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Interview: An unbroken tradition

August 18, 2013


Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad.
Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad.

The stage is lit up and the audience waits in eager anticipation. Sitting at the centre of the stage, he clears his throat and recites a verse from the Holy Quran before giving an almost imperceptible signal to his accompanists.

All hands move to come together in a loud clap and my heart goes thump thump as if beating in unison with the uplifting rhythm. A loud alap takes wing and I do my best to hold tightly to my chair to stop myself from getting up and swaying in a state of ecstasy. From the stage the two of them look at me straight in the eye, knowing well what must be going on in my mind, they move their hand and recite the next couplet. Yet another qawwali programme by Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad and I know that this is an experience by itself, a soulful treat like no other.

This time I am in the cinema hall and as the opening scene of the movie starts rolling on the screen, I am stunned by the familiar sound of Kangana and watch the larger than life figures of the two veteran qawwals add to Mira Nair’s film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s novel of contemporary and not-so Reluctant Pakistan.

The two brothers seem to have taken the town by storm and have won innumerable new enthusiasts (such as myself) to the world of qawwali. They created a sensation with their appearance in Coke Studio but it was not this programme which catapulted them to heights of fame, even though it introduced the timbre of their voice to a younger generation. It has been a hard and uphill struggle but a worthwhile one as I gather from an extended conversation with them carried out backstage while waiting for a programme to start and I also talk to the two brothers separately to get a sense of their individual style and different personalities.

Farid Ayaz has his conversation, as well as his performance, peppered with a never-ending series of paan and his fluent conversation tends to be learned, steeped in classical references. Everyday details I get from Abu Muhammad. Like their style of singing, their dress is different too as Farid Ayaz dons a Sindhi cap and ajrak while Abu Muhammad wears a cap.

The two brothers are very proud, and rightly so, of their ancestry. Theirs is an unbroken tradition of nearly 700 years. They hail from the legendary qawwal-bachcha gharana and it is said that it was set up by none other than Amir Khusrau at the behest of the great Sufi figure Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi. Their ancestor Mian Samat Bin Ibrahim was a disciple of Amir Khusrau. This tradition came down to their father Munshi Raziuddin, an important figure in the history of qawwali and he not only trained his sons but made them undertake a commitment to continuing this tradition even in difficult times. Now they are joined by two younger brothers as well as many members of the younger generation in the family.

Farid Ayaz is the eldest and was born in Hyderabad Deccan while Abu Mohammad was born in Karachi. “I learnt from my father and started singing in Karachi,” says Abu Muhammad. ”I was a student at the Grand Folks School when my father asked me to give time and effort to qawwali.” Coming to Karachi from Delhi after the partition, their father sang with Manzoor Niazi and Bahauddin who were also his cousins.

The group dispersed later on and Farid Ayaz formed his own group as a young man in 1976. His father encouraged and kept tutoring him. Raziuddin was called Munshi because of his scholarly approach as also borne out by his bespectacled looks. His sons have kept his name alive and pay homage to him by organising a programme to mark his anniversary. It goes without saying that they have added their own style and innovations to what they learnt from their father.

“It has not been an uphill task,” says Abu Mohammad recalling their early days of struggle. “Baba was a tough taskmaster and he would make me do riyaz for 10 hours at a stretch. He would make us stick to the buniyadi sur at first and then allow us to move on.” He made his sons conscious of the adaab of true qawwali and make efforts to carry these on against all odds. Abu Muhammad says that at one point he became fed up and wanted to do something else in music, but he was stopped by his father with words to the effect: “Whatever you decide, do not contribute to the destruction of this great legacy.”

He explains to me how qawwali was going through a downfall and had become vulgarised. “People began to think that if you put 10 or 12 persons on the movie set and place caps on their heads, then it becomes qawwali,” he says highlighting their art as khanqahi qawwali stemming from the centres of Sufi learning and steeped in mysticism. He makes clear that qawwali is the base while elements of dadra and thumri, even folk songs are woven into its texture in their performance. “Qalbana is also qawwali and so is Man Kuntoi Maula, and through this you can understand that qawwali’s roots are very deep,” he elucidates.

“Our hard work paid off, as they say Istiqamat Fauq-ul-Karamat,” says Abu Muhammad. Today their devotees are spread all over the globe. The two brothers have performed in nearly 70 countries and cannot even recall the names of some of them. Even as I talk to them, they are booked to perform in Oslo and have performed twice in the US in the last few months.

“Music has a language of its own,” they tell me explaining how they have won accolades in the West. At home they are known for their tasteful selection of kalam ranging from Farsi, Poorbi and Punjabi. Ayaz Farid states that somebody asked him why he is never seen carrying a notebook or diary as other singers do. “I carry my diary here,” he says placing his hand on his heart. In each performance, he makes an effort to explain the meaning of the verses he is singing and the basic traditions of the qawwali. “This is samaa and you cannot participate in it without adhering to its adaab,” he says.

However, he wishes that there was a proper institution where this great art could be taught. He has approached several highly placed people about this but to no avail. Not one to be disappointed, he continues to instruct and train those who join his audience as they have the potential to join a circle of devotees.

Ayaz Farid recalls with a chuckle that in a recent TV show somebody asked him to explain if qawwali was halal or haram. Laughingly he recounts that he decided to take the question head-on. “It is halal for those who are halalis,” he said and then on a more serious note tells me that qawwali is fashioned out of invisible colours which can be perceived with basarat and not just seen with basarat. So it is perception more than vision. Colours take on a mystical hue with them, soaked in spirituality and ecstasy. No wonder that a perennial favourite with them is the classic attributed to Amir Khusrau: Aaj Rang Hai.