Temperatures were soaring in the middle of Ramzan but the crowd that gathered for Amjad Farid Sabri’s funeral in Karachi’s Liaquatabad area on June 23, 2016 swelled up to tens of thousands. Mourners thronged around the ambulance carrying his body, showering it with rose petals. Businesses in Liaquatabad – his birthplace and also his final resting place – as well as in the neighbouring Nazimabad area remained closed that day.
The mourners grieved the loss of a friend, a neighbour, a national icon brutally gunned down a day earlier. Sabri was travelling by car from his home to a television studio when two gunmen on a motorcycle pulled up alongside his vehicle and opened fire. Hit by three bullets, he died before reaching the hospital.
A few hours earlier, he was live on national television reciting a prayer during the pre-dawn transmission. “When I am alone and afraid in my grave, come and help me, O Prophet of God / Light my grave with your presence,” he sang and started weeping. Others present on the set wept along with him.
One of the most recognisable faces of qawwali in recent years, Sabri was buried next to the graves of his father Ghulam Farid Sabri and uncle Maqbool Ahmed Sabri — the duo remembered as the legendary Sabri Brothers. Born in what is now the Indian state of Haryana and belonging to the Sabriya branch of the Chishti Sufi order, they came to Pakistan after Partition, settled in Karachi and became associated with the shrine of Baba Farid Ganj Shakar in Pakpattan town of Punjab. They went on to become the first Pakistani qawwali troupe to enjoy a large fan following both within the country and abroad.
The Sabri Brothers infused qawwali with glamour and created tunes and compositions that helped this traditional Sufi genre to break free of its shrine-centred spirituality to become a part of popular culture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Those politically and socially pulsating years provided them with a perfect backdrop for their bold experimentation with qawwali — using verses written by contemporary poets rather than those by Sufi luminaries such as Ameer Khusrau, mixing classical devotional poetry with romantic poems in different languages and donning rock star looks with flowing locks, skewed caps and colourfully embroidered clothes. Qawwali suddenly became cool.
At the zenith of their career, their famous qawwali, Tajdar-e-Haram, could be heard bellowing from trucks plying the roads as well as at tea stalls and eateries all over Pakistan. The cassette and tape recorder revolution that hit Pakistan when the first wave of migrant workers brought home fancy electronic gadgets from Arab countries unfolded just at the right time for the Sabri Brothers.
By the late 1980s, however, their star started fading due to a changed political and cultural climate. But when Amjad Fareed Sabri started singing qawwali in the latter half of the 2000s, he first tried to attract fans of his father and uncle by emulating and often imitating the duo single-handedly. The mushrooming private television channels and their religious and musical programming helped him stay in the arena with almost no original qawwali to his credit.
He was able to carve a niche for himself among television audiences by keeping alive his family’s artistic legacy, and through his own amiable and pleasant personality. He could be seen performing at morning broadcasts and even at game shows.
The medium that made him popular is also alleged to have contributed to his demise: Sabri got caught in a feud between rival television channels in 2014. A populist television host blamed him and others doing a morning show for Geo Television Network of committing blasphemy by performing a qawwali in inappropriate circumstances. Sabri is said to have been killed because of those allegations — a little known splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed credit or blame for his murder precisely for that reason. Many remain sceptical even though there are hardly any other reasons for his assassination that appear plausible or probable.
None of Sabri’s brothers or cousins are known qawwals and his own children are too young to immediately follow in his footsteps. With his death, the curtain seems to have fallen on a great legacy.
This was originally published in the Herald's July 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.