Qawwali is the traditional form of Islamic song
found in India and Pakistan. The word qawwali
is derived from the Arabic word Qaol which means
"axiom" or "dictum". A Qawwal is one who sings
qawwali, or the dictums of the prophets and praises
of God. The Qawwali is closely linked to the spiritual
and artistic life of northern India and Pakistan.
The qawwali is inextricably linked to the Sufi
tradition; Sufism is a mystical school of Islamic
thought which strives to attain truth and divine
love by direct personal experience. In Arabic,
this mysticism is known as tasawwuf. The difference
between Sufism and mainstream Islam is simple.
All Muslims believe that man is on a path to God
(tariqah). However where the mainstream Muslim
believes that it is only possible to reach God
after death at the final judgement, the Sufi believes
that it is possible to reach God during ones life.
To this end there are a number of different techniques
Koran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance,
known as dhikr, may be either silent of vocal.
The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the
vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music
as a spiritual force was discussed in great length
the end of the 11th century there arose the tradition
of the sama. The sama was often a spiritual concert,
which included a vocalist, and instrumentalists.
These samas took place under the direction of
a spiritually respected man (shaikh).
is a very specific psychological process which
a qawwali follows. One starts with the singing
of the song. In this psychological state the song
is received in a manner that is not unlike standard
forms of musical expression. The words are sung,
quite repeatedly with variations intended to bring
out deeper means of the lyrics. After awhile there
is a repetition to the extent that the words cease
to have a meaning; It is the goal here to lead
the listener and performer alike into a trance
(hal). In the ideal situation the participant
is moved to a state of spiritual enlightenment
The origins of qawwali probably predate the birth
of Muhammad. The earliest Islamic scholars discussed
the spiritual effects of music, but it was only
in the time of al-Gazali(1085-1111) that these
principles were refined and codified.
principles were then expanded by the Chisti school
of Sufism. It is this order that has been responsible
for the propagation of the qawwali in India and
Pakistan for then last few centuries.
Chisti school was established by Khwaj Moinuddin
Hasan Chisti (1143-1234). It is said that he was
born in Sijistan. At a young age he was influenced
by several saintly men, including Ibrahim Qahandazi,
and Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilli. He immigrated to
Delhi and became a very respected saint. He later
grew tired of the life in Delhi and withdrew to
the peace and quite of Ajmer (Rajasthan) where
he lived the remainder of his days.
of the followers of the Chisti school was a man
by the name of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325).
He was born in Budaun, but at the age of 20 he
moved to Ajodhan and became a disciple of Fariduddin
Ganj-i-Shakkar. It is said that it was here that
he received the key to inner illumination. He
was then sent to Delhi to instruct the populous.
Here he acquired a reputation for using music
in his devotional gatherings. This created a great
amount of friction with the more orthodox Islamic
elements in Delhi.
Auliya was, and still is, a source of inspiration
for countless people. Even today there is an annual
gathering at his tomb.
man who was inspired by the Hazrat Nizamuddin
was Amir Khusru (1254-1324). He was born in Mominpur
(Patiala). His father was originally from Turkey,
this gave the young boy a broader exposure to
the rest of the Islamic world. His father died
when he was eight years old, whereupon the job
of raising him fell to his maternal grandfather.
Amir Khusru was a legendary musician, statesman
and philosopher. It is said that he was the advisor
to 11 rulers of Delhi, particularly the rulers
of the Khilji Dynasty (Deva 1973-76).
Khusru is so important to the development of qawwali
that he is often (erroneously) said to be the
inventor of it. It is said that he mixed the various
musical elements from Turkey, greater Persia and
India together. Even today, we find the curious
mixture of Persian moqquams with Indian ragas.
development of the qawwali up to the latter part
of the Mogul empire closely parallels the development
of the Hindu religious song known as bhajan. We
find parallels in musical form and social settings.
The degree of cross influence is so great that
some musician / saints such as Kabir (circa 1440-1518)
are to this day revered by Hindus and Muslims
tradition of qawwali has had numerous ups and
downs. One particularly hard time was during the
reign of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb is known for his
Islamic fundamentalism. The liberal traditions
of the Sufis were not well received by this emperor.
He took the fundamentalist injunction against
music very seriously.
dislike of music is well illustrated in a common
story. It appears that during his administration
a group of musicians, disheartened with their
lack of patronage, took some musical instruments
and wrapped them in the manner of a corpse and
held a funeral procession in protest. Aurangzeb
enquires about the procession and is told it is
a burial to signify the death of music. Whereupon
it is said that the emperor declares, "Good! bury
it so deep that never a sound should be heard
collapse of the Mogul empire and political fragmentation
under the British was both good and bad for the
qawwals. On one hand the political disarray meant
that a major suppression of their artform was
impossible, yet it also meant that their patronage
was also uneven.
rising film industry in the middle of the 20th
century was a major vehicle for the rise in popularity
of the qawwali. There was a period when a qawwali
was a mandatory part of the formula Hindi films.
film industry influenced the development of the
qawwali in several ways. It is interesting to
note that since the environment of the cinema
house precluded the artist /audience interaction,
it set the precedent for the more detached quality
that characterises modern performances. The filmi
qawwali also set the precedent for the "showy"
quality that one finds in modern performances.
Another effect of the filmi qawwali was the downgrading
of the religious / devotional aspect. A typical
example of a filmi qawwali is "Sharam ke kyun
Sab" from "Chaudvin ka Chand".
secularisation of the qawwali is an interesting
phenomenon. One can see that the seeds of its
secularisation are inherent in the qawwali itself.
Themes of qawwali have traditionally revolved
around very mundane or even coarse occurrences.
However the coarseness of the situations have
always been interpreted as the coarse spiritual
existence of our daily lives. The modern secular
qawwali tends to strip the themes of their metaphorical
and allegorical character thus producing a shallow
yet commercially marketable entity.
The performance of a qawwali is typically a group
situation. This is different from a classical
performance which revolves around one person.
Within this group situation there is one main
vocalist or qawwal, and a group of supporting
vocalist. The audience too is considered a participant
in this event.
musical accompaniment is varied; harmonium, tabla,
dholak, sarangi, saringda, and rabab, are common
instruments. Furthermore, a simple clapping of
the hands is a ubiquitous rhythmic support.
are several tals in common use in the qawwali.
The most common is the fast dadra tal of 6 beats
or the fast kaherava of four or eight beats. Unlike
the more cerebral, classical forms these tals
are played in such a way that they produce a driving
the qawwali is not a classical form of singing,
it does have some common elements. One finds fast
taans, meend gamaks and the other forms of ornamentation
which are typical of Hindustani performances.
structure of the qawwali is also similar to the
classical forms. It typically starts with the
alap. This portion has no rhythm and is intended
to create the right environment. One then moves
into the main portion of the performance; this
is usually in a medium tempo. The pace slowly
increases until a state of extreme excitement
is very common for audience members, moved by
their state of ecstasy to give money to the performers.
This is known as vel. The performance continues
most common rags used in qawwalis today are bilawal,
khammaj, kafi, and kalyan. However one often finds
rags which are more in common with the modal forms
of Persia or Afghanistan.