Not qawwali enough

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Ranbir Kapoor and Imitiaz Ali at Nizamuddin Durgah during the promo of Rockstar
Ranbir Kapoor and Imitiaz Ali at Nizamuddin Durgah during the promo of Rockstar

It is the yearly held ‘Urs’ at Nizamuddin Durgah — a week long celebration of Khwaja Nizammudin Auliya’s death anniversary. The Nizamu Bandhu, the qawwals of the dargah, are almost celebrities now. Even if you are not a regular at the Thursday qawwali sessions, you may have seen them before — in Imtiaz Ali’s 2011 film Rockstar. And again in a scene from the Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Their fame is well deserved — they are veterans after all.

However, today, they look a little tired. One among them yawns as they pull off a mellow but slightly complicated track for what appears to be a more urban audience assembled at the Sufi shrine. The track is “Kun Faya Kun” from Rockstar.

The Nizami Bandhu were the model for the qawwali scene in Ali’s movie. It is while performing with the qawwali troupe that Ranbir Kapoor, the film’s protagonist, hones his musical talent and gets in touch with his ‘soulful’ side. Through the song, the Bollywood film managed to present this qawwali model for a more generic audience.

Faya Kun” is indeed a beautiful composition but it was made in the studio keeping in mind a target audience. Its aesthetic aspects are defined by the relationship of art and its consumer. AR Rahman, the song’s composer, successfully managed to integrate both the qawwali and the Bollywood aesthetic for the song. It also combined Rahman’s trademark soulful refrains with singer Mohit Chauhan’s ‘commercial music’ friendly voice. The end result was a subjective representation of qawwali in the song.

Now, once in a while, the Nizami Bandhu treat a more Bollywood aware audience gathered at the Durgah to a “Faya kun” or a “Khwaja mere khwaja” (the other famous Bollywood sufi qawwali by Rahman). They, with their unquestionable talent, do justice to both the tracks. Except, they don’t quite appear to be in their element while singing these Bollywood qawwali’s.

Although a part of the audience at the dargah looks enthralled, it seems to come at the expense of the rawness, spontaneity and ‘power’ of the qawwali that is the Nizami Bandhu’s forte. “In filmy qawwaliyon mein wo qawwali ki jaan nahin rehti (these filmy songs do not embody the spirit of the original qawwali),” says a young man sitting next to me during the performance.

Such an analysis may be branded romantic but having heard the Nizamuddin qawwals at their best, I couldn’t help noticing the difference between the two performances (the Bollywood qawwali and the ‘other’).

The qawwals take a break after performing the film inspired tracks. They are conversing with each other about the next round of performance. More musicians join them for the second round and they open with a powerful refrain. It catches the attention of most gathered at the dargah. They have resumed their style of qawwali and now, it feels like the punch of its vocabulary and potent assertion is back.