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Qawwali today

Two decades after Nusrat, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan takes the qawwali even closer to the song format and strengthens its place in film music

Qawwali today

It has been twenty years since Nusrat Fateh Ali passed away and this is exactly the span of the career of his music successor Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

Since Nusrat Fateh Ali did not have a male heir, the mantle fell on his nephew, the son of his brother Farrukh Ali Khan to carry the family’s vocal music tradition into the next generation. As is the wont with hereditary musicians, his training began from the mother’s lap and very soon in his preteens Rahat was made part of the qawwali group that had become unprecedented in its popularity not only in Pakistan and the subcontinent but across the world as well.

Rahat did not show much promise early on; neither did Nusrat as initially he was seen to be physically unfit with a voice that was not considered to be strong or melodious enough. But continuous association, proximity and exposure to music being performed can be sufficient causes to make a competent, if not an outstanding musician. This is what happened with the passage of time with Nusrat, and later with Rahat as well. From a competent musician and vocalist, Nusrat went on to dominate the world of music as his confidence increased and exposure to other musical sources expanded.

All the qawwals trace their origins to Mian Samit who was a disciple of Amir Khusro in the 13th century but not all are able to track down the generations in chronological sequence. Since almost all history is retained in memory, inflicted by human frailty, only what is remembered is recalled as the authentic past. This family traces its origins to one Haji Maroof about 9 or 10 generations ago which would make it about 300 years ago or the beginning of the 18th century. Apparently after about four generations, two brothers Khalaq Dad Khan and Sahib Dad Khan are also remembered as outstanding musicians.

There must have been famous musicians as the star of qawwali rose and sank in the centuries of its existence like Miran Baksh Khan, Mola Baksh Khan,the grandfather and father of Fateh Ali Khan, Nawazish Ali Khan, Salamat Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan. Many of the qawwals became kheyalias when the star of kheyal rose in the 18th century and switched over as the form was highly appreciated in the central and provincial courts across the northern subcontinent.

But the latter half of the 20th century saw the unprecedented rise of the qawwali and among the classical and quasi-classical forms only qawwals survived, actually thrived. The rest of the forms – nearly all – started to sink, desperately trying to stay above water by borrowing lifebuoys from other popular forms.

Rahat did not show much promise early on; neither did Nusrat as initially he was seen to be physically unfit with a voice that was not considered to be strong or melodious enough.

Qawwali was a form of music destined to be performed on shrines of sufiya. They offered the interface between religious denominations and absorbed much that was seemingly antagonistic by going more than half-way when reaching out to the common people. The resurgence of qawwali in the 20th century initially started as a concert performance and then it spread  all over the world not necessarily tied to the certain kind of spirituality or the culture associated with a shrine.

Some of the traditional compositions based on either Quranic verses, the Ahadith or classical poetry in Arabic and more so in Persian have survived and considered to be the mustanad bandishes in a qawwali performance. The poetry in other languages has been musically composed according to regional and local requirements.

Nusrat and before him, the Sabri Brothers made it an international happening. Then Nusrat took it further by making it closer to the song format from where it travelled to the film world. Rahat Fateh Ali, it appears, has invested more in the song format of the qawwali than in any other aspect of the form. Perhaps, the general environment where he was also much in demand for rendering songs in the Indian films helped along his resolve to bring the qawwali form also closer to that of the song format. As it is, songs have always been the cherished aspects for the lay listener.

There have been other challenges like building on the base of natural sound through digital interventions. There has been much intervention in the qawwali as well but till now it has been retained and absorbed into the song format and has not gone beyond to question the nature of musical sound on the whole. Many traditionalists are unhappy about it but many other welcome it and some find it inevitable.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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