Kafi is a classical form of Sufi poetry that originated in Sindh. Characterised by a devotional intensity in its delivery, the genre has undergone many evolutionary phases over a period of time.
The word kafi is identified through a raga in classical music after which thaat (the head of many ragas) is named. In Sindhi, Seraiki and Punjabi cultures, kafi is the name of a musical composition as well as a poetic arrangement equivalent to the Persian ghazal. Almost all the classical and modern poets have composed kafis, sung by different vocalists. With the passage of time its poetic contents have changed but the essence of its thought remains the same.
Poets have used the genre for two reasons one, for a Sufi it is a medium of expression for his inner self and to communicate his thoughts describing the relation between the creature and the Creator; two, it signifies a platonic love that provides the human mind and soul solace and protects them from the vagaries of the world. The kafi style has also assumed many forms, but in Sindh and Punjab it is not very different from each other.
As the popularity of classical music rose during the 19th century, its different forms of rendition also modified. Kafi singing underwent change when classical vocalists and instrumentalists migrated from different parts of undivided India. Initially it was the dhrupad style that gripped Sindhi kafi singing. This became possible through Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala, who belonged to a gharana known for its mastery over the dhrupad genre. This was in the 1930s.
Another exponent of Sindhi kafi singing in the fusion form was Ustad Allahdino Noonari, a contemporary of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. He did not belong to any traditional school of music. He rose to eminence as an amateur vocalist — a rarity in the music industry. While he was being tutored, he showed such skill that after completing his initial education he was a sought-after name at almost all music congregations. Such amateurs in classical music are called atta'ees, and Noonari was the first person to have learnt the skill, earning great respect among the Ustads.
Born in 1885 at Bagarjee near Sukkur, Noonari lost his father when he was hardly 10 years old. He had very little early education because his paternal uncle did not care for him. Noonari spent his childhood as an orphan. Dejected, he came to Hyderabad where he befriended some boys who were interested in music. In the beginning he acquired training from Ustad Amir Khan and was later tutored by Ustad Murad Ali Khan. It is not known whether he also acquired training from Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala, but his style suggests influence of that school of singing. He became a popular vocalist in no time.
Noonari diversified himself and became a very popular artist of light and classical music too. In light music he sang Sindhi, Seraiki kafis and elegies. In classical music he specialised in khayal singing. This was a period when khayal singing was taking a particular form, liberating itself from the rigidity of dhrupad in the subcontinent. There were some gharanas like Agra, Patiala and Sham Chaurasi, whose followers still sang dhrupad but were in the process of completely shifting over to khayal.
The great Patiala gharana followers like Ali Bakhsh and Fatah Ali Khan were promoters of dhrupad vocalists. Seeing Khayal's growing popularity their descendants such as Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan switched over to khayal singing. However, so far the glides are concerned Noonari also could not evade the dhrupad ang, which was evident from his khayals and kafis.
Ustad Allahdino Noonari was not an isolated case. His khayals and kafis bear this mark all along. Though his teacher Ustad Murad Ali Khan sang some of the kafis in the plain style, Noonari was so overwhelmed by dhrupad glides that even singing kafis in Sindhi and Seraiki, he could not part with the style. With his gorgeous voice he used to begin the raga with an elaborate alaap and progress, gently explaining the very spirit of the raga. Sometimes it took him an hour to sing a khayal. He used to embellish the raga with his quick glides and gammaks.
In kafis Noonari sang all classical poets but his liking for Roshan Ali Shah was evident as he was more vocal than his contemporaries in describing mystical themes. In the last days of his life, Noonari returned to Sukkur, where he passed away.