The truist tradition of qawwali singing demands that its venue as well as its repertoire remain untouched by public appeal. Traditionally a form of singing offered at shrines and dargahs, the concept of these troupes performing on a public stage seemed avante garde till the recently held Jashn-e-Khasrau festival at the India International Centre in New Delhi. The kalam of poet Amir Khusrau that formed the repertoire of these musician troupes was its reference point. But since the venue was moved to a public stage, the listeners were not the conventional passers-by at mazhars or dargahs.
This change of venue for a centuries-old musical tradition, one would imagine, demands a fresh makeover. But when the party of qawwals from Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, led by Iftekar Ahmed, took to the stage on its inaugural evening, the musical aura assumed a unique flavour. The music performance had the soul of the khanqah tradition in that its restful core was left undiluted. It definitely evoked the spirit of the khanqah as a place of quiet retreat for spiritual contemplation, and, so it was that, its musical flavour, although sung on a strident high-pitched note, set the atmosphere for such sublime endeavours. The pioneer performers sang without theatrical inputs or vocal alterations to suit the new audience.
There is a reason why they were so successful at this delicate balance of a purist tradition for an urban audience well versed in musical variety. Since lead singer Iftekar Ahmed is not of a khanqah family himself, his acceptance as a first-generation singer-follower of the Sufi saint Khwaja Qurban Akli Hassani of Bulandshahr, was no easy deal. Added to his stock of troubles was the fact that his pir’s demise had taken place a quarter century earlier, whereas other qawwal bands trace their origins to medieval saints of various Sufi orders.
The team Ahmed has created today is thus the result of rigorous training under his guru, Jamil Ahmed Khansahib, and Nabi Jan Khansahib, from whom he acquired not just musical training, but also the adab or mannerisms and the rest of the inheritance of the khanqah qawwal tradition. So when he opened his evening recital with the well-known number Man kunto maula… (The one whose entrusted leader I am, Ali is also), there was a hint of mystique that evoked the medieval khanqahs, located next to dargahs, which acted as a hospice for travellers.
Strangely though, Ahmed and his troupe rang out the words of the Persian verses in the later numbers with as much confidence as the Hindvi compositions of Khusrau. One learnt that learning the two streams did not require his having any knowledge of the language of its composition. Only the words had to be sung in correct diction, proper emphasis, repetitive stresses and within the format of melodious ragas. Training included learning to sing out the notes with force right from the lower abdomen and not just the throat.
For the organisers, too, bringing to the forefront such groups was no gimmick. According to Ratish Nanda of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the singing was not an empty performance schedule, but closely linked to the restoration work being carried out by the Aga Khan Trust and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Archeological Survey of India. Their joint restoration efforts included the original venue of qawwali singing, the Chausath Khamba region in the Nizammuddin Basti in New Delhi. This open space within the crowded basti was once the setting for itinerant qawwals.
It is a tradition that originated in India several centuries ago, and has enraptured audiences down the ages in vast parts of Asia. Iftekar Ahmed is but one among many efforts at keeping the spirit alive.