Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dear Lord: Aziz Mian Qawwal

Shrine of Data Ganj Baksh
Patron Saint of Lahore
Before the world marvelled and trembled at the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, before he came to embody the entirety of what the western world identified as Pakistani music, there was Aziz Mian Qawwal.  Indeed, while qawwals like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers have huge followings worldwide, probably the most popular qawwal inside Pakistan, until the time of his death in 2000, was Aziz Mian. A stout man with a huge belly and a love of paan (betel juice), Aziz Mian, was both innovator and traditionalist. He was also audacious; his qawwali, Hashr ke Roz Yeh Poochhunga is the longest single piece of recorded music, logging in at 115 minutes!

Qawwali as a musical form is closely linked to the sufic traditions of Islam and the particular practices that Sufi scholars developed to achieve closeness to God. Arab musicologists such as al-Kindi (d.873) and al-Farabi (b.872) wrote on the effects of music, but the first to take into account the relation between music and trance were the Brothers of Purity (lkhwan al-safa), "a group of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and litterateurs who flourished at AI-Sasra during the second half of the eleventh century” . lt remained for the great Muslim philosopher AI-Ghazali to unify the knowledge of his time.

Kitab adab al-sama:y wa al-wajd, the "Book of the Right Usages of Audition and Trance‘.’ - such is the title given by AI-Ghazali (1085-1111 ) to the eighth section of his famous Ihya u’lum al-din, "Book of the Revivifying of the Sciences of Faith." Written at the beginning of the twelfth century AD, this book is one of the most important treatises on Sufism.

From this source and other contemporary writers, it is possible for us to reconstruct a description of a ceremony called sama’. Sama’ is a concept difficult to translate, since it covers a range of meanings from audition to listening to the spiritual aspects of a musical concert rendered for that purpose.

By the end of the eleventh century, a sama’ was a spiritual concert in which the music was mainly sung, sometimes by a soloist, sometimes by a chorus, including instrumental elements of varying importance. The concert took place under the direction of a sheikh. The solo singing was provided by a cantor.

The faithful listened to the music seated, in a state of inner contemplation, and allowed themselves to be gradually overcome by trance. Return to calm and normality was likewise brought about by the sound of music suitable for that purpose.

Hazrat Amir Khusraw (1253-1325), a famous Sufi saint and an expert both in Indian and Persian music at the court of Ala’ al-Din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi (1296-1316) is credited with the introduction of Persian and Arabic elements into South Asian music. Of particular importance are two musical forms: Tarana and Qaul, which is said to be the origin of Qawwali, a form of Muslim religious song.

However, there is evidence that qawwali predates Hazrat Amir Khusraw: the great Sufi Masters of the Chishtiya and Suhrawardia Orders of South Asia were admirers of the qawwali and the Saint Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki is said to have died in 1236 while in a musical trance induced by a qawwali.

From the early beginnings of Islam, the public sphere was an exclusively male domain. Women did participate in scholarship and even warfare in extraordinary conditions, but the realm of worship at best permitted of equal but separate action. Thus a musico-religious gathering contained only men and this tradition has survived to this day. The only notable exception are the more secularised forms of Qawwali, such as functions at female educational institutions or film scenes in contemporary Pakistan.

The strength and power of Qawwali as a form is used to convey a mystic religious message. To draw and hold the attention of a heterogeneous audience is the skill that the best Qawwal (performers of qawwali) excel at. Thus altering the state of consciousness of the audience in order to make them more receptive to the content is one of the basic reasons for the existence of this vehicle.

One of the concepts that defies easy definition is ma’rifat. Approximating closely to the Greek concept of gnosis, it indicates an inner knowledge not attainable by normal means. Islamic mystical tradition indicates several different paths to ma’rifat, which is arrived at by meditation and other practices. One of these practices accepted by certain schools such as the Chishtiya Sufic order is Qawwali, which is considered to be a mode which brings one closer to the experience of this inner truth by presenting the words (kalam) in the vehicle of music, thus providing an intangible; interplay between form and content, dwelling on certain words to give them a wider context, creating great depth in the apparently simple language of certain Sufic texts. The qawwal often dwell on one phrase or sentence, indicating both the obvious and hidden content by emphasizing and repeating various words and syllables, taking the audience into the discovery of hitherto not obvious meanings. A spinning wheel thus changes from a household instrument into the wheel of life or the wheel of hope depending on the shift of emphasis in one sentence.

Repeating a sentence until all meaning is exhausted and it becomes meaningless is another technique for bringing the audience closer to the elusive ma’rifat. Through this technique, semantic reality is negated and a purity of form is created. It is often this element that transcends linguistic barriers.

One of the objectives of a qawwali is to induce trance in a group of listeners in a communal ritualized setting. The trance is induced, since the music is provided by others than the listeners and the trance is the effect of this music. Trance can also be experienced as a result of one’s own action, such as singing, dancing, chanting, etc. For the qawwali, however, the dialogue between the musicians and the listeners is initiated by the musicians, whose goal to induce trance is based on their own competence to evoke hal and on the receptiveness of the listeners.

The receptiveness of the listeners, although connected with intention and readiness to go into trance, rests on cultural mechanisms as opposed to natural forces all too often credited with a mysterious power beyond explanation: Music as a product of culture confronts the individual with what formed him, exists before him and transcends him. The discontinuity of individual existence is complemented with the continuity of culture. The dichotomy of the individual and the collective is resolved temporarily in a realm or state of consciousness called trance.

Like other forms of Islamic vocal meditation, qawwali transports the audience into another plane of consciousness, bringing to the common people the complex and elusive ma’rifat. Regular attendees of qawwali sessions often use the concept of travel when they speak of their experience during a qawwali. They feel as if they are travelling to another domain or plane. The external manifestation of this transportation is the has, literally meaning "state of mind", often used to denote musically induced ecstasy. This ecstasy can range from rhythmic moving of the head, dreamy dancing to such extremes as violent convulsions of the body, depending on the person affected. This musically induced state of ecstasy is closely watched by the qawwal, who find the combination of music and content responsible for the state, repeating it with increasing intensity until a climax is reached, often creating enough resonance to pull in other members of the audience. The skill of the qawwal is severely tested before an audience not familiar with these concepts, but a master is able to move entire audiences to a hal, even if they do not understand a single word. The thoughts of the person experiencing hal go beyond the rational plane. The society around the individual accepts this ritualised loss of control and it is not uncommon in qawwali sessions for members of an audience to tolerantly embrace and hold an individual concerned spasmodically in a state of hal. No stigma is attached to this state and after recovery, the individual carries on as if nothing had happened.

The last stage of Sufism is fana, the closest analogue in the Buddhist faith being Nirvana. In this stage, the plane of worldly consciousness is dissolved and the ultimate union with the eternal is achieved. The qawwali session may strike a sympathetic chord in the listener, bringing him to this state. Even today, cases of death during a qawwali session have been recorded, whereby the individual so dying is said to have achieved this final stage. It is said of one who dies during a qawwali that his soul has travelled to other places, leaving the shell of his body behind.

AI-Ghazali elaborates the relationship between trance and music, trying to explain the various effects music can have on the listener.

Pleasure (ladhdha), divine love, and beauty are three words that recur constantly in Ghazalis account  of how sama’ produces trance. The cause of these states (ahwal) that invade the heart when one is hearing music is the secret of God Most High. The pleasure given by music is something that only madmen, the insensitive, and the hard of heart do not experience. Their amazement is like that of the impotent man who marvels at "the pleasure of sexual intercourse and the youth who marvels at the pleasure of governing".

Qawwali shares with mystical Islam the belief that religious knowledge is not only acquired through rigour and austerity. There is nothing wrong with knowledge imparting pleasure or the use of pleasurable media to transmit knowledge and is used by some Sufic orders.

The Persian language or Farsi with its rich tradition of mysticism became rapidly identified with Islam in South Asia. However, while Farsi was supported in this by the various Muslim and non-Muslim rulers of South Asia, Qawwali went beyond Farsi after acknowledging its place in the liturgy.

The languages of South Asia were freely used by Amir Khusraw in his compositions - Purbi (the language of Bihar) and Braj Bhasha. In Pakistan today, traditional qawwal still start their performance with a Farsi invocation, moving on to the South Asian language, Panjabi and moving further eastwards with Hindi, Urdu and Purbi. This west to east transition is also reflected in many Sufi texts of this region. This sequence is not followed in India, where the transitional link is not as strong. This flow from one language to another is an important characteristic of qawwali. The major thrust of qawwali as a missionary form for the propagation of Islam in South Asia required the building of bridges between linguistic and culturai regions. Qawwali thus did not restrict itself to one language, but instead concentrated on continuously enriching different regions with words and concepts from other areas.

In areas where the qawwal do not speak the language with any great facility, they must rely heavily on the musical form and rhythm to convey the concepts, achieve a trance and induce ecstasy. This they do with a high degree of success, the ecstatic reaction of an American audience in Carnegie Hall bearing ample witness to this fact. The reason for the sudden recent popularity of qawwali beyond the borders of South Asia is this ability to alter the consciousness of the audience in a display of virtuosity. When asked, the qawwal explain that the message of ma’rifat does not necessarily need words to convey this deep secret. It can also be experienced directly and the qawwali is one such opportunity for direct experience. For an audience that cannot understand the content of the qawwali, the use of rhythm is the basic matrix through which the variation and pitch of the voice runs like a coloured thread.  (source: Adam Nayyar’s treatise on Qawwali, Lok Virsa Research Centre, Islamabad. 1988)


Aziz Mian was born in 1942, in the north Indian city of Meerut, famous for being the place where India’s first war of independence against the British began in 1857.  Like so many millions of others, Aziz Mian’s family was forced to make a dramatic choice of whether to move to the new country of Pakistan or stay in India. The family moved to Lahore where the young Aziz began his study at the famous shrine  that city’s patron saint, Data Ganj Baksh under the tutelage of Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan.  Most unusual for a qawwal and indeed an artist of his background, Aziz went on to complete a degree in Urdu literature from Punjab University, one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions.

This literary bent has played itself out in Aziz Mian’s approach to qawwali in that he was one of the very few qawwals to write his own lyrics, though he did perform the music of others with a special fondness for the poetry of Qatil Shifai.

He is also loved for his dramatic delivery and extra clear diction.  In his early years he was known as Fauji Qawwal (the Military Qawwal) as his early patrons were officers who invited him to peform in the barracks in Rawalpindi and other major cantonments. His public career is interestingly bookended by Iran. In 1966, as a young man of 24 he  wowed a  music festival in Tehran after which he was awarded a gold medal by the Shah-en-Shah of all Persians, Mohammad Reza Pehlavi.  In 2000 at the invitation of a very different Iranian leader, he was invited to perform at the death anniversary of Iman Ali. During his visit, he contracted hepatitis and passed away.

This recording is from a 1978 Pakistan LP simply titled, Aziz Mian Qawwal and  Party. Though he usually performed qawwali of a religious bent he was not above performing secular, ‘romantic’ qawwali. This recording is one which uses romantic motifs to emphasis spiritual realities. In essence this is one qawwali though Side A and B have different titles.

I have cleaned up the cracks as much as possible but a small skip exists about halfway through Side A, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this great recording.

         Track Listing:
1.    Aashiqi Dil Lagi Nahin Hoti
2.    Is Tarah Bandagi Nahin Hoti
Listen here.


Fawad Zakariya said...

Dear Ajnabi, this is a wonderful blog you have here. So much musical treasure in one place! I would love to correspond offline as well. I think you may have seen my (relatively insignificant) blog, Moments of Tranquility, as you kindly credited me for Tufail Niazi's biography in your own post on him.

Keep up the great work!!

ajnabi said...

Thank you for the kind words and encouragement. Would love to correspond off line. I frequent Moments and have always loved the name and the approach. And the current qawwali discussions.