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Death of traditional qawwali?

September 23, 2011

‘Sar-i-Lamakaan se talab hui’, crooned the Sabri Brothers at their best. Yes, he’s been summoned by the Lamakaan, ‘One with no fixed abode’. And with this comes to an end a glorious chapter in traditional qawwali singing with the passage of Maqbool Ahmed Sabri (1941-2011). The erstwhile surviving of the legendary brothers breathed his last in a South African hospital on September 21. He had gone there for treatment, having abandoned singing three months before due to his failing health. This meant for him having had to leave the passion of his 70-year lifetime, a passion that had begun as early as at age four or five under the supervision of his own father, Inayet Sen Sabri—the middle name Sen kept in deference to their claimed ancestor, Taan Sen, whose singing talent shot to fame at the court of Akbar in 15th century Agra.

The Sabri Brothers, Ghulam Fareed (d.1994) and Maqbool Ahmed, however, garnered their own share of skyrocketing fame in our times. They were the trailblazers who ventured out to New York in 1975 to seek western audiences for the traditional qawwali, and kept winning laurels for their performing talent, both at home and abroad for a long time to come. Aziz Mian (d. 2000), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (d. 1997), and now Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, were to reap the fruits of the trail that the Sabris laid so early in the day. Modern qawwali has long since come out of the shrine and made it to international pop charts, though the traditional genre has seen a tremendous setback through the loss of stalwarts like the Sabris and Aziz Mian. Amjad Sabri may look determined to keep the Sabri tradition alive, but where have the listeners gone?

The cultural onslaught of puritan, fundamentalist doctrine of Islam, especially through the petro-dollars poured into spreading this creed, has seen the audience of the traditional qawwali shrink in Pakistan (India has largely escaped this onslaught thanks to that state’s inherent pluralism which it has jealously guarded) by redefining cultural values. So much so that two years ago in Ramazan, a corporate giant in Pakistan shamelessly flouted its dishonesty by altering the lyrics of a Sabri super hit number, ‘Bhar do jholi meri, Ya Muhammad’ to ‘Ya Ilaahi’ in its advertising campaign. The change in insisting on supplicating to Allah (Ilaahi) alone and not to his Prophet or through his Prophet (or a Sufi saint by extension) was indicative of the growing literalism being associated with a faith whose practitioners have never been a homogenised entity – there being four established schools of fiqh amongst the Sunni majority alone, even if you leave aside the Sufi tradition and the followers of many minority Muslim sects. According to the Salafi creed, building shrines and praying besides the Sufis’ graves is shrine worship and therefore blasphemy.

The point is that if this kind of Salafi cultural onslaught backed by petro-dollars continues, Muslims everywhere risk losing their cultural genres, be they in the form of traditional qawwali in Pakistan or the tradition of Mawlud (Eid-i-Milad), celebratory poetry recitals (and dances) associated with Naat and Manqabat, which are so well entrenched in societies across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia. The authoritative and the earliest of the biographies of the Prophet of Islam are full of Arabic Qasida and Manqabat in the praise of the Prophet, but the Arabian peninsula is the only missing link today, from where the puritan Salafis rose with a mission to reconvert Muslims with a new zeal in the 19th century and gained more power as their wealth grew when they hit oil in the 20th century. In the subcontinent the Darul Uloom Deoband, UP, (est. 1866) pursued a similar puritan line in its interpretation of the Hanafi doctrine, while most Salafi followers are the adherents of the Hanbali school of thought centered on the Arabian peninsula, followed by the Malikis; Shafi’is have largely stayed away from fundamentalist doctrines though the Jamaa Islamiya in Indonesia remains a key proponent of this doctrine.

As for traditional qawwali in Pakistan (as in India), its sustaining spirit has been the shrine, from a neighbourhood one to that of a patron saint for the wider community with followers literally spread around the world. In Pakistan, however, the shrine culture has been in recession, first following the spread of more puritan strains of the faith, which has weaned away many of the better educated and wealthy patrons, and then the shrines coming under terrorist attacks by Islamic militants. This in turn has also meant a decline in the number of the initiated patrons of the shrine culture and the qawwali performances there. Under the circumstances, younger qawwals like Amjad Sabri need a lot of luck to keep the genre alive in its traditional form. Thus there’s no telling whether or when we’ll see another great Sabri or Aziz Mian with a matching fame and fanfare. However, modern qawwali, with fusion music as its survival kit and pop culture as its rendezvous, is in safe hands—that is, as long as modern qawwals delving in their jazzed-up versions continue to undergo rigorous training in classical singing which is a prerequisite.

The writer is a member of the staff at Dawn Newspaper.