No Curfew for Qawwali

Qawwalis eulogizing the Prophet and Nizamuddeen Auliya flowed from Mehfil-e-Sama’a singers as if from enraptured bards of yore, enshrouding the captivated listeners in Rajendra Maidan on Friday evening from all the hubbub of the city. Contrary to a corny image that comes along the description – of men in flowing white pajamas and mehndi-stained beards lost in religious fervor – the city saw youngsters in ripped jeans and graffitied tees entranced in the Sufi songs.

“This is the new trend that is gripping the youth. As opposed to what people think, qawwalis have transcended the boundaries set by religiosity and has become more or less a trending music taste among the young masses even here, despite the Urdu language being a barrier for their comprehensive understanding of the lyrics,” says Irfan Erooth, lead singer of Mehfil-e-Sama’a, the first-ever Keralite Sufi ensemble of its kind, that performs sufi compositions by Amir Khusro, Ustad Nusat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers and Abida Parveen.

Even as soft rock and pop bands continue to mushroom amongst the youth, an ardent followership for qawwalis have become conspicuous lately.

“We have performed in many cities, for all kinds of audience. But the best we experienced were in universities, including Calicut University. In Delhi University, the fervor was such that the students came over to our dias and started raining money on us, a culture not so popular here,” Erooth says.

Jawed Aslam, the harmonium player who founded the group along with Erooth in 2016, says that although the music genre is closely associated with the Muslim culture, the enchanting element of the qawwali music which leaves a lingering aftertaste long after the melody has stopped is what that brings the southerners to appreciate the genre, beyond cultures and languages.

“For connecting or easing in the audience, sometimes we play Malayalam qawwalis too which are quite popular in the Malabar region, but limitations are high as the elegance of the lyrics in Urdu is lost in translation. What we are focusing on presently is to acquaint the society here with the original form of the art to which they are rarely exposed, although accent concerns are still extant, given that we sing songs that have lyrics that has traces of Parsi and Punjabi laced with the Urdu wordings,” Aslam says.

The minimal acquaintance of Malayalees with Qawwali is partly because of the religious rigidity that some of the sects maintain in the state, which still view music as ‘haraam’, or forbidden, Aslam says.

“There was a singer in our group who had to discontinue as his family did not approve of him singing praises for Nizamuddin Auliya. But such perceptions as well are undergoing deviations over the years, with many Sunni sects incorporating qawwalis in many of their functions, although a bit tweaked in accordance with their beliefs by decreasing the preponderance of instrumental elements in the songs. What we are trying to achieve is to incorporate the music to the society minus the extremities of its religious vehemence,” Aslam says.

He adds that the aspect of piety is more or less unobtrusive in the mesmerizing evocations through music that drags the audience into an enchanted state, which is becoming a new high for the masses.

“Even if you don’t believe in the particular ideology, in the moment of that trance, you become one with that entity of believers who are lost in the heights of faith and religious zeal. It can be seen in dargahs in the north, as the general antipathy seen towards Muslim culture is not reflected in the love for qawwali. You can see large numbers of non-muslims and foreigners attending the qawwali nights at the dargas,” Aslam says.


(Article that appeared in Times of India, Kerala, on May 6, 2017)


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