Hindavi Kalaams of Khusrau

Hindavi Kalaams of Khusrau
by Dr. Gopi Chand Narang

The term qawwali is derived from qul, the imperative of the Arabic verb qaula ‘to say’, ‘to speak’. In the Holy Quran, suras 109, 112 and 114 begin with the word qul ‘say!’, and this is evidence of the sanctity with which it is regarded. Reading any one or all of these verses is also part of the fatiha; therefore pronouncing the word qul is the equivalent of a blessing or the conclusion of a prayer. In Arabic, qawwal does not mean ‘a singer’, but rather ‘one who speaks volubly’ or ‘a story teller’. When it was adopted by Urdu, its semantic boundaries shifted and the term qawwal was exclusively applied to a person who sang qawwalis. The word qawwal was possibly first used in Turkish in connection with the ‘whirling and chanting dervishes’ of Jalaluddin Rumi. But when it reached India, it gradually became a standard element in the sufistic ritual of the seminaries (khanqahs). In its present form, the qawwali is first and foremost an exquisite manifestation of the music and culture born from the interaction of Hinduism and Islam. As a musical form, it belongs exclusively to the Indian subcontinent, which began to develop after the advent of Islam during the middle ages. It was patronized and cherished by most Muslim sufis, especially those belonging to the Chishti order.

It is also true that in the popularization of the qawwali, the ghazal played a central role. The Persian ghazal, the dohas of Braj Bhasha, along with the alluring beauty of the Urdu ghazal, little by little made the qawwali a part of the folk music of the subcontinent. No doubt, melodies subconsciously present in the collective memory of the people of the subcontinent were amalgamated within the qawwali. For this reason, having no strict ties with any religion or community, it became acceptable to and was appreciated by everyone. In order to appreciate its profound relationship with the subcontinental collective subconscious mind and psyche, it is necessary to take into account aspects of the composite nature of Indo-Islamic society, of the shared culture of the subcontinent and of all that Muslims and Hindus have in common. It is also important to note the obvious similarity between the qawwali and the Hindu ritualistic temple singing, known as bhajan-kirtan.

With the coming of the Muslims to India, gradually a composite culture came into existence, manifestations of which can be found in both the sufi and the bhakti movements. Along with this, the fusion of the Muslim and Hindu concepts, which could not be completely achieved at the religious level, manifested itself fully in music and the fine arts. We should always remember that the aesthetic, compared to the religious consciousness, is more liable to be influenced by time and space. Therefore, a kind of harmony came about in Hindu and Muslim taste (zauq). In Indian music, the khayal is an invention of the Muslims. Not only did it become popular among the Hindus, but without its existence, it is impossible even to conceive of Indian music. In the same way, the Muslims eagerly adopted the dhrupad, which is an ancient form of Hindu singing. The invention of the sitar and the tabla is attributed to Amir Khusrau (d. 1325); the Muslim sarangi and the sarod also became essential instruments in any kind of Indian orchestration.

The sufi saints always had a great affection for music. During the time of Akbar, in music, as in other cultural spheres, shared tastes were deeply felt, and foreign and native forms merged with each other and forever became one. The famous performer Tansen was one of Akbar's select group, known as the Nauratna ‘Nine Jewels’. In imitation of the Mughal rulers, the Sultans of Bijapur and Jaunpur and the Nawabs of Avadh also lent their patronage to Indian music and in this way attempted to forge a harmony between the emotions and feelings of Hindus and Muslims.

The emotions of love (prem) have in one form or another always been present. In Islamic sufism the concept of ‘ishq’ (deep, spiritual love) acquired a central position. Love is regarded as a universal force, which is embedded in every atom of creation, and in its fire the dross of worldly existence burns and remains captive. In the words of the poet Mir (1722-1810):

Mauj zani hai Mir faluk tuk her lamha hai toofaan zaa
Sir taa ser hai talaatum jiskaa woh aazam dariya hai ishq

Waves crash around and storms rage. Mir.
From the whirlpool to the sky above.
The buffeting winds tear all apart:
And this is the fearsome River of Love.

This concept of love was reinforced when it fused with the similar bhakti concept of prem. In Indian devotional practice music, bhajan-kirtan had been customary since the ancient times; the use of musical instruments such as the mridang, the jhanjh, the manjeera, the iktara and the dholak was also widespread in the temples and the shivalas. The Muslims thus began to acquire a fondness for Indian music and this interest grew to such an extent that among them many great masters and performers arose. In spite of the fact that music is forbidden in Islamic worship, in general Muslim rulers granted it their patronage and, as we have already pointed out, the courts of the sultans, nawabs and Muslim nobles became centres for the fostering of Indian music. In the medieval period, music played no less a role in the cultural and social life of the Muslims than it did in that of the Hindus. One effect that this sensitive and highly charged emotional aspect of the Indian temperament had on sufism can be witnessed in the amazing popularity of ‘sama’ (listening to ecstatic song, designed to induce trance) and the qawwali. On the question of ‘sama’, there was always profound disagreement between the orthodox ulema and the sufis, and many treatises were written in favour of and against the practice. Some were of the opinion that it was legitimate, while others disagreed.

Some historians ascribe the invention of the qawwali to Amir Khusrau, who was the favourite follower (murid) of Nizamuddin Auliya. Some scholars give Hasan Savant, who was connected with Khwaja Mu'inuddin Chishti Ajmeri, the status of the first practitioner (auliyyat). Some of the oldest dements or sections of the qawwali, the qaul, tarana, qalbana and sahela, recall compositions attributed to him. For example, ‘Mun kunto Maula. Fa haza Ali un Maula’ (The one whose Lord I am, ‘Ali is also his Lord’) is a frequently sung qaul. In qawwalis, it is customary to include verses from Arabic, Persian and Braj Bhasha as well as Hindi dohas. Qawwalis in praise of the Holy Prophet (naat), which were current in earlier times, can still be heard. The following Persian ghazal of Amir Khusrau in this respect is considered to be a masterpiece:

Nami daanum chay manzil bood shab kay mun boodum
Ba her soo raqs-e-bismil bood shab jaey kay mun boodum

Pari paikar nigaray sarv qadday lal rukhsaray
Saraapa aafat-e-dil bood shab jaey kay mun boodum

Raqeebaan gosh bar awaaz oo der naaz-e-mun tarsaan
Sukhan guftan chay mushkil bood shab jaey kay mun boodum

Khuda khud Mir-e-majlis bood undur laawakaan Khusrau
Muhammad sham-e-mehfil bood shab kay mun boodum

I cannot tell which adobe it was. The place where I spent the night:
All around writhing of stricken lovers, the place where I spent the night.

That beauty, her form like a cypress tall, her face the tulip red:
Ah! What pain it gave to the heart, the place where I spent the night.

God at the head of the gathered crowd; and Khusrau lost in the Infinite;
Muhammad the candle that lit the throng in the place where I spent the night.

Urdu poets and music

Most of the early Urdu poets were connected either with sufi seminaries or with the courts. In both places music was highly prized. Those who took part in poetic gatherings, where emotions frequently reached a state of ecstasy, were well acquainted with Indian musical instruments and ragas. Some of the Urdu poets were themselves adept musicians and acquired special skills in the art.

On the subject of Khwaja Mir Dard, whose khanqah flourished in Delhi during the eighteenth century, Muhammad Husain Azad wrote: ‘He had a great mastery of music, and many talented musicians brought their pieces to him for advice and correction. The raga is an impressive composition, which gladdens the heart and elevates the soul. For this reason most of the sufi orders have included it in their worship. Hence it became customary on the second and twenty-fourth of each month for great artists, singers, experts and people of good caste to meet together [in his seminary] and sing their mystic compositions.’ (Ab-i Hayyat, p. 182) In the histories it is noted that the poets, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, Nawab Mahabbat Khan. Inshallah Khan Insha, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Ghalib were all fond of music and would welcome the best practitioners of the art with much enthusiasm.

The finest exponents of the ghazal all had a deep affection for music. Since the time of Amir Khusrau, Persian ghazals have been sung. But in the age of the Later Mughals, and especially during the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangila, the Urdu ghazal became part and parcel of Indian music. The sounds of this music can from time to time be heard clearly in the works of the Urdu poets:

Khalq mein hain par juda sat khalq say rahtay bain hum
Taat ki gintee say baahar jit tarah roopak mfin sum

Us ghairat-e-Naaheed ki hur taan hai Deepak
Shola saa lapuk jaey hai aauwaz to dekho

Her beauty puts Venus to shame; every torn is the fiery dipak:
Behold her wondrous voice, shimmering like a flame.


Yeh teraa jism hai ya raagni hai aa kay kharri
Kay aaj tak to na dekha tha yeh badun ka rachaao

Is this your body or a raagni that stands before me?
Before today I've never seen such splendour in any form.


(note: ropak is a time cycle in Indo-Pakistani music, and dipak is the name of a raag which is said to have the power to ignite fire.)

Social aspects

It is worth noting that in this composite society, the introduction of the qawwali also presented a challenge to the orthodox constraints of formal religion and society. In the Indo-Islamic society of the medieval period, the open expression of amorous emotions was not acceptable in the scale of social values. Indeed, this was regarded as forbidden fruit. This kind of activity among members of the nobility was frowned upon and greeted with the harshest opprobrium. For men and women in Asian society, there were always double standards. The problem of family honour and reputation was another matter. Hence, the emotional reaction to such psychological pressure found its expression in the appeal to love (frenziedishq), ill-repute, rakishness and profligacy, which on the path of the mystic acquired social acceptance in the guise of spirituality. In the amorous poetry of the ghazal madness, disgrace and ill-repute became a matter of pride.

For centuries, the ghazal and the sufi love poetry has acted as a kind of safety valve. The voice that was first raised against the superficiality of the orthodoxy and the harshness of its moral straightjacket, soon turned into a struggle between the Shari'at (Islamic law) and the tariqat (the path of the mystic). In the prevailing climate, this struggle became even more intense. It is clear that sama and qawwali were associated with the tariqat.

The subcontinental mind and temperament, because of its peculiar sensibility and profound emotion, never paid any attention to the fetters of imposed moral behaviour, however harsh they might be. Therefore in sufism, under the influence of the subcontinental temperament, the desire to rebel against formal morality became more apparent. Emotion, rapture, sama and qawwali notwithstanding-the opposition of the ulema, at the popular level became a part of worship. The more the religious hierarchy emphasized that such practices were in contradiction to the Shari'a, the more the sufis adopted it at the popular level. The sufi khanqahs of India were frequently populated by singers and musicians, but the practice of singing qawwalis had no place in the Arab world or in Iran. Its roots were firmly planted in the soil of medieval India.

The ecstatic aspect

In sufism the constrained individual spirit (nafs-i infiradi) is frequently compared to a droplet of water or a bubble, while the unrestrained universal spirit (nafs-i kulli) is likened to an expanse of water or the ocean. The ultimate goal of the droplet is to be united with the sea. In the same way the journey of the human ego is to seek annihilation and to become one with the Infinite Being (zat-I mutlaq).

Ishrat-e-qatra hai darya mein fana ho jaana

 'The pleasure of the droplet is to become as nought in the ocean.

Indian thought and philosophy regard the ultimate state of the Self as a condition in which the difference between the objective and the subjective is completely erased. In Indian poetry and literature, in its painting, dance and sculpture, the ultimate goal is total spiritual absorption, aesthetic feeling and rapture, where the ego breaks its shell of individuality and becomes lost in the expanse of the Supreme Ego. This need is fulfilled to its fullest extent by music, and Indian scholars have pronounced music (sangeet) as one of the yogas, whose purpose is to eliminate the duality of the Self and non-Self in order to product a sense of supreme beauty (cf. - Ananda Coomara Swami, Dance of Shiva, p. 41).

In India, the proof of the success of any artistic experience is that it should raise our emotions to their highest peak so that we become completely oblivious of ourselves. The self-sufficient ego should escape from its prison and become so immersed in selflessness that a feeling of boundlessness (afaqiyyat or vahdat) is produced. The Indian philosopher and aesthete, Abhinava Gupta, has stated that aesthetic consciousness is the name of that most agreeable ecstatic scare in which all one's faculties are encompassed by the subconscious, and in which the soul (atmaa) experiences the ultimate joy and exhilaration (paramananda).In the same way, our poets see the ghazal (mystic, philosophical or amorous) as a journey for the emotions, at the end of which the superficial distinctions of our feelings are erased, and our sight passes beyond the limits of worldly constraints. This is the place where the distinction between multiplicity and oneness no longer exists, in other words where the droplet becomes one with the ocean, and can proclaim ‘I am the sea!’ It is a place where the particle of sand falls into the embrace of the wide expanse of the desert. But the basic experience of this spiritual event is beyond understanding and analysis. Just as a congenitally blind person can never appreciate the beauty of a rainbow or the majesty of a sunset, no one can explain or analyse a truly ecstatic phenomenon. No matter in how many ways the intellectuals have tried to describe the Supreme Being, the Upanishads have contradicted all other theories with the Sanskrit words ne ti, neti ‘not so!’ ‘not so!’ Concerning this stage of supreme knowledge, the sufi would say:

The Vedanta describes this state as ananda ‘ecstatic joy’. In the rapture expressed in the qawwali only unity (vahdat) reigns.
Khabar-e-tahaiyurr-e-ishq sun sa junoon raha na paree rahi
Na to tu raha na to main raha jo rahi so bekhabari rahi

Chali simt-e-ghalib sey ek hava kay chman zuhoor ka jal giya
Magar ek shakh-i-nihal-e-gham jisay dil kahen so haree rehi

Who ajab ghari thee kay jis ghari liya dars nuskha-e-ishq ka
Ke kitab aql ki taaq men jo dhari thee tyon hi dhari rahee

When I heard the news of the wonder of love,
Neither frenzy was left nor the sweetheart remained.
I was no more, and you were no more:
Absorption only absorption remained.

What came from beyond the Invisible World?

It consumed the Visible Garden with fire.
And only one branch of the Tree of Grief.
Which they call the heart, in flower remained.

How strange was the hour when I entered that room
And studied the manuscript of Love!
The book of Wisdom was left on the shelf
And there unopened it has long remained.

Siraj Deccani

Teri gali mein gaya so gaya na bolaa phir
Mein Mir Mir kar usko bahot pukaar raha

I went to see her street: I went and spoke no more.
I went and cried: ‘Oh Mir! Oh Mir!’, and called her as before.

Mir Taqi Mir

Spiritual performance

The Sufis laid great emphasis on the spiritual performance of the qawwali. It is well-known that in India there is a deep relationship between music and spirituality. The literal meaning of raga is ‘colour’, ‘emotion’ of ‘wakening the emotions’. The vina played by the legendary Sarasvati and Narad, or the flute of Krishna, are in fact allusions to the eternal melody of the Divine Spirit, which summons the contaminated human soul back to its source. In India, for thousands of years, music has been created as a holy ritual, which through the harmony of emotion and contemplation opens up the closed path leading towards spiritual reality. For this reason, in Indian tradition, bhajan-kirtan has for centuries played a prominent role in temple ritual. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of worship in India without music. In Islam, help came from vocal melody (khush ilhani), but musical instruments have no place in Islamic worship. Among the sufis, for the purpose of awakening spirituality, the custom of employing vocal sama or instrumental sama - i.e. the use of the rabab (rebeck), the daf (a kind of drum), the nai (a kind of flute) and the qawwali - can be seen in this perspective. Since the employment of music, as pointed out earlier, to excite the emotions runs contrary to the spirit of Islam,  some sufis were inclined to accept only vocal sama; others saw no harm in instrumental sama, simply because it was an aid for sharpening the emotions. Since the Indian mind, because of its emotional character, was always affected by music, among the sufis of India, music established itself as part of a great tradition. Most of the Chishti shaikhs regarded sama as legitimate, and the main causes of the excitement that could be witnessed in many seminaries and sufi convents were the qawwali gatherings, which grew the qawwali tradition, and for obvious reasons is indigenous and peculiar to the subcontinent.

Shaikh Bahauddin Baajan (d. 1506) was one of the most renowned sufis of the Deccan. He was a great musician and took as his nom-de-plume (takhallus) ‘Baajan’, which probably reflects his passion (cf. baaja ‘musical instrument, bajaana ‘to play an instrument’). One of his dohas (quoted in Urdu-I Qadim p. 42) sheds light on the way that sufis practised sama’ in his day:

Yunun baajun baajay ray asraar chhajay
Mandul mum mein dhamkay rubaab rung mein jhamkay
Sufi un per thumkay

Yunun baajun baajay ray asraar chhajay

See! Baajan plays and magic spreads around.
The rebeck starts to flash in ecstasy.
And in the soul the beating drums resound,
While sufis sway, led by the melody.
Then Baajan plays and magic spreads around.

The poet Abdul Vali Uzlat ((c. 1700), a contemporary of Vali, composed a work entitled Ragmala ‘The Garland of Ragas’, on the subject of Indian ragas and raginis, the manuscript of which is in the British Library. The composition of Sultan Ibrahim AdiIShah (d. 1618), entitled Kitab-i Nauras, is considered to be an extremely important work on Indian music. The Persian poet, Zuhuri, who was present at his court in Bijapur, wrote a preface to this work, which is commonly known as Sih Nasr-i Zuhuri ‘The three prose pieces of Zuhuri’.

The second chapter of the masnavi of the famous Deccani poet Qazi Mahmud Bahri is written in praise of melody (naghma), and the masnavi Man Lagan also includes a separate chapter on ‘melody and its effects’. A few verses of Bahri are worth quoting:

Yo raag aa aag hi jalaary
Yo raag nay bag phhad khhay
Is raag son josh dard ko hai
Hor oonch kharosh mard ko bai

The one who loves the raga’s tune.
Know him to be a saint indeed.

The raga puts to flame the fire:
It frees the bridle from the steed.

The raga turns all pain to joy.
And by its rapture man is freed.

From numerous verses composed by some of the most distinguished Urdu poets, who flourished from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present day, we can see how the practice of employing music and song in sama has advanced without interruption. On the subject of sama, the respected scholar and poet Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951) writes:

‘In my opinion sama is legitimate; indeed for the sufi it is a necessity, because if we disregard all the evidence which has been handed down by the tradition. We must admit that any activity, which produces rapture in the soul and delight in the heart, cannot justly be called unlawful.’

After the independence of India and Pakistan the popularity of signing the ghazal and the qawwali has become even more widespread. Because of the partition of the subcontinent the number of Urdu speakers in India a declined, but in spite of the difficulties Urdu faces, the popularity of the qawwali has not only not waned, but indeed it has grown space. The main reason for this is to be found in the depths of the collective subconscious of the people and in the ability of the qawwali to fulfil the emotional and spiritual demands of the common psyche.

The theatre and satellite television have all added much to the popularity of the qawwali. Taking into account present changes and demands, it would be quite appropriate to say that the qawwali, which had its beginnings in the middle ages as the religious and spiritual music of the sufi seminaries, has today become a part of general secular music and ‘pop culture’, without which we can have no conception of the modern Indian or Pakistani music.