It takes a sufi to go looking for trouble, irreverently turning his face away from the reigning gods, clerics and rituals. “Na toh butkade ki talab mujhe/ Na haram ke dar ki talash hai/ Jahan lut gaya hai sukoon-e-dil usi rahguzar ki talash hai” (I don’t seek answers in the temple or the mosque, I am forever in search of the path where I lost my peace of mind) – this classic Fateh Ali Khan qawwali, that became more widely known after it was sung by son Nusrat, pretty much sums up the reason why the sufi has always been treated as a rebel, hated by the powerful and the bigot alike.
The lyrics, later remixed for the film Barsaat ki Raat as “Na toh caravan ki talash”, with its affecting “Yeh ishq ishq hai” reprise, became something of a gold standard for film qawwalis.
Last week, terrorists gunned down qawwal Amjad Sabri in Karachi. The Sabri family is among the most widely recognised qawwali clans of the subcontinent, with a tradition spanning Punjab, Gwalior and later Pakistan. It is reported that the assassination was retribution for allegedly ‘blaspheming’ at a concert. But the fact is that the sufi tradition of mysticism and asceticism, and its musical expression through qawwali, has always stuck in the craw of those who are intolerant.
There have been several attacks on sufi shrines in Pakistan in recent years. The reason is not hard to find – unlike the grey jihadists’ worldview, the sufi tradition is about divinity represented in music, poetry and dance, and attained through the meditative creation of sama.
The sufi’s world is wrapped around metaphors – there are no straight answers to questions, no one right path, and all are welcome to this all-encompassing madness. This tradition accepted all that it met along the way as it travelled from the western pockets of Islam and moved across the subcontinent. It had multiple faces in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, India and several other countries in the path. And this diversity applied to its musical culture too. Its music picked up local influences and tongues as it travelled, preaching compassion and inclusion.
The most popular qawwalis sung in India, many of them traced to the great Amir Khusro, were written not just in Persian (“Man kunto maula”) but also in Hindavi (old Hindi), Braj Bhasha and even Punjabi. “Aaj rang hai”, “Chhap tilak sab chheeni” and “Amma more baba ko bhejo” likely come from the folk traditions of India. Khusro even mixed the languages in a single composition like he did with “Zehaale-e-Miskin”, interspersing Persian verses with Braj Bhasha. Qawwali also absorbed Hindu influences – and in turn affected them too – and incorporated various elements of the north Indian musical traditions.
The underlying thoughts may have been metaphysical but the qawwali stayed rooted to the soil and for that reason was always accessible to common folks. The dargahs, where the qawwali flourished, as an offering that sent the devout into a trance, were places where people of all faiths came with griefs, big and small.
Here you could put forth your plea for redemption from pain and sickness and failure with an affectionate but dire threat to your ever-accommodating maula or the Gharib Nawaz, something you see in the bhakti cult as well: “Yeh sange dar tumhara todenge apne sar se/ Yeh dil dobara toota Salim Chishti” (I’ll shatter this marble threshold of your monument with my head if you break my heart again) sang Aziz Ahmed Warsi in the film Garam Hawa.
The words are centred on worldly concerns: love, intoxication, longing, the perils of taking a tough road but the joy of this music is in going beyond the obvious. The village belle’s plaint is mundane in the Khusro composition: “Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki, kaise bhar laaon madhva se matki” (The road to the well is tough, how do I fill the pot)?
But the metaphorical road obviously stretched way beyond the village and into the spiritual realm and it is the qawwal’s skill with melody and the emphatic rhythm of the dholak and clapping that helps the listener make the connect. In the extremist thinking this level of easy familiarity between man and God is unthinkable and it cost Sabri his life.