Bangla Qawwali

Baul-Fakiri music has many variants including Bangla Qawwali, a genre heavily influenced by Sufism. It was nearly lost by the end of 19th Century and was revived by the Fakirs of Gorbhanga in Nadia in the early 2000s, with crucial support from a few researchers. By 2017, Bangla Qawwali had regained popularity and earned a place in the hearts and minds of young generations. Sufism in Bengal evolved from Chaitanyadev’s Bhakti Movement and Bauls and Fakirs are ‘Sufis of the East’. Bangla Qawwali is now a globally recognized, vibrant genre of Baul-Fakiri music.

Bangla Qawwali Featured Artists

History of Bangla Qawwali

‘Oli’ means someone close to God and ‘Qwal’ means words dedicated to God. Thus, ‘Qawwal’ is one who sings ‘Qawwali’. Sufi practitioners seek to be one with the divine through Qawwali songs.

Qawwali originated around 800 BC in Persia (modern Iran and Afghanistan). Around 1,100 BC, practitioners of this philosophy travelled to South Asia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Originating in Greater Persia-Iran, Khorasan and Baghdad, Qawwali is sung at numerous Khankas, Dargahs and Mazars of South Asia. The genre reached India in 9th century, travelling through Herat, Nishapur, Kabul, Baluchistan, Kandahar, Samarkand, Bukhara and Tajikistan. Much before today’s ‘globalization’, Sufi songs were truly an international phenomenon.

First among the Sufi saints to come to Bengal was Jalaluddin Tabria. It was during the reign of Lakshman Sen (1178–1206), who ruled for a few years before the conquest of Bengal by Turks. Though Sufis of the Chisti order are much ahead in influence and numbers in Bengal, the first to set foot in Bengal were those of Suhrawardi order. Sufi saints who came to Bengal in the later period included Moinuddin Chisti, Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kati, Fariduddin Gajan-i-Sakar, Nizamuddin Auliya, Sarafuddin Ali Shah Kalandar, Badiduddin Shah Madar etc. After the Chistis, came the Kalandar and Madaria orders.

Initially, the songs of the Dargas of Nizamuddin and Ajmer Sharif had resemblance to Hindu Kirtan, Vedanta thoughts, and other historic and mythological anecdotes.

The singing and dancing tradition of the Vaishnavas found a parallel in Dervish dance of the Sufis. Vedic thought also influenced Sufi thinkers. In Bengal, Sufi practitioners bridged the gap between Muslim and Hindu rulers. They also liberated poor farmers from the shackles of superstition and orthodoxy.

Bengal’s folk culture, Buddhism and Vaishnavism deeply influenced Sufism in Bengal. Songs introduced by Sufi saints in Bengal flourished in the richness of folk traditions.

Qawwali programmes in India and Pakistan are called Mehfil-e-Sama. These Qawwalis are mostly written in Urdu and Punjabi. But Qawwali is also written in many other Indian languages. Bangla Qawwali is one such variant.

Any mention of Qawwali remains incomplete without the reference of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. As a prisoner of the British, he was deported to Metiabruz in Kolkata, but it could not suppress his love for music and dance. His Kolkata Durbar hosted luminaries of Bengal’s music world, such as Aghornath Chakraborty, Shyamal Goswami and Raichand Boral, to name a few. Famous Qawwals performed at his court. Qawwali thus co-existed with Bengal’s very own Kabi Gaan, Jhumur, Tarja, Akhrai and Half-Akhrai music genres.

Philosophy

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.

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Status

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.

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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.