It is difficult on any workday to navigate the road that leads to Karachi’s Qawwal Gali, located near a shoe market in Garden East area. With its crowded pavements, you can easily miss its five nondescript lanes, each named after a famous qawwal. Living here are many qawwal gharanas – or qawwal clans – whose ancestors migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition.
These gharanas represent a continuation of familial legacy in the music genre which traces its origin to the Sufi musician and poet Amir Khusrau. It was during Khusrau’s time, in 13th century, that Delhi’s Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana first came together and has since produced many noted qawwals. Over the centuries, those affiliated with this gharana have proliferated and many of them now live in Qawwal Gali. Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad; Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers; Subhan Nizami and Brothers; Saami Brothers; Hamza Akram and Brothers; and Taj and Shaad Mohammed Niazi are well-known names in Pakistan’s qawwali music today and are all part of this area’s local community.
Subhan Nizami, who formed his own qawwali group when he was only 18 years old, lives in a derelict house inside a multistorey apartment building on Moin Niazi Qawwal Street. A middle-aged man with alert eyes and a polite, easy smile, he says there are around 250 qawwal groups living in the area, and most of them claim to have descended from the Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana. But, he adds, only a few of them have been able to carve out a name for themselves.
Nizami is sitting in a sparsely furnished room which doubles as a rehearsal space for his group. Photographs of his forefathers and certificates of appreciation adorn the walls. In what seem like recent photographs, Nizami stands with the rest of his troupe in foreign environs. “This was in France,” he says as he points towards it. “We went there recently for a concert.”
Indeed, he has visited France, along with the rest of his group, six times since 2011. “We have had several concerts there on some of the biggest and finest stages. It is strange, those people don’t understand a word of what we say, but they can feel and appreciate our poetic traditions. We have seen them cry during our concerts,” says Nizami’s brother. “It is, indeed, a reaffirmation of our faith in qawwali — that it can have a profound effect on anyone who yearns to seek,” Nizami himself adds.
It is obvious that these trips have opened up a world of opportunities for them. But, what about opportunities here? The two laugh bitterly. “I would probably come off as arrogant if I say this, but very few people help us. Some wonderful individuals and organisations recognise our life’s work; they promote and publicise us but the state has no role to play in any of this,” says Nizami. “Travelling outside of Pakistan has made us feel this [lack of state support] even more. It saddens us to think that in our own country we are not given the same artistic status that is worthy of our trade,” he says. “With our meagre resources, we have taken it upon ourselves to carry forth a tradition, but what do we get in return — nothing,” he adds.
The effort to keep an entire musical tradition alive within limited opportunities has, in the case of his group, necessitated experimentation to bypass the strictly devotional and religious parameters of original qawwali singing. When asked about it, Nizami comes up with a surprisingly pragmatic answer. “Our primary motive is to deliver for our audience. When someone invites us for their pleasure, then it is our responsibility to make sure we give our very best.”
Our gharana has been performing for centuries. We migrated from India during Partition and first settled in Lahore for some time before moving to Karachi,” says Taj Niazi
To cater to audiences that expect a range of experiences – from worldly diversion to spiritual ecstasy – the qawwals must be able to adapt and improvise. Nizami does not see this as a challenge that he cannot surmount. “With the experience of performing for diverse crowds, we have the innate ability to recognise what each crowd wants from us.” He, in fact, deems this as a liberating exercise. “It is fair to say that the more freedom we have, the better we perform.”
A dingy staircase leads up to another rehearsal room. This is inside the house of Taj and Shaad Mohammed Niazi who hail from the Atrauli Gharana of musicians which originated in Atrauli town near Aligarh in India. Moin Niazi Qawwal Street is named after their father; their house and singing style are both reminiscent of his musical achievements. Amid walls decorated with photographs of Moin Niazi and his troupe, they launch into a devotional song, “Man Kunto Maula”, promising a riveting start to the evening.
“Our gharana has been performing for centuries. We migrated from India during Partition and first settled in Lahore for some time before moving to Karachi,” says Taj Niazi. “Our devotion to qawwali and hard work in the genre has been such that, after making a name for ourselves in India, we have done the same in Pakistan.” He takes pride in the fact that the Sindh government recognised his father’s stature by naming the street after him in 1993. “This has never happened in the history of any country,” he says.
Beyond that there is hardly anything for him to be proud of. Niazi is acutely aware of the scarce opportunities in Pakistan and the fierce competition this scarcity generates — the emergence of new qawwali groups and their popularity is clearly a cause for concern for the old guard. For one, it has created an atmosphere in which everyone who belongs to a traditional qawwal gharana feels the need to invoke the triumphs of their ancestors to attract attention. Secondly, qawwali is spawning new experiments, which resemble its quintessential elements only in form — such as qawwali performances for entertainment.
For Niazi such experimentation is not an easy choice. He explains how his group has to travel all over Pakistan to find opportunities to perform at different dargahs. “We mostly perform at Sufi shrines because that is where this gift of qawwali music comes from,” he says. Yet, this travelling does not accrue enough qawwali sessions to meet the financial needs of his group. “We perform at some private gatherings, too,” he says, but rues the fact that those “do not happen as often as we would like”.
Such limitations have serious implications. “We face many hardships. When a lot of time goes by without any paid events, we barely manage to survive on our meagre savings,” says Niazi. He pauses for a moment, before pointing out how lineage sometimes suffocates as much as it puts one above others. “There is nothing else that we can do [as a profession]. Even if we try, it will be looked down upon and will tarnish our family name.”
To him, the solution lies in a government-funded scheme to provide stipends and financial aid to qawwal gharanas. “If we had better financial resources than we do now, we would be performing even better. Look at India today. The artists there are so happy. We feel really left out sometimes.”
Viewed from a rooftop during the day, the entire Qawwal Gali seems to be a godforsaken collection of untidy apartments and their poorly maintained surroundings. But at night, the neighbourhood truly comes to full musical life — with tablas playing, harmoniums accompanying them and apprentices clapping, a hundred alaaps arise from the apartments below. “This street is so alive at night, especially during Ramzan, that you might think that no one ever sleeps here,” says a junior qawwal. “It is nice when this little corner of Karachi is abuzz with so much activity,” he says with a smile.
All photographs are by the author. This was originally published in Herald's August 2015 issue with photographs by Arif Mahmood. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.