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Heartache of the subcontinent — An ode to Qawwali

June 25, 2016
The Sabri brothers smiled watching their audience enraptured, they knew their legacy was fantastically familiar to them. —Photo by Arif Mahmood, White Star
The Sabri brothers smiled watching their audience enraptured, they knew their legacy was fantastically familiar to them. —Photo by Arif Mahmood, White Star

"Whoever did not get killed (in the path of love and honour) does not belong to our tribe."

—Naziri Nishapuri

What is the culture of Pakistan? Is it the same old people's culture of the subcontinent, or is it the culture of the state of Pakistan?

If Pakistan does have a distinct culture, what sway does Qawwali hold in this distinct milieu?

How would you fit a musical tradition — which is heavily influenced by syncretic mysticism and stretches back to 700 years — in a culture, which is supposed to be pure of all the heresies of the past 1,500 years?

Can you fit Mansur Hallaj, Sarmad Kashani, and Shahabuddin Suharwardi in a milieu which is today’s Pakistan? No. You cannot.

Amjad Sabri was killed because Qawwali does not fit into the concept, which is today’s Pakistan.

He belonged to the tribe Naziri is referring to. In today’s context, this tribe is increasingly expanding. It is the tribe of Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, Sufis, Hindus, liberals, progressivists, communists, humanists, lovers and artists.

Take a look: Amjad Sabri — The man behind a towering legacy

It is the tribe of anyone who dares to call into question the monopoly of an exclusivist ideology over the public discourse. It is the tribe of dissent; the tribe of people.

The death of art is usually accompanied by the death of the past. This is exactly what has happened in Pakistan.

In a senseless pursuit of doing away with the pre-partition past, all that was beautiful, all that was culture, all that was history, has been lost.

In Pakistan, most cannot even begin to understand the humble heresies of the mystic, the impious imagination of the artist and the witching wordplay of the poet, let alone appreciate it.


Poets, artists and mystics have come to be dangers to this ahistorical and exclusivist worldview. Everything perceived as “other” is dangerous, hence a legitimate target.


There’s an urban middle-class generation out there in search of an identity. Religion — more than a cultural, historical and social expression of people — is becoming something to wear on your sleeves as one. The God of the literalist is taking the place of the God of the traditionalist; the upheaval caused by it can be felt at so many different levels in the society.

That a Qawwali can lead to the killing of an artist clearly shows how much space has been ceded to elements that want to impose their exclusivist worldview over everyone.

Explore: Qawwal Gali — The street that never sleeps

And this space has not been ceded overnight. It has been a gradual, insidious process, and no one is able to speak up today without facing the allegations of blasphemy.

The Sabri brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Sabri, would smile seeing the audience enthralled and enraptured during their performance of “Man Kunto Maula” — a Qaul written by Amir Khusro some seven centuries ago.

They would smile because they knew that the legacy of centuries made people connect to something deeply personal and fantastically familiar.

While reciting their song “Tajdar-e-Haram”, they would interject some lines of Khusro's poetry:

Ke Taab e Hijran Nadaram ae Jan
Na Leho Kahay Lagaye Chatiyan

My patience has over-brimmed, O sweetheart!
Why do you not take me to your bosom.

They would sing it in high notes, each word resonating with the tearful audience. They would sing it in high notes because they knew that they were lending voice to the heartache of the subcontinent.

It is becoming more and more difficult in our times to call forth the past through art and music; more and more difficult to see through the muddled present that is both uninspiring and intolerant; more and more difficult to celebrate what once was ours; more and more difficult for people like Sabri to survive our times.