The atmosphere in Qawwal Gali is uncharacteristically subdued since Amjad Farid Sabri’s life was snuffed out prematurely. “I knew him from the time when I called him Ummi and he called me Saifee, and we were just young boys, not Amjad Sabri qawwal and Saifuddin qawwal. I still cannot believe he is no more,” says Sabri’s friend, Saifuddin Qawwal, still shaken weeks after his death.
Waves of fear after Amjad Sabri’s murder in broad daylight have reverberated 9 kilometer south from the late qawwal’s residence in Liaquatabad to Qawwal Gali, the historic neighbourhood in Karachi where the clans of the famous Qawwal Bachay reside. Yet, these custodians the Qaul refuse to shift to more affluent or safer residential localities of the city. “This is not just our area. It is our tradition. Our lifestyle.”
Karachi’s Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals: Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Moeen Niyazi Qawwal, Kallan Khan Qawwal, Jaafar Hussain Nizami Qawwal and Bahauddin Qawwal. Between 80 to a 100 families of qawwals reside in these streets near the Shoe Market area. They safeguard a tradition that travels back to almost 800 years, when their ancestor Miyan Saamat learnt this spiritual musical art form from Hazrat Ameer Khusro, the 13th century Sufi musician, poet and scholar. Popularised versions of the unforgettable and powerful poetry of Ameer Khusro, like “Chaap tilak sub cheen” and “Mun kunto maula”, have trickled down to Pakistani masses, who get a feel of spirituality through these renditions. But the hub of the original, undiluted art is the Qawwal Gali. These families have been guarding these compositions over the centuries, and their entire lifestyles are moulded to fulfill the responsibility of keeping alive a tradition they see as almost sacred.
While Sabri was not a Qawwal Bacha, a shared tradition and profession has led to lasting bonds between all networks of Karachi’s qawwals. In the wake of his death, all of them, too, are overcast by fear. The qawwal Gali in downtown Karachi, then, is ironically the one place that they feel safe in. “It is our sanctuary. Fear is nothing new to us. Staying here is our only survival,” says Saifuddin, who is an important member of the Najmuddin Saifuddin Qawwal Brothers ensemble.
The fear factor is not just about safety; they also fear their younger generation will get lost in the contemporary world and lose out on this art they see as a divine gift. Their offspring, with increasing exposure to the outside world, do express the desire to move out towards better areas. “But we explain to them how important it is for us to stay here,” says Saifuddin.
“Our community has a lot of unity. Our joys and sorrows are shared. There are certain cultural traditions we live by. We would not survive elsewhere and neither would our art,” says Rauf Saami, the eldest son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, and part of the Saami Brothers ensemble of Qawwals.
Rauf does not believe in coercing his children into this profession, but wishes that this ilm (knowledge) does not die out. “But times have changed. I’m realistic.”
The work of qawwals is very nocturnal in nature. “Our work is at night. We leave home early evening and return around twilight. The more posh parts of Karachi are not alive during night time. Can you imagine what neighbours of Karachi’s affluent parts would think if 12 men are entering a house every day at 4am?” says Saifuddin.
The Qawwal Gali does not go to sleep. Its residents sleep during the mornings and are up and about in the evenings. The chai dhabas never close. The riyaz (musical practice) never stops. The hustle and bustle never dies out.
“While we are away, whether for performances at night or during our frequent travels outside Karachi, we are at peace that our families are safe. Here, everyone watches out for each other’s families, despite professional rivalry.”
Rauf echoes that sentiment. “We don’t only look out for other qawwals but also for our supporting members of the ensembles. We are there for each other whenever we need each other.”
The qawwali business is seasonal in nature, and the flow of money can be ad hoc. The community also supports each other in lean times when the earning is limited. In such times, they pay each other’s hospital bills and children’s school fee.
The women of Qawwal Gali are the biggest support for their men. “The women of our households do not have any complaints. They understand the demands of our profession,” says the 26 years old Toqeer Ahmed, who belongs to the Khurja Gharana’s Nohar Bani branch. Their ancestral lineage are one of the first things they learn, but their women’s names are not registered in those lists, neither are they allowed to sing. Till today, a majority of the qawwals marry within their families.
“My nikah is to be held soon,” shares Toqeer with a smile. The match was fixed within his family, “but my choice was also considered. This is a big decision. How can it be done without my choice?”
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”
In Toqeer’s opinion, if the Qawwals try their hand at any other profession, it would take them hundreds of years to make a mark.
“Why should we lose out on the honour and respect this profession has given me? And as for the Qawwal Gali, it is the only place in the world I feel I am me. It is my identity.”
In true Qawwal Gali-esque style, Saifuddin sums it up by reciting this couplet in Urdu:
Apnay markaz se agar door nikal jaao ge
Khaak ho jaao ge, afsaanon mein dhall jaao ge…
(If you wander away from your pivot,
You will become nothing but ashes, nothing will remain of you but tales and fables)