Chand Nizami, a well-known qawwal from Delhi, recently appeared in the Bollywood film Rockstar. Ironically, he did not actually sing “Kun Faya Kun”, but merely lip-synched to AR Rahman’s vocals. The cameo is both an indication of the symbolic cache singers like him still hold, as well as the hard times qawwals in the city are facing. However, a new festival might just be the spark that can turn around their fortunes.
In 2009, three of the top qawwali groups in the city – the Nizami Brothers, the Nizami Bandhu (of which Chand Nizami is leader) and the Qutbi Brothers – formed the Sufi Qawwal Society to look after their interests. This fortnight’s Sufi Qawwali Festival is their first presentation together. The groups are steeped in tradition and claim lineage from the legendary Qawwal Bachche trained by Amir Khusrau 750 years ago. For generations, their families have been associated with two of the biggest and oldest dargahs in Delhi. The Nizami groups, who are related, regularly sing at the Nizamuddin dargah, and the Qutbi Brothers are linked to the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli. With the changing times, the groups have to also rely on private concerts and festival appearances to survive. The formula for success is simple. Those who are willing to sing filmi rather than traditional qawwali corner the mehfil market. Qawwals who refuse to make the compromise fall behind. “In dargahs we always sing pure qawwali,” said Ghulam Sabir Nizami, leader of the Nizami Brothers. “We entertain people at parties and other gatherings out of compulsion. After all, we have to support our families.”
The fight for survival has led to intense competition and rivalry between the groups. Perhaps due to the familial bonds among them, collaboration often degenerates into petty bickering and one-upmanship. When Ghulam Sabir proudly informed us that he was the first Indian qawwal to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London, three years ago, Mohammad Idris of the Qutbi Brothers quickly butted in to tell us about his troupe’s tours to South Africa and Paris, while Chand Nizami piped up about his supporting role in Rockstar. But for the first time, the groups have put aside their differences and joined forces.
The main grouse that knits the qawwali groups together is the lack of official recognition. “The government has not paid any attention to us,” Sabir said. “Since they will not help us, we have decided to take matters into our own hands and form the society.” Chand Nizami agreed. “Sufism is a buzz word these days,” he said. “What is being described as Sufi qawwali has its origins in traditional qawwali. It has emerged through the blood and sweat of our forefathers. But what have we got? There are so many of us singing at the dargahs in Delhi, but to date, we have not received any award. My father Mohammad Nizami lived to be 105, but he never got any recognition. And he was a graded artist with All India Radio. We are hopeful, Inshallah, that if we start this initiative, the government will sit up and take notice and maybe even help us.” He did add that the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has partly funded their venture.
Chand Nizami is not talking about any old recognition. The qawwals have their sights set on the Padma Shris and the Padma Bhushans. The only qawwal to have garnered a Padma Shri was Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi (an uncle of the Nizamis) from Hyderabad, way back in 1971. (Incidentally, Warsi’s nephews will also sing at the festival.) But what irks the Sufi Qawwal Society members more than the government is their perception that outsiders are riding piggy-back on their hard work. “Others have been awarded in the name of Sufi music,” Sabir said. “But who are these artists? One should not malign any artist and we will not take names, but what about the khandani artists? We appear in countless programmes abroad on behalf of the government; we bring recognition for the country, and yet we are nobodies here.”
The Society’s main agenda is to redress this imbalance, and they want to help others with the profits they will make from concerts as well. “We have many qawwals in our families,” Sabir said. “Some of them are our elders and there are those who are needy. Later, we will try to help other qawwals as well. We want qawwali to flourish. If this does not happen, we will all die out.” However, not everybody in the extended qawwal family is part of the society – at least not yet. The octogenarian Meraj Ahmed and his group, the Nizami Khusrau Bandhu, will not appear at the festival. A scholar among qawwals, Ahmed is considered by other qawwals to be the most knowledgeable, not only in Delhi, but in the entire country. Though he now performs sporadically due to old age, he boasts a formidable command over Persian and his repertoire includes rarely sung verses. As a stickler for tradition, Ahmed isn’t as commercially successful as the Nizamis, who are his relatives. Chand Nizami’s late sister was Ahmed’s wife. But the families keep to themselves. Not wishing to elaborate on the matter, Sabir’s brother Ghulam Waris said, “His [Ahmed’s] group will also soon be part of the society. They will appear at subsequent programmes.”
And if things go according to plan, the Society will organise the festival annually, or even twice a year. “If we sing at a festival and the organiser pays us R10,000, the matter ends there,” Idris told us. “It is basically an advertisement for them. They take the credit and we hardly get any publicity.” Given the chance to represent themselves, the groups claim that they will only present long-established songs at the Festival. They will only sing traditional verses, or newer ones that are faithful to the old style.
The qawwals will also only use the tabla, dholak and harmonium and will refrain from using electric instruments like synthesizers and octapads, which they play at private gigs. “Traditional qawwali is the expression of love for Allah,” Sabir said. “Compositions that were heard by or were about Khwaja Garib Nawaz, Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Baba Farid, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya – that is the real qawwali. Most of the rest is just for enjoyment. It is our mission to present pure qawwali.”
But will they not sing anything else? “It was films that spoiled qawwali,” Sabir insisted, but allowed that “in recent times there has been an improvement. Filmmakers have begun to understand its nuances.” Chand Nizami did not rule out the possibility of filmi qawwali songs at the festival. “I have appeared in Rockstar, but if you listen to the song I can guarantee that it will bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “AR Rahman has given beautiful musical backing to the song; it is not ordinary filmi qawwali. The film scenes were shot just outside Nizamuddin dargah. If people request such songs we will definitely sing them.”
There is another vexing issue that the qawwals have tried to solve. The groups’ repertoire has songs that are common. Though Chand Nizami tried to explain it away by saying, “Har phool ki khusboo alag hoti hain”, Sabir informed us that the groups will agree on a songlist beforehand to avoid any repetition. “But if the audience requests a particular song that has already been performed, we will not refuse them,” Sabir said. Yet he assured us that,“We’ll dig out the Sufiana kalam stashed away in our kitty. The audience will hear items that have been rarely heard.” The groups want to present a show that is close to what they do at the dargahs. To preserve that authenticity, they will conclude the festival with rang, a note of unity. “At the Nizamuddin dargah, we present rang or panchayati gana, where all the performers sing together,” Chand Nizami explained. It will be good for both the qawwals and for the qawwali tradition if the groups can channel their differences into healthy competition.
The Nizami Brothers, Nizami Bandhu and Nizami Khusrau Bandhu perform regularly at the Nizamuddin dargah when in Delhi; the best time is Thursday evening. The Nizami Khusrau Bandhu also performs on Fridays at the nearby dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Qutbi Brothers perform daily at the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, though the best day to visit is Thursday.
By Kingshuk Niyogy on February 17 2012 6.23am
Photos by Aditi Tailang