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Qawwali: Where Love and the Divine Unite

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Edited by: Lasya Adiraj 

Qawwali originated in South Asia among the Sufi sects of Islam. The Sufi order is sometimes denounced as not being Islamic by the more hardliner factions in Islam. This is because the Sufi saints borrow a great deal of their spiritual practices from the Vedic traditions of Yoga and Vaishnavism among others. The performance of qawwali is still carried out in several sufi shrines all across the world. Popular poetry in languages like Urdu and Punjabi is sung using Hindustani Classical or local methods. A party of singers, mostly about ten or twelve, participate in qawwali.

There are two or three main singers who advance the verse after an adequate number of refrains of the preceding verse. The rest sing during the refrains and clap along to maintain the tempo of the song. A harmonium is used to aid the singers in maintaining the melody. Often there is also a tabla to help the clappers stay in melody. Qawwalis must necessarily be drawn out, with the average performance lasting for a period of twenty minutes. Moreover, each verse is repeated around two to three times in different singing styles. New listeners can instantly notice the distinct use of clapping and how it generates a sense of excitement in the audience. A qawwali is considered well done if during the performance the audience is moving its head along with the claps, gently and with grace unlike the metalheads out there. In this state of dhun as it is called, sufficiently advanced sufi practitioners can even achieve god-realisation. 

Drawing from the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism, the sufis consider God to be their beloved. So, while most qawwalis are understood to be mundane love songs, the intended recipient of that love is divine. A great many qawwalis have been written about alcohol as well and how inebriation is akin to remaining stuck in the material world. A lover separated from their beloved yearns for a reunion and forgets all else. While a rejected lover is seen in despair drowning in the bottomless pit that is the wineglass. 

If listened to with great attention, a qawwali can change a person significantly. Due to its long and repetitive nature, it is conducive for lucid meditation. Some qawwalis are coded with great spiritual ideas which only reveal themselves to the attentive and experienced listener. Only those with a great deal of patience and mental strength can sit through a half-hour long qawwali performance. Many qawwali performances stretch over entire nights with several troupes performing successively. Singers of qawwali need to be exceptional in terms of their vocal capabilities. Any ordinary singer can’t manage to sing properly, for a long time and in a loud voice all at the same time. Add to that the need for a large vocal range for executing different singing styles in performances. 

Perhaps the most popular and skilled Qawwali singer, often dubbed ‘King of Kings of Qawwali’, is Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He is responsible for popularising qawwali all across the world. Many of his fans from foreign countries have begun to teach and perform qawwali on their own now. Online platforms are replete with foreigners performing and appreciating qawwali, something that was unthinkable before Nusrat Sahab (honorific for great performers). The world took great interest in his singing owing to his unparalleled ability. His long performances coupled with an enormous five octave range made him a modern marvel. His family has been performing qawwalis for over 600 years. Even today, a popular singer in his own right, Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, his nephew, carries the lineage forward. He experimented with his music and often collaborated with western musicians to produce exceptional fusion music. This is partially why he was recognised world over as being a musical genius. While all his songs are legendary and worth listening to,‘Tum ek Gorakh Dhanda Ho’, ‘Akhiyan Udeek Diyan’ and ‘Ye Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai’ are my personal favourites.

Sufi music is a spiritual treasure. It is something to be cherished and has been a source of joy for me will remain so till the end of my days. The subtlety with which it delivers transcendental bliss to the listener, eludes description. If listening to Qawwali brings one ever so closer to the divine each time, its purpose is served. That being said, those with no spiritual inclinations can still enjoy this music in its mundane sense. For the uninitiated and the experienced alike, qawwali generates goosebumps and a great sense of calm every time. So, get comfortable, close your eyes, and lose yourself in the melodious world of Qawwali. May you ascend to the exalted state of dhun and God-willing, successfully unite with the divine.

Srijay Raj

Ashoka '23

I am interested in spirituality, music, films and politics.
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