Overheard at a qawwali performance held at Nizamuddin recently: “This is India!”
By any great leap of imagination, I do not know India. Who can, really? But I can categorically say that Nizamuddin is not India. Despite everyone’s protests to the contrary.
Because, according to everyone, Nizamuddin is the only place to enjoy qawwalis. At least, according to the guidebooks, my friends, my landlord, even the Sufis outside the shrines busy counting their daily intake of donations (much, I suspect, from the long line of Western visitors on a religious tourism trip, trying to see that real India).
But they’re all wrong.
The music, at the least, is meant to inspire the listeners to dwell on their relationship with god. At best, it’s supposed to transport you to a state of mystical connection with god. Not a mean feat for any old Thursday night.
But the whole mystical meeting-with-god part is a little hard to realize when an Australian tourist (in what looks like a brand-new, head-to-toe Fabindia outfit) is shoving a camcorder in your face.
Or when the Sufis are actually sleek, well-educated businessmen skilled at the art of fund-raising.
Or when a large number of the devotees are, in fact, highly skilled beggars trained in the art of cajoling a few rupees out of even the most hardened visitor. (“When they work that hard, you got to give them something,” a Kolkata friend lamented after a boy begged, cried, laughed, teased and chased the car).
And while my American friend (Indian descent, of course) took the golden-gilded court in awe and reverence, I kept dwelling on the business acumen of the singers. Passion and length of songs are directly proportional to the growing pile of cash at their feet. Rather savvy of them, isn’t it?
If, like me, you actually want a dash of spirituality infused into the musical experience, there are plenty of other places to look for it. Try any of the 300 shrines around Delhi, like the shrine of Qutabuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki.
Despite the protests of the Nizamuddin caretakers, most have qawwalis at least once a month, usually around a full-moon night.
When one Nizamuddin caretaker finally admitted other shrines had qawwalis, he was quick to dismiss them as simply “musicians’ parties”.
That doesn’t really dissuade me. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer going to a party over a veritable Sufi one-stop shop any day.
And parties they are. Get away from the multitude of vendors, persistent beggars and earnest tourists, and you’ll actually find the spots where the musicians band together for all-night revelry. Labourers stop by to light incense and chillums. Saints and sinners meet to sing late in the night. Sure, money is still thrown at the feet of the musicians, but they actually seem to be enjoying themselves, not just playing to a crowd. Chai is passed around. Occasionally, a devotee will burst into an impromptu sermon on his love for god. The songs can last 20 minutes, with one voice rising above the crowd, soulfully singing to his beloved.
Of course, the places aren’t always conveniently placed near police stations and the buildings aren’t quite as extravagant as Nizamuddin’s gilt. You have to brave four dirt steps to arrive at the lean-to temporary building around the tomb of Peer Kurban Ali Shah. Chickens peck at the dirt floor. Tarps let in rain, dust and do nothing for the winter’s cold.
But what’s a little cold when you’re communing with god?
The Nizamuddin caretaker still thinks it’s foolish to look elsewhere: “Here there are 20 musicians. At other places there are only two or three!”
But, as many Indian men can probably aver, quantity does not always mean quality.