For ages, people in search of peace have sought shelter in the philosophical teachings and sayings of religious leaders, saints and minstrels. In doing so, they travelled from one place to another. Qawwali was no exception. In the journey of the subaltern communities, their songs too travelled with them, expanding their geographical spread. This added new elements to history and changed names, contexts and singing styles, but kept the basic structure of the tune and rhythm of Qawwali intact.
The role of Murshid is significant in Sufism. He is the one leading others to the Divine Power through his deep-rooted feelings. This philosophy is reflected in the lyrics of many Bangla Qawwali songs.
Bangla Qawwali had lost its glory over time. Qawwali, itself, lacked institutional patronage. Orthodox Muslim rulers were sceptical about Sufi traditions. This happened in Bengal also. Identified with the uneducated and marginalised communities, Bangla Qawwali singers failed to get much recognition. The increasing popularity of Mazars and Dargahs, where the marginalised thronged to seek solace, also enraged Islamic fundamentalists who were historically close to the rulers. To stop this trend, they attacked Sufi practitioners who indulged “more in dancing and singing rather than following the rites”. They banned music itself to arrest the increasing popularity of Sufism. Many Sufi saints were forced to partially follow the dictums imposed by fundamentalists. The Fakirs of Bengal differed in philosophy from both orthodox Sufis and fundamentalists. This resulted in opposition from both the quarters, and affected the popularity of Bangla Qawwali also.
It was only in the recent past that Fakirs of Bengal started taking initiatives to revive Bangla Qawwali. Most of the Qawwals are now spread over Nadia, Murshidabad, Bardhaman and South 24 Parganas districts. Fakirs of Gorbhanga in Nadia are leading the safeguarding process. Armaan Fakir had learnt Bangla Qawwali from Kushtia’s Gani Pagol and brought the music to Gorbhanga. It has similarities and differences with the Qawwali performed at Dargas in North India. Gorbhanga is today a land of Sufiana where people sing at the Resource Centre or Akhra (a space for group practice). Chhote Golam of Jalangi in Murshidabad is another prominent Bangla Qawwali singer.
Bangla Qawwali has a niche carved out for itself in Kolkata. Pagla Baba’s Mazar and Isha Ali Jalani’s Mazar have Qawwali sessions every Thursday and during Urs at the Mazars. Many Qawwals of Kolkata are ‘Paschima Mussalman’ (Muslims from the West). The forefathers of Kochi and Khokan Qawwals were from Iran and Multan, respectively, both of which were the cradle of Sufi philosophy. Qawwals like Kochi, Khokan, Salim, Kader Pervez, Chhote Babu Qawwal and Mehtab have exacting schedules during December-April when they travel with their troupes to Mazars across West Bengal and even Bangladesh.