Learning about ‘my’ cultural heritage from Pakistani qawwals

Learning about ‘my’ cultural heritage from Pakistani qawwals
Khwab-e-Seher, Delhi: Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad qawwals

A young Indian shares her experience of hearing and interacting with Pakistani qawwals that not only stimulated the senses but also the mind

By Devika Mittal

By Devika Mittal

Recently, a renowned Pakistani Qawwal group led by Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad visited India, performing in Delhi and Mumbai. Known for their Qawwali Sufi music and classical genres like tarana, thumri and khayal among others, they belong to the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana of Delhi or the Delhi Gharana, a music school founded in the 14th century. Members of the troupe share familial ties.

The group has visited India many times but I first had the opportunity to attend their performance recently at an event titled “Khwaab-e-Seher” (dream of the dawn) in Delhi. Organized by the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), it took place in an open space packed with an eager audience.

Farid Ayaz began by introducing the group, its history and the cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent. He talked about how qawwali emerged, from a musical encounter between the two court musicians, Pandit Gopal Nayak and Hazrat Amir Khusro. Ironically, many Delhites had no idea of this history or who about Pandit Gopal Nayak was.

The story hints at the beautiful religious syncretistic tradition that existed that has been often deliberately obscured or neglected to suit political needs in contemporary times.

His mention of the rich thoughts of sant Kabir Das and Baba Bulleh Shah also underlined the fluid boundaries that existed in the region.

The music of the qawwals took the magic further, enchanting and powerful, helping me to explore and to relive the beauty of the times Farid Ayaz had invoked. The qawwali lyrics combined with the music and the legacy not only soothe the mind but also stimulate it.

The general theme of the songs was love. The beautiful qawwalis the Fard Ayaz and Abu Mohammad group treated us to included the famous Chaap Tilak by Amir Khusro and Kangna.

The songs emphasised how love, pure and sacred, is beyond boundaries. They celebrated love, its power and potential to do what people otherwise couldn’t do. Love can make people challenge barriers.

Youth connect: Devika Mittal presents Tehseen, the youngest member of the qawwali group, with the Aaghaz-e-Dosti Indo-Pak peace calendar

Youth connect: Devika Mittal presents Tehseen, the youngest member of the qawwali group, with the Aaghaz-e-Dosti Indo-Pak peace calendar

We were mesmerised and enchanted. In this scenario, receiving this love being given by people from the “other” side was a challenge to the political barriers that have been constructed.

For me this was not just an evening of great music alone, but also thought-provoking. The Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad group gave us a gift not only of music, but also access to the rich and beautiful heritage which we seem to have forgotten. Beyond the music we received a timeless message about the beauty of love and harmony.

Attending the event named ‘Khwaab-e-Seher’, we all dreamt and shared a magical moment in which we lost our individual identities while passionately listening to the music of peace and love.

“Khwaab-e-Seher” enabled us to not only access a beautiful and harmonious past but sowed the seeds to dream for a new dawn, a dawn of a peaceful and harmonious present and future.

The next day Madhavi Bansal and I, as representatives of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a joint Indo-Pak Friendship Initiative, met with Tehseen, the youngest of the Qawwal group in a restaurant near Darya Ganj where they were staying.

Despite his youth, Tehseen is passionate about what he propagates. He told us about how for him and his group, Qawwali is not just music. It is a message that they want to send. Qawwali, he said, is their primary occupation, and they will never compromise their ethics.

The qawwals also feel very connected to Delhi, their ancestral home. In fact, Tehseen knows much more about the area than we do. As we squabbled over who should pay the bill, to our assertion that we must pay because he is our guest, he retorted: “I am not a guest here, this is my place, this is the place my ancestors belong to.”

Several times during our conversation, he also remarked that he feels like he belongs to both countries, India and Pakistan. Like us, he too hopes fervently for better ties between the two.

My overall experience with the Pakistani qawwals has left me with much food for thought. I know now what I only half sensed before: that this music goes beyond melody and has the power to connect people and guide them for harmony, for humanity.

Devika Mittal is a research student and is the India convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an Indo-Pak youth initiative. Email: [email protected]

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