Tribute

The Taliban may have killed Amjad Sabri but they will never be able to murder the message of qawwali

Amjad Farid Sabri was at the forefront of a revival of the musical form.

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.

Play
‘Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa’.

That qawwali was available on vinyl was in itself an innovation that caught the eye of a more affluent urban population. Subsequent records continued to build their reputation as well as raise the profile of the music itself. It’s hard to imagine today that qawwali was for most urbanites an unknown quantity at that time. Purists and traditional qawwals themselves were happy to keep the form close to the shrine and strictly spiritual. The Sabri brothers’ pioneering work in introducing qawwali to a secular or at least less overtly religious audience deserves immense credit.

While they were not the first and certainly not alone, the Sabri brothers were the most famous of the qawwali popularisers. Not only did they move fluidly between Punjabi, Urdu and Persian in their repertoire but even within a single qawwali, “Tajdar-e-haram”, would combine lyrics from several languages.

Play
‘Tajdar-e-haram’.

Their music was issued as LPs by EMI, allowing new audiences to enjoy both qawwali and a fuzzy spiritual feeling from the comfort of their air-conditioned drawing rooms. From there, it was only a matter of time before it spread further afield.

The Sabris were not just modernisers. They made no bones about wanting to attract new fans to qawwali, but they were equally serious about presenting the music in what they felt was a proper and respectful light.

They dressed immaculately and lived private lives that were above reproach. Ghulam Farid’s resonating calls of “Allah!” dropped like depth charges throughout performances, reminded listeners that though the music was on vinyl or televised from a television studio, its bottomline was spiritual. Members of the brothers’ troupe spoke of how Ghulam Farid’s chants would send shivers down their backs, making them feel as if God himself was in the room. They had little patience for purely secular qawwali or lyrics that seemed to laud a debauched alcohol-fuelled lifestyle, such as Aziz Mian’s “Mein Sharabi” (I am a drinker).

By the 1970s, the Sabris were superstars. Their concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1975 brought qawwali to the attention of American audiences. A decade and a half later, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was able to use that familiarity to launch his own meteoric rise.

Khan eclipsed every other Pakistani musician during his lifetime, and the Sabri brothers no doubt lost some of their cache with Western fans in the 1990s. But back home, in India, and wherever lovers of traditional qawwali congregated, the brothers were welcomed as the ultimate. Many of their qawwalis – “Tajdar-e-Haram”, “Bhar Do Jholi Meri”, “Mera Koi Nahi Tere Siwa” – have become standards.

Fans loved the interplay of Ghulam Farid’s heavier baritone voice with Maqbool’s tenor as well as Ghulam’s shoulder-length locks, which often flew about in wild and prolonged bouts of ecstasy, hinting at the whirling dervishes of an imagined past.

The death of qawwali has been predicted many times but like so many other prognostications, this has proved premature. The mighty giants of qawwali have passed: Ghulam Farid (1994), Nusrat (1997), Aziz Mian (2000) and Maqbool Ahmed (2011). But the music continues to flourish.

A new generation of qawwals is emerging. Amjad Farid Sabri, son of Ghulam Farid, was at the forefront of this revival of sorts. A large man like his father, Amjad was a serious musician and upholder of tradition. But he was willing to experiment. He was praised (and decried) for introducing more raga-based compositions into qawwali. Like his father and uncle, he was no stranger to TV, often performing in traditional settings but unafraid to jazz up his performances with contemporary arrangements and visuals.

Amjad Sabri’s assassination on June 22 on the streets of his hometown Karachi has sent shock waves throughout Pakistan and across the world. Questions are being asked again about the viability of qawwali and Sufism and moderation and music in a country seemingly unable to reign in its extremists. The situation does seem dire indeed.

But have a listen to something the founder of the Sabriya silsila said to reassure his downcast followers as he neared death. “The body has to be a layer with soil again and it shall perish. But what you see now is ba’qa, the never perishing Spirit, the Spirit that Allah gave me.”

The Taliban may have killed the body but it is assured they will never be able to murder the spirit or the message of qawwali.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.