasn’t being loved back; or why such a perfect entity like God would create such an imperfect creature like man!
Aziz Mian was a heavy drinker, and like various famous Sufi poets he often used the state of drunkenness as a metaphor for the state and kind of effect the love for God had on him.
But he would also praise alcohol on its own terms.
By the mid-1970s Aziz Mian had risen to become the region’s leading qawwal and was selling out concerts across Pakistan and India.
However, many of his concerts used to also disintegrate into becoming drunken brawls when Aziz Mian would purposely work up the audience into a state in which many among the crowd would lose all sense of order and control.
He would explain this as being a stage from where the brawling men could take the leap into the next stage of making a direct spiritual connection with the Almighty.
A cultural writer reviewing one such Aziz Mian concert in Karachi in 1975 described him as being ‘the Nietzschean Sufi!’
Aziz Mian also benefitted from the cultural policies of the first PPP regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1972-77).
The policies instructed state media to regularly telecast folk music and qawwali on TV and radio, especially during a weekly show called ‘Lok Virsa’ that became a huge hit with the audiences.
This also helped another group of qawwals become equally popular. These were the ‘Sabri Brothers.’
The Sabri Brothers were a lot more melodic and hypnotic in their style and began drawing huge crowds. Soon, a rivalry began to develop between Aziz Mian and the Brothers.