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This way to Qawwal Gali

Updated October 24, 2015

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Qawwal Gali in Saddar.
Qawwal Gali in Saddar.

KARACHI: On the surface, you don’t notice anything different, just a few back lanes in Garden West badly in need of maintenance.

Then you see the signboard, which says ‘Qawwal Moin Niazi Street (Haq Nagar) UC-7’. The street next to it is called ‘Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal Street’. Yes, we are in the place better known as Qawwal Gali, where the oldest qawwal gharanas reside.

One would have thought that upon entering the streets there would be echoes of music and men wearing Jinnah caps at a slight slant chewing paan and rehearsing with their harmoniums. But nothing of the sort was encountered.

Little children whiled away time strolling with their friends. A few run up to a shop at one end of the street to buy some sweets to be enjoy with friends.

The shopkeeper seems to know each child by name. Approaching him for directions to the residences of the famous qawwals of the area seemed like a good idea.

“Well, you came to the right person,” the shopkeeper smiles broadly. “I am a qawwal,” he says smiling even more broadly showing off sparkling white teeth.

Asked how he could be a qawwal when he is not even chewing paan, he laughs out loud. “You seem to have a very distinct impression about us qawwals. Well, many of us don’t touch paan,” he explains. “Wait, let me call up a few people for you to meet,” he adds before bringing out his cellphone.

“Actually, there are 25 to 30 qawwal families, comprising some 700 qawwals, but most of us head out to Pakpattan during Muharram. And those who are left behind have their performances at various majalis and other programmes here,” he adds.

Still, the helpful shopkeeper, who introduces himself as Zia Mohammad Qawwal, manages to find for us one of five famous qawwal brothers who go by the name of ‘Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers’.

The shopkeeper who turned out to be a qawwal
The shopkeeper who turned out to be a qawwal

Ehtishamuddin Hussain Qawwal is the youngest of the brothers and son of Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal, after whom one of these streets have been named.

“Well, we live on Qawwal Moin Niazi Street, have been here since 1956 when our father and grandfather migrated here from Hyderabad Deccan. After our father’s passing, they named the next street after him. We didn’t move though,” he says.

Noticing me scribbling my notes in English, he switches to speaking in fluent English.

“The family goes up 26 generations of qawwals to the time of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau some 800 years ago. Mian Samat Bin Ibrahim, our ancestor, during the time could not speak. He was dumb. But Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia blessed him so that he started singing,”

Ehtishamuddin Hussain Qawwal shared his family’s history. “My grandfather Ustad Sulaiman Khan sahib was grandson of Tan Rus Khan sahib, who was the last Mogul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s music teacher,” he adds.

“We are all born into qawwali. When the elders do their riyaz in the mornings, little boys as young as three to five years join them. Frankly, who can sleep with so much of singing practice going on so early,” he laughs.

“Anyway, at that age it is just a voluntary thing, which becomes compulsory by the time we are 10. From then on it takes 20 years of hard practice to shape us into proper qawwals who are masters in the art of ghazal, thumri, dadra, classical presentation and understand in depth the three pillars of this kind of music — Shariat [Islamic traditions], Tariqat [order] and Haqiqat [truthfulness and reality],” he explains.

“This is how the Sufi art of qawwali is passed down from generation to generation, from heart to heart. And even then we are carefully assessed by our elders to know if we have it in us to be the leader of a qawwali group or a humnawa [part of the chorus].

Ehtishamuddin Hussain, a 26th generation qawwal.
Ehtishamuddin Hussain, a 26th generation qawwal.

Fake qawwals

“These days we are also pained to watch the qawwals on TV channels, especially on their morning transmissions who have had no proper training. In fact, they have taught themselves by watching the real qawwal gharanas perform while adding their own styles.

"There they are with long unkempt hair, wearing gaudy kurtas over their huge bellies with paan dripping from the edges of their mouths. It’s so embarrassing.

“The true definition of qawwali is giving the guidelines of being a good Muslim through music. But these fake qawwals are out to misguide everyone!” he says shaking his head.

“There is a kind of barkat, a blessing in qawwali, if done the right way. A few years ago, when I was performing in Chicago with my brothers we gave a little demonstration at an institute for mentally disabled children. And within 15 minutes, we found those children joining us. Everyone there was amazed. This is what happens when you sing with purity of the heart,” he says before sitting down in his home to practise on his harmonium.

Hanging on the surrounding walls are pictures of his ancestors looking at him doing them proud.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015

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