Home > opinion > online-views > The Ganesh ‘qawwali

In the hybrid world of Indian film music, unpredictable and unusual concoctions abound and thrive. A film song that begins with a decidedly rustic flavour to the sparkling rhythmic accompaniment of a dholak, could as easily turn the corner and move into an interlude soaked in the sounds of a double bass or a brass section. A film set in 1857 could well feature songs with the deep punch of a bass guitar punctuating the filmi version of a nautch. Anything is possible, and on some occasions “anything" turns out to be quite delectable! So just when I thought the neighbourhood pandals would soon be resounding with new releases dedicated to Lord Ganpati, I heard an intriguingly hybrid qawwali in praise of the eagerly awaited “Gajmukh", the elephant-headed “lambodar" or abundant-bellied deity. The qawwali is from an year-old Marathi film titled Morya directed by singer-composer-lyricist Avadhoot Gupte, and it finds favour with me over more recent releases, for several reasons.

One of the strengths of qawwali is its ability to transport the listener to a rapturous state of ma’rifat or, in essence, knowledge. Adam Nayyar in the Origin And History of the Qawwali states, “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." This could perhaps be one of the reasons for the immense popularity of qawwali even among listeners from other cultures who may not be in a position to understand the multilayered song text in qawwali compositions. And yet, in contemporary India, traditional qawwali remains a seriously marginalized form.

Mainstream music companies hardly ever launch fresh recordings of traditional qawwali repertoire, preferring instead to promote borrowed repertoire souped up with Western orchestration, performed by singers not from within the hereditary families of qawwals. Traditional repertoire, therefore, is recorded and published usually by smaller regional players, often those located near shrines in different parts of the country. Meanwhile, it has become fashionable for all manner of performers to don the Sufi mantle and proclaim that they are singing Sufi music.

In recent films, A.R. Rahman, with his personal abiding faith in the Sufi ideology, has been almost solely responsible for occasionally including some memorable tracks inspired by qawwali. The Hey Lambodar Gajamukh Mere Morya qawwali from Morya, therefore, comes as a pleasant change, more so because one of the two lead singers is qawwal Farid Sabri. The unmistakable grain and gravel in Sabri’s voice, his range and typical andaaz mesh beautifully with Gupte’s own superb rendition full of stylish flair and energy, borrowing from the manner in which qawwali is sung, but not born to it. Gupte’s intelligent understanding of both forms, those of the film song and the qawwali, assist him in crafting a filmi qawwali that displays trademark features of the form without poaching on existing traditional repertoire.

Further, in these times of communal strife, a sound that reminds us even briefly of the once composite fabric of our people and culture is more than welcome. It would, of course, be undeniably naive to imagine that the mere mouthing of song text could be an indication of secular beliefs and impulses, and yet the sound of the track is pleasing to the ears, especially amid the never-ending images of ethnic violence, corruption, exploitation, brutality and disease to which we are exposed.

Write to Shubha at musicmatters@livemint.com

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