A musical bridge: Sufi music can strengthen South Asian consciousness

Originally published in the South Asia Monitor

South Asian music, especially the Sufi Music, is on a rising curve in the region. A silent undercurrent is moving to integrate South Asia as a unified society identifying itself with this common spiritual heritage. The musical traditions are diverse yet connected in a way that invokes aesthetic enjoyment and a spiritual fervor. Broadly, they are characterized into Qawaalis and Ghazals. The article begins by shedding some light on the origins of these traditions and explains the place of Sufi music in today’s popular culture by highlighting how it has crossed borders and united the people of South Asia on a spiritual plane, providing scope for the creation of a common South Asian consciousness. The forces of globalization, especially the media and internet, are ready mediums using which Sufi music can cross borders and contribute towards the strengthening of this consciousness and assist in the fostering of South Asian solidarity.

Qawwalis: their roots

Qawwali is derived from the Persian word ‘Qoul’ which means ‘utterance’. Qawwalis find their roots in the works of Amir Khusrau, who was one of the greatest contributors to the musical and linguistic traditions of South Asia. Khusrau served as a poet in the court of Khilji dynasty of Delhi Sultanate in 13th century. In those days, Sufism spread due to the influence of Chishtis (a Sufi Order) and one of the most popular saints was Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia of whom he was a disciple.

The Sufi concept of love for God found the best expression through Qawwali, which are replete with the descriptions of divine power as well a yearning to unite with it, expressing the disciple’s love for God through singing.

Khusrau institutionalized the Qawwali tradition by establishing ‘Qawwal Bachchon ka Gharana’(a learning school) where he trained 12 disciples devoted to singing at Hazrat Nizamuddin’s final resting place. The later generations of these singers, spread throughout the subcontinent, have popularized the Sufi traditions. Legendary artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also traced his roots to this Gharana (school). Today, the Qawwali tradition is very popular in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan; wherever the Sufis travelled to, they took their music along.

Ghazals: their roots

Ghazals are poetic expressions composed in Urdu and Persian, consisting of rhymes rich in phrases and metaphors which convey emotions in powerful, yet intimate ways. Expression of love (both human and spiritual) is the dominant narrative within Ghazals. When introducing Ghazal to the subcontinent, Khusrau drew from the early Arab and Persian poetic influences and shaped them to suit the linguistic setups offered by Persian, Urdu, and other north-Indian dialects.  Though introduced in the medieval ages, numerous poets have added to its richness over the centuries. In 19th century the legendary Mirza Ghalib, along with other great poets rejuvenated this tradition. Qazi Nazrul Islam, on the other hand popularized Ghazals in Bangla language.

Sufi music today

In the Qawwali genre, Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became a key figure as he popularized them in commercial cinema and made them a part of the cassette culture back then. Notwithstanding the political troubles in their relationship, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani, is celebrated in India as one of the pioneers of the Sufi musical tradition. His nationality was never allowed to become obstructive solely because of the fact that Qawwali is a pan-South Asian phenomenon. In fact, his songs have featured in Bollywood films extensively.

The Qawwali,  ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalander’ (composed by Bulleh Shah, a Sufi saint)  has received such popularity that it is still sung across the whole subcontinent.  It can be argued that ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalander’ encompasses a South Asian character due to the following points :

1.       -It is composed in the Punjabi language.

2.       -The Qawwali was written in praise of the Sufi saint Shahbaz Qalander, who came from Herat, Afghanistan.

3.       -The saint settled in Sindh and hence a revered figure among the Sindhi people.

4.       -The Qawwali has been popularised by many Sufi singers throughout South Asia, especially Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila.

Ghazals are popular in an equal measure in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Mehdi Hassan, who is also known as the ‘Shahenshah-e-Ghazal’ or the ‘king of Ghazals’, is the undisputed champion of the pan-South Asian Ghazal fraternity. His Ghazals have found a ready reception in India as well as in Nepal. The Nepalese government honoured Mehdi Hassan with one of its highest civilian honours “Gorkha Dakshina Bahu” in 1983. The other area of Mehdi Hassan's boundless forte was his innate mastery of the folk genre which he successfully employed in his Ghazals.

Coming to another Ghazal stalwart, Ghulam Ali, an interesting fact to note here is that Ghulam Ali belongs to the Patiala Gharana (traditional school of learning that has its roots in the town of Patiala, (Indian) Punjab) of Hindustani Classical Music. This is to highlight the fact that even today, the Gharana system is alive, cutting across the politically drawn boundaries.. ‘Chupke Chupke Raat Din’, the most popular Ghazal ever attributed to him, was written by an Indian Politician, Maulana Hasrat Mohani. This is to highlight the fluidity with which words are set to musical tunes irrespective of the nationality of the actors involved. One more important reason why these Ghazal singers are well known faces in South Asia is that they have sung Ghazals extensively in Persian, Nepali and Bangla language too. On the Indian side, it was Jagjit Singh who incorporated Ghazals into the popular culture here.

Abida Parveen, with the diversity of genres she represents, is a significant figure in the popular Sufi singing circles, known for what are called ‘Sufi Kalaams’. Besides Ghazals and Qawwali, she represents the rich Sufi poetry singing tradition. Abida parveen’s singing covers include Punjabi Kaafis (a form of a Punjabi sufi poetry) composed by the Sufi saint Bullleh Shah, Sindhi Sufi songs and Persian compositions written by Khusrau.

Evolving to keep pace with times, Sufi Music had taken a new form by collaborating with Rock music. In the 1990s, a Pakistani rock band named Junoon shot to fame when it fused rock music with the Sufi music. Also, the band described itself as belonging to South Asia. Junoon topped the music charts of India and Bangladesh and its album became the largest selling record in South Asia.

The information and communications technology revolution has given a new thrust to the Sufi artists by providing a free virtual space to popularise music. For instance, Coke Studio roped in Sufi artists and uploaded their compositions on Youtube. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh versions of Coke Studio have uploaded Sufi songs featuring renowned artists.  Sufi Singers like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Wadali Brothers and Bangla Baul singers have performed for the Coke Studio. It should be noted that the Coke Studio version of the Sufi Song ‘Alif Allah’, sung by Pakistani artist Arif Lohar has registered more than 22 million hits since it was uploaded in 2010. This Sufi Song is the highest viewed Pakistani music video on Youtube.  This shows the popularity that Sufi music still commands.

On a Pan-South Asian level, Sufi Music can very well be the linguistic discourse through which the actors (the Sufi Music fraternity) can give a meaning to the South Asian fabric. Sufi music links the aesthetic aspect of South Asia’s past, present and future through these rich traditions. It is indeed high time that we realise our oneness as far as the spiritual discourses in South Asia are concerned. The key to South Asian regional integration potentially lies in these Sufi traditions, which have not only prospered in South Asia, but have also contributed in shaping our aesthetic identity.


(Prateek Joshi is a Post-Graduate student at the South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at: prat.josh@gmail.com)

Photo Credit : Adil Hussain