“Qawwali gaana humare liye ibaadat hai (singing a qawwali is like worshipping God for us). We are proud that our ancestors were the originators of the genre around 950 years ago, and that we are part of a legacy,” says Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi, one half of the popular qawwali-singing duo, Warsi Brothers. Ahead of a concert in the city, where he will perform with younger brother Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi, we caught up with Nazeer to talk about his ancestors - who performed in Mughal courts, how qawwali has changed over the years, the way the genre is portrayed in Bollywood, and more.
Your ancestors used to perform in Mughal courts. Have you heard stories about their performances?
When our ancestors sang in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar (Mughal emperor), they didn’t sing qawwali. They were appointed to sing classical music. The origin of Sufiana qawwali happened under Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (Sufi saint) in Delhi. He coined the word ‘qawwali’. When a qawwali was sung in the court, only select invitees attended it. The language of the songs was Persian, but Nizamuddin Aulia and his student, Amir Khusro (Sufi musician and poet), decided to take qawwali to the masses. The 12 musicians who got trained were our ancestors. The need to take qawwali to the masses was felt because this music cleansed the heart. They realised that this genre shouldn’t be bound by religion.
Watch: Bhar do jholi by Warsi Brothers
Has qawwali changed over the years?
Things have changed a lot with time, but we still sing in the traditional manner - the way our ancestors did. Earlier, qawwali would be accompanied by the tanpura, the sitar, taali (clap) and the pakhawaj. The pakhawaj was later replaced by the tabla. Musicians also started using the harmonium. The change of instruments is still fine, but many so-called qawwals, for instance, have made unnecessary alterations [to qawwali]. Qawwali has got so many colours now, like disco qawwali, rock qawwali etc. Let’s see how long they last. Even Bollywood calls a lot of its music Sufi now. They have commercialised the genre. We are trying to keep traditional qawwali alive.
How popular is qawwali among the youngsters?
It’s extremely popular. We perform at colleges across the country, and youngsters really enjoy our music. I think films have contributed a lot to its popularity. We are glad that youngsters realise how this form of music can help them de-stress. We often conduct workshops at colleges to help students stay calm and relaxed. That is its strength.
Is your next generation interested in taking your family’s legacy forward?
Absolutely. My son, Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi (24), and Naseer’s son, Sameer Ahmed Khan Warsi (19), accompany us to our concerts. They have also started performing. Our family has dedicated our lives to qawwali.
Your family has a legacy. But how feasible it is for new artistes, with no family background, to make a mark?
There are so many qawwals who don’t have a family legacy. They are all doing well. They make a living from their music. Since qawwali is sung to the praise of God, I believe that God takes care of all these artistes. Whoever works hard manages to make a mark.
Watch: AR Rahman’s Khwaja mere Khwaja, one of the best qawwalis in Bollywood
What do you feel about the way the genre is portrayed in Bollywood?
Qawwali has been part of Bollywood since many years. Our grandfather (Padma Shri Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi) sang ‘Maula Salim Chisti’ for the film, Garm Hava (1973). It was composed beautifully. But today, composers take the rhythm and tune of a qawwali, and use it with romantic lyrics. For instance, the song, ‘Parda hai parda’ (Amar Akbar Anthony; 1977), revolves around love. A qawwali is supposed to be spiritual. I think AR Rahman’s work is close to the original essence of the genre. His song ‘Khwaja mere Khwaja’ (Jodhaa Akbar; 2008) was made really well.
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