Sufi music: The song of the soul – Economic Times

Qawwali at the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia

Qawwali at the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia (c) Imam Salim Chishti

Sufi music: The song of the soul

By Dr Suvarnalata Rao via Sufi music: The song of the soul – Economic Times.

[A very nice discussion on the place of music, and especially Indian Qawwali music in Sufism. – Imam Salim]

Sufism is neither a religion nor a cult. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher and practitioner himself, describes it as, “Any person who has knowledge of both outer and inner life is a Sufi.” The etymology of the term ‘Sufi’ is not without ambiguity though. According to some scholars, the word is connected with safi, the pure. The more general view refers to suf or the coarse wool worn by the Sufi mystics.

The Divine Connect

Sufism, as the mystical dimension of Islam, preaches peace, tolerance and pluralism, while encouraging music as a way of deepening one’s relationship with the Creator. Based on the mystical branch of Islam, Sufi music seeks to unite listeners with the Divine. The pain of separation from the Creator is at the core of Sufi lyrics and music; and hence the intense longing to dissolve the physical realm and transcend into the spiritual universe with Sama’a, the practice of listening to music, chanting and whirling, and finally culminating in spiritual ecstasy (wajd).

Sound and music is thus central for the core experience of Sufism, since music is regarded as a means for the believer to get closer to the divine. Sufi music therefore is the music of the ‘soul’ by the ‘soul’ and for the ‘soul’.

Cultural Span

For a millennium now, the Sufi ideology has spanned several continents and cultures: from the deserts of Africa, the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains of Pakistan and Iran, the diversity of Sufi music is enriched by all the cultures it crosses in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey/Anatolia, Persia, Uzbekistan and India. At first, expressed through Arabic, then Persian, Turkish and later a dozen other languages in different regions and cultures, Sufi thoughts have found expression through myriad poetic forms and diverse musical genres.

Sound and music being the most important aspect of Sufism, the acts of listening, chanting and whirling to music is common to most Sufi orders. In Morocco, it’s the mystic chants accompanying the Gnawa (or Gnaoua) ritual to bring in the night of trance (Derdeba), just before the holy month of Ramadan. The African diasporas in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti also follow this tradition. The Mourides from Senegal seek communion with God through the Njang chanting.

Brotherhood Music

Other Sufi musical styles, popularly known as the “Brotherhood music”, thrives in Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, the Balkans and the Caucuses, each with a regional flavour. In the North-African Arab Andalusian cultures like Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco the local musical genre of ma’louf forms the basis for reciting the classical Arabic poetry (qasidah), leading to trance (wajd). While the “brothers” in Morocco hold hands in a circle, chant and dance, usually without rhythm, “dervish” of Syria and Turkey whirl individually to melancholic melodies, accompanied by delicate musical instruments ranging from Oud, Rabab, Qanun, to Ney and Zukra, to the soul penetrating rhythms played on Bendir and Darbuka.

Sufi Music in India: The Qawwali

In India and Pakistan, it is the Qawwali, made globally popular by Shankar-Shambhu and Nustrat Fateh Ali Khan, that has been known to move the audiences to a state of emotional rapture. Actually, in the Indian subcontinent, Sufi thoughts find expression through several musical genres: Qawwali, Qaul, Qalbana, Ghazal, folk forms from Rajasthan, Sindh & Punjab, Sufiyana kalam from Kashmir, etc. Nonetheless, it is Qawwali, the homegrown genre attributed to Amir Khurau Dehlavi (1253 – 1325) that seems to be the most popular ‘food for the soul’. No doubt it shares general traits with the light classical music of the region; however, with elements such as mystical poetry and powerful rhythm suggesting ceaseless repetition of God’s name (zikr), the music of Qawwali fulfills a religious function; to arouse mystical love and divine ecstasy, which is the core experience of Sufism.

The song text of Qawwali is mystical poetry in Farsi, Hindi & Urdu, and has a poetic idiom rich in image and metaphor, which the generations of Sufi poets have invested with a wealth of highly elaborate symbolic content. As a result, much meaning can be conveyed in a few words drawn from this familiar and well-loved idiom of Sufi metaphor. The impact of such a communication is both instant and universal. The songs are presented in a fluid style by alternating solo and group passages characterized by repetition and improvisation. The vigorous drum accompaniment on the barrel-shaped dholak is reinforced by hand clapping while the small portable harmonium, usually in the hands of the lead singer, underscores the song melody.

For centuries, the Sufi communities of the Indian subcontinent have sustained this musical tradition in the mahfil-e-sama, the ‘assembly for listening’, and it remains the central ritual to this day, especially at the shrines of the Sufi saints like Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. In India, many Sufi musicians trace their descent to the original Qawwali singers who were believed to be trained by Amir Khusrau, the most influential disciple of Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia.

Sufi music and Bollywood

Notwithstanding the deep religious association, as early as the 1940s, Qawwali made its foray in to Hindi films. Hits like Teri mehfil main kismat (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), Na to karwa ki talash hain (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960) Chandi ka badan (Taj Mahal, 1963) etc. bear testimony to the popularity of this genre. Given the metaphoric nature of poetry in Qawwali, some of these endeavours were perhaps acceptable. However, over time, the genre has transmuted into filmi qawwali with poetry which is profane, inclusion of all sorts of instruments, heavy beats, women dancing (which isn’t a part of the mise-en-scene of a Sufi music performance at all), and overt and loud expressions. Although there have been productions that try to retain the original context to some extent (Piya Haji Ali in Fiza 2000, Khwaja mere khwaja in Jodha Akbar 2008, both by AR Rahman), it is indeed unfortunate that today, we have to remind ourselves of the spiritual connection of Qawwali to the Divine.

Dr Suvarnalata Rao is Head – Programming (Indian Music) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

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