Years after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan captured the world’s attention with his qawwalis, the art form still flourishes in India, both in its traditional and filmy avatars.
“A qawwali is not sung,” declares Adil Hussain Khan in his resonant voice. Laughing at our amazement, he elaborates, “Qawwali padha jata hai, ya pesh kiya jata hai. Yeh gana nahi hota (A qawwali is recited, or presented. It isn’t a song).”
We’re sitting at his home in Old Malakpet, having a meandering conversation about qawwali in India with Adil and his more reticent father, Ahsan Hussain Khan, both noted qawwals. Based in Hyderabad, the duo has performed all over the world as well as in India. A lot of people, including youngsters, attend the shows, Adil says. “When we performed at a college in Hyderabad about two years ago, we started out unsure about how the crowd would receive us. We were worried that being youngsters, they might only be interested in entertainment. But after our first piece, a lot of people cheered for us. That gave me courage. We went on to do a qawwali in Persian, and I explained the meaning of the words after that. The students were very appreciative,” he said.
August 16 marks the 15th death anniversary of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is best known for popularising qawwalis. He is credited with introducing western influences into the ancient Sufi art and collaborating with a slew of musicians for ‘fusion’ qawwali.
“People who listened mostly to pop music started listening to qawwalis because of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,” said Adil. His influence can still be seen today, with Bollywood churning out ‘quasi-qawwali’ numbers by the dozen. Though youngsters may be lapping it up, traditional practitioners are not entirely happy about this trend. Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi of the gifted Warsi brothers from Hyderabad says, “What comes in Hindi movies is not qawwali. The lyrics don’t suit Sufi thought. Sufiana qawwali is a tradition that has been around for over 850 years.”
That said, all is not lost for the traditional qawwali. “We teach our children, and other kids who want to learn as well. A lot of people get trained in Hindustani classical music and then learn Sufi music. However, there are a lot of people who just want to sing qawwalis, without any classical training,” says Warsi.
“While there aren’t any places to learn Sufi music as such in Hyderabad, there are plenty of centres teaching Hindustani classical music. A lot of people have approached us during our performances, asking whether we could teach them. It becomes difficult when the teacher and the student are in different cities, though,” said Adil.
Traditional qawwali music is still well received all over the world. The Warsi brothers are off to do concerts in Goa, Delhi and Bangalore in the near future. Ahsan and Adil Hussain Khan have performed in South Africa, Myanmar and will be performing in Hyderabad in September. The government does encourage the art form, but not enough, they say. Adil adds, “The government forgets that qawwali, like Urdu, is from India itself. They should
promote Sufiana qawwali just as they do the other art forms of the country.”