Through the windows of his home in Mehrauli, Mohammad Idris ‘Qawwal’ beholds the grandeur of dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki each morning. Although he has performed for All India Radio and numerous international live shows, the Dargah is still the place from where he earns his livelihood. Dressed in traditional white kurta-pyjama and a fez hat, Mohammad Idris clears his throat as noon breaks into dusk and devotees gather in tight circles around the qawwals. Tears well up is some eyes and lumps climb to choke the throat as Haji Idris repeats the verses of Khusrau’s poems, touching a higher octave each time.
“A fakir (ascetic) never dies. Music is what we all eat and live on. People come to us because our music has a cathartic effect and they leave feeling lighter and fulfilled. Even if we get one rupee or one thousand, we will continue to perform so that the essence of Sufism never dies,” said Idris who learnt qawwali in the streets of Mehrauli through his father and grandfather.
For an art form that dates back more than 700 years, most qawwals in the city are struggling to keep it alive by performing on the streets or at weddings. While Bollywood and pop music albums have made qawwals like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers and Nizami Brothers famous, many still struggle for survival and can be spotted dargahs across the city.
However, they claim that it is their constant search for salvation that has kept them relevant in modern times.
Arshad Qawwal who also performs at the Bakhtiar Kaki dargah, said, “What we see in movies has no connection with Sufism but it has given fame to some singers. Many others are far away from the glamour and on the streets where the art form really belongs. Everything that we are belongs to the dargah. We wake up starving but we don’t sleep starving because Allah finds a way to give to everybody.”
Qawwalis have been a part of Bollywood since time immemorial and many qawwals feel that Bollywood has helped sustain this grounded form and vice-versa. The form gained prominence in 1950s with Muslim social dramas but has sustained its traces in the mainstream media. Be it in the form of a retro presentation in ‘Humein to loot liya’ in Al Hilal (1958) or in its modern version of Bajrangi Bhaijan’s ‘Bhar do jholi’, qawwali has managed to woo the masses time and again.
“There is no wrong or right way to see things. Qawwalis were used to induce haal or wajd (ecstasy/ spiritual poetry) in the listener and will survive how other things survive: by changing. Art is always in a state of flux and that is how it becomes relevant,” said Kamna Prasad, an Urdu scholar.
With a voice that connects spirituality with sensuality, qawwals in the city feel that this genre will not fade away that easily as long as the future generations recognize the importance of this ancestral tradition. “As long as we keep producing qawwalis, we will always find a passionate audience for it. There was a time when there were only 20 people listening to us, now we have hundreds of them. This darbar has helped us sustain and we cannot go out of money till the themes of love, devotion and longing exist in the world,” said Danish Badaun who lives in Khirki Extension and is a regular performer at Mai Sahiba dargah in Adhchini.
A sense of camaraderie fills the air as a bunch of qawwals strike tones against each others. Having a closed circle of qawwals in the city, they want their children to continue their tradition and not concentrate on other worldly forms of livelihood. “This is perhaps the only traditional art form in which the future generation has the will to sustain it. All the other traditions are slowly dying but this. We opened our eyes in poverty but we always had our music. As long as we trust our children to keep this alive, we don’t have to worry about our livelihood because we will do our work and Allah will do his,” said Munna Qawwal, a singer at Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah.