The Spirit Can Never be Killed

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Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal Marhoom

The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the Sufis of Ajmer.

Khwaja was well loved by his followers not just for his teachings but also for his methods of teaching. These included the practice of sama, which involved the playing of instruments and singing (solo as well as chorus) to aid spiritual contemplation and produce trance states in the faithful. From this practice, and through the creative brilliance of a disciple of one of Khwaja’s successors, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, this practice became gradually known among devotees as qual and ultimately, qawwali. The disciple who is credited with creating this new and distinctly subcontinental religious music is Amir Khusro, one of India’s great artistic geniuses.

When Khwaja Moinuddin passed away in 1265, the Chistia silsila (Chisti order) produced two branches. One, centered in Delhi, was led by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The second, founded by Ali Ahmed Alauddin ‘Sabir’, is known as the silsila Chistia Sabriya. Both branches gained disciples all across northern India and both nurtured and promoted the practice of sama through qawwali.

These days, qawwali is loved across the world. It is performed not just by Pakistani and Indian qawwali parties, but also embraced by jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco guitarists, American mystics and the ultra-chilled lounge music set. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is usually regarded as bringing qawwali to the West but in fact, it was two adherents of the Chistia Sabriya silsila who blazed that trail more than a decade earlier.

The Punjabi qawwali tradition draws inspiration for its lyrics from the saints and shrines of Punjab and other parts of what is now Pakistan. This style of qawwali is regarded as a more vigourous and emotional form than the traditional, sophisticated style from further east in India.

It was part of the Sabri brothers’ brilliance that they were able to sing and perform in both styles. They quickly realised there was a new Urdu-speaking audience in the cities that also had expendable incomes. Their first record, Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (“I have no one but you”) was released in 1958, when Maqbool was still a teenager, to great acclaim, partly because it was accessible to this new audience. [full article]

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