It was reported in the media that the death penalty of one of those convicted in the murder case of Amjad Sabri has been stayed. This could either be because of insufficient evidence, or the evidence not being conclusive or in the absence of the convicted not being given the opportunity to defend himself. The accused was sentenced by the military courts and the life sentence was also confirmed by the army chief.
If the recent past is any example to go by, the case will linger on till the release of those convicted. It appears to be a familiar story regarding the accused committing terrorist acts being acquitted or not convicted, because in view of the court the evidence was not incontrovertible.
At the same time, a day does not pass when news is not flashed of a singer or musicians being attacked, killed or persecuted. In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of cases; if it happens to be a woman, the stereotypical charge levied is on her moral transgression. The act is justified as one committed in passion or as a corrective measure to justify the wrong unleashed by that woman.
One still does not know what indiscretion or crime Amjad Sabri had committed to deserve such a violent death. He was a vocalist, a qawwal, who extolled human values embedded in our faith and admired those personalities who best exemplified those virtues.
Qawwali as a form does have quasi-religious origins; with its organic connection to the shrine, it has been able to continue on its journey in a continuous manner over the last seven hundred years or so. Its formal structure may have changed and the text altered according to the long journey of time. But since its origins attributed to Amir Khusro, it has sung paeans to the virtues of love and tolerance across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. It propagated a faith or that side of the faith that won people over with love and generosity rather than self-righteousness and exclusion.
In a society that at times became intolerant, hard and inflexible, the qawwals or the form gave protection to the art of music. By hiding behind the values of religion, the art of music was kept alive and treated very much as part of a living tradition. There have been calls — repeatedly so in the fourteen hundred year history — of music being declared unlawful and those practising it condemned and punished as sinners. Mercifully, these have not been implemented with ferocity or unequivocality but ways and means have been found to get around the strict interpretation of faith.
It is of some consolation that the historical evidence does not yield to a boorish and unmindful implementation of strictures. Instead, it has centred around a multiplicity of verdicts, policies and approaches in the context of the greater good of humanity and community.
Thus, history is a good reference point for the way certain strictures or perceived strictures have been negotiated, and ways and means found to retain in them all that was exclusively human.
Whatever one has gathered from various texts, it appears the strictness or the debate has been about quality rather than its legitimacy; for it has been debated more around aesthetics than morality. Or that the two have been inextricably linked and separating them was not seen to be possible or even desirable.
In qawwali, text is important and consists of Arabic verses, poetry in Persian and verses in vernacular languages. Nusrat Fateh Ali was not averse to singing folk songs and some of his numbers were really very evocative and totally immersed in the Punjabi folk ang. When the occasion arose, he also sang the kheyal and tarana, usually a benchmark of virtuosity.
Death still stalks our musicians. Abida Parveen has been under threat for as long as one can remember; undeterred, she has persisted with her music as an article of faith. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose death anniversary is to be observed in the forthcoming week, too was under threat for a long time. But totally unmindful of the threats, he took the art of qawwali to the four corners of the world, making necessary innovations to synch in with the contemporary sonic temperament.
Here, in Pakistan, he had to take necessary security measures as does Abida Parveen, often accompanied by armed personnel but he had complete faith in what he was doing and was thus not cowed down by repeated threats. He was fortunate that no direct attempt was successful. Amjad Sabri was not and gunned down in the prime of his career.
What all this has affected is the ritual of live performances and concerts held in public halls or arenas. With the rise in streaming and other technological openings available, the musicians and vocalists tend to disappear from public view and appear only in digital form or on mobile sets and other screens. This will greatly alter the forms of music because the medium is also critical in determining the form.