Pakistan claims qawwali as its own. Why not khyal?

Khyal presents an opportunity to broaden our understanding of identity beyond religion and borders.
Published July 31, 2019

This year’s World Music Arts and Dance (Womad) festival held in the United Kingdom flaunted an exquisite assortment of global music legends, ranging from Ziggy Marley to Salif Keita to Robert Plant.

In the midst of this incredible lineup was the venerable Ustad Naseeruddin Saami from Pakistan, possibly the only authentic exponent of khyal in the subcontinent.

For the uninitiated, khyal is one of the foundational vocal genres of North Indian classical music. Given the bleak affairs of state patronage for the performing arts in Pakistan, it is not surprising that little attention is paid to this musical tradition.

Khyal rose to much prominence during the later Mughal period and has since been a cornerstone of 'pure' classical music alongside dhrupad, as opposed to lighter semi-classical forms such as thumri, ghazal and qawwali.

In particular, it was a chief court musician, Naimat Khan (also called Sadarang), who was known to have popularised khyal during the Mughal rule of Muhammad Shah in the 17th century. As a result, many have credited Sadarang as the founder of khyal.

Ustad Saami, a veteran of khyal, is the direct descendent of Tanrus Khan, the legendary court musician of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He belongs to the contentious Delhi gharana of North Indian classical music that focuses on khyal; many of its members claim to have moved to Karachi at the time of Partition, hence its succession continues to be disputed till today.

At the same time, Ustad Saami also belongs to the lineage of qawwal bachay, who trace their hereditary musical knowledge to the primary disciple of Amir Khusro, Mian Samat Bin Ibrahim. While popularly known as the father of qawwali, Khusro is also known to have invented khyal.

Both Sadarang and Khusro lived at least 500 years apart, which makes one wonder why such historical inconsistencies concerning North Indian music and khyal survive till today.

More specifically, while there is much conversation about qawwali within mainstream musical discourse, what has been the historical nature of the relationship between khyal (known as ilm-ul-ilham, or knowledge of the voice) and qawwali (known as ilm-ul-kalam, or knowledge of words)?

How did the former come to lose its association with its original qawwal practitioners in contemporary North Indian musical imagination?

Mughals, music and rise of khyal

Many of us have grown up with a specific version of Mughal history in school and much of that lies in the colonial portrayal of their rule as lavish, decadent and incompetent.

Yet, it is within these disparate and forgotten narratives of Mughal decline that one finds alternative perspectives on the historical development of North Indian classical music.

Music was one of the most documented of all arts in Mughal India, as evident from musical treatises such as Ain-e-Akbari and Raag Darpan. In Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature and Performance in North India, Katherine Schofield writes in detail about the Mughal understanding of the raag’s power rooted in Persian rather than a Sanskrit understanding of how music affected the listener.

Khyal encapsulates the melodic framework of raag which is fixed but not defined by written representations; instead it is delivered through improvisatory performance.

Since it was considered a high art music genre, it was performed specifically in the elite musical courts, though was as much a part of the devotional zikr practices at Sufi dargahs, particularly within Chishti Sufis.

However, since the advent of modern Indian musicology, there have been attempts at basing khyal to pre-Muslim origins — but there is no evidence to suggest that. In fact, the word 'khyal' comes from Arabic and even the influence of dhrupad on khyal has been minimal.

Khyal was never codified until the 20th century and has historically been transmitted through oral tradition or performed live. Perhaps this is why its origins have always been disputed, though still centred primarily around three music personalities: Khusro, Sadarang and Hussain Shah Sharqi, the ruler of Jaunpur.

According to Schofield, all three are contested and possibly inaccurate. However, what is interesting is that she frequently highlights qawwal bachay as the principal community to have been the earliest practitioners of khyal, both at the courts and dargahs.

Schofield claims that Sadarang himself learnt khyal from a qawwal. It was probably because he had close affiliations within royal families that he was able bring it to limelight and eventually credited with its invention. Moreover, other scholars on Indian music like Regula Qureshi and Allyn Miner have mentioned the qawwals of Delhi as having held a key position in both Sufi gatherings and courtly circles.

In her project Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing on Music in Late Mughal India, Schofield analyses multiple stories of forgotten key musicians during the later Mughal period, including references to specific qawwals as one of the greatest khyal musicians of the time, bringing us to the following four key points about this genre:

Firstly, though its exact origins are unknown, it arose very much between the nexus of Sufi mystical devotion and elite Mughal courtly patronage. Secondly, it was practised since the late 16th century but became the dominant style in Hindustani classical music in the 18th century and continues till today.

Thirdly, it has distinctive stylistic features with qaul, tarana and other genres associated with Amir Khusro who passed on that knowledge to its hereditary specialists, qawwal bachay. Lastly, qawwal bachay are thus the true progenitors of khyal.

Clearly somewhere along the line, the paths of qawwali and khyal diverged even though they emanate from the same source of musical knowledge and have been performed within the same spaces. Perhaps some of this digression can be best explained through the establishment of the modern gharana system.

Colonial rule, nation-state and invention of gharana

The turn of the 19th century brought new rulers which caused significant changes to the subcontinent, including music.

The decline of Delhi as the cultural capital caused many musicians and their families to move to other cities in search of better economic opportunities. The advent of colonial rule and structures also led to the codification and standardisation of Hindustani classical music.

Musicologists such as Bhatkhande and Paluskar devised a written musical notation system, similar to Western music theory, which continues to be widely prevalent and accepted. Alongside the move towards independence from the British and creation of two separate states, grew a nationalistic need for India to consolidate its cultural identity.

It is this specific sociopolitical context that gave birth to the gharana system, one of the main institutions of Hindustani music today due to hereditary lineage and authentic style. The gharanas were principally engaged in preserving khyal, given that it was the primary vocal genre of Hindustani music.

The first, and hence the oldest, gharana is considered to be the Gwalior gharana which was officially established around the end of the 19th century, followed by others such as the Agra, Kirana and Patiala gharanas.

Interestingly, research also reveals that all the lineages of the gharana system inevitably register some connection to the qawwal bachay. For example, the earliest traceable lineage of the Gwalior gharana actually begins with Ghulam Rasool, who was a qawwal bacha.

Perhaps this is why scholars like Schofield have referred to Gwalior as the father of all gharanas, a term one rarely ever finds in mainstream discourses on North Indian classical music.

With respect to the musical ancestry of khyal gharanas, it is clear that stylistic links between khyal and qawwal bachay are either deliberately suppressed or not sufficiently highlighted.

The current Delhi gharana does not associate itself with the famous Tanrus khan either, who is considered a pivotal ancestral figure of both of the Delhi gharana and qawwal bachay.

Perhaps it is because its previous chief was Umrao Khan, the son of Tanrus Khan (and subsequently the great grandfather of Ustad Saami), whose family eventually left for Pakistan.

Much like song compositions orally transmitted over generations, oral histories around lineages and hereditary connections are frequently forged, forgotten or subsumed, continuing to uphold the gharana system.

The point here is not necessarily to identify the 'true' heir of a gharana, but rather to highlight the specific post-colonial conditions that gave rise to these institutionalised systems of learning, now considered pivotal to the sustainability of North Indian classical music.

Whereas religious identity was far more fluid prior to colonial rule, the rise of the modern Indian nation and the new political elite dissociated classical music, including khyal, from its Muslim past.

Across the border, Pakistan’s own nationalist project sought to focus on musical styles that would strengthen its Islamic identity much distinct from India. Qawwali became the face of that and was actively propagated by Radio Pakistan.

Therefore, gharanas are to be viewed as a modern invention of the 20th century, representing loose structures in a complex web of inter-connected genealogies that eventually separated khyal from qawwali in order to consolidate two separate national identities, the former with India and the latter with Pakistan.

Re-situating musical tradition beyond borders

A thriving arts and culture sector is not only a testament to a country’s socioeconomic well-being, but an indicator of a vibrant cultural identity as well: one that is willing to evolve and open to multiple creative interpretations of itself.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, the state has always been committed to propagating one half of our Indo-Islamic musical heritage, the one that holds us in direct opposition to India and its 'Hindu traditions' (while the opposite holds true in India).

Khyal’s true spirit lies in its improvisatory performance and, as a musical genre, it represents the epitome of creativity and expanse of musical knowledge. In this regard, khyal, as an integral component of North Indian classical music, has been as much a part of this region’s cultural soundscape as qawwali.

With the rise of right-wing fundamentalism across the globe, including Pakistan, a re-imagining of khyal presents an opportunity to broaden our understanding of identity beyond religious ideologies, nationalist constructs and artificial borders.

It is ironic that icons like Ustad Saami must inevitably turn to platforms like Womad that are oftentimes critiqued for their commodification of culture and music.

Co-founded by the revered English musician/producer, Peter Gabriel is the same man responsible for placing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, qawwali and hence Pakistan onto the global cultural map.

The reality is that eventually these artists need to be packaged or featured by the West for its own local audience to listen to them.

On the other hand, such festival performances can also prove to be instrumental in subverting mainstream narratives on cultural identity.

Perhaps it will be through Ustad Saami’s live enactment of his over centuries-old tradition that he will re-imagine the forgotten memories of khyal, showcasing an alternative aural history of North Indian classical music: the one that originates from qawwal bachay and happens to reside in Pakistan.

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