"Baat Cheet" with Dinesh Khanna - A thought-provoking discussion around the Qawwals and Pilgrims of Nizamuddin Dargah - By Vibha Malhotra

When we decided to visit Anhad for their weekly event titled "Baat Cheet" we weren't really sure what we were signing up for. All that we knew was that eminent photographer Dinesh Khanna will be talking about the Qawwalis at Nizamuddin Auliya's Dargah and also about the pilgrims who visit the Dargah on their way to Ajmer Sharif. We were expecting wonderful things but we weren't prepared to be in the presence of great artists who feel passionately about their art. We weren't prepared for the thought-provoking discussions on the conflicts that arts, especially those that originated for religious reasons, have been facing for the past few generations.

Dinesh presented two videos, both made from still images, that resonated with the audience present. The first video was about the dilemma that Ustad Meraj Ahmed Nizami who is one of the most respected Qawwals today, and his family faced. The video showcased photographs of Qawwals and their audience in different settings. While some shots were from Nizammuddin, others were from parties with youngsters dancing to the tunes of Qawwalis.  And that effectively highlights the conflict that the art is facing.

Qawwali originated as a form of Sufi devotional music and the roots of the present-day Qawwali can be traced back to the late 13th century when Sufi Saint Amir Khusro fused Persian and Indian musical traditions. And since then the art has gone through several changes, including the introduction of Harmonium. There is no doubt that the art been evolving constantly over the centuries. The question that the previous generation of Qawwals faced and that has defined the course of action for the present generation is where to draw the line. While stalwarts like Ustad Meraj Ahmed Nizami never gave in to the lure of wealth and stuck with the traditional methods of Qawwali, others like Ustad Chand have brought Qawwalis to the environments it had never ventured into. Even Ustad Meraj had to make allowances for his sons, who have chosen to endorse popular Qawwali, while still performing traditional Qawwali. And you cannot blame them for this. As per Ustad Meraj's son Saqlain, providing for their next generations is as big a responsibility as keeping the family traditions alive.

The second video showcased photographs of pilgrims who come in buses from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh and stop at Nizamuddin, spending the night there before continuing on to Ajmer Sharif. Dinesh commented on how we often view these people as nuisance even though they really don't put any demand on the city. They spend their night on the streets and move away without taking anything away from the city. And whose city is this anyways. Don't these pilgrims have equal rights on it as us.

After these watching these thought-provoking videos, my mind was full of questions, but I felt too naive to put them forward. I am glad when the same questions were raised by other much more learned members of the audience more eloquently than I could have ever phrased them. Some members of the audience were Qawwals, while others were photographers who had been working with Qawwals and on Qawwalis for several years. There were practitioner of other arts like Kathak, which like Qawwali originated for religious reasons. There were others like me and VJ who preferred to sit back and listen, absorb the immense knowledge being shared so selflessly.

One question raised during the discussion was by eminent Kathak dancer Rachna Yadav who wondered exactly what we should consider as the traditional form of any art. And that's true. All arts, like everything else, are evolving. So what is the traditional form of Qawwali? 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 500 years ago, or 750 years ago when it was performed for the first time. Valid point. And this further made me wonder whether the current transition from traditional to popular Qawwali is also a part of the evolution, or will this change have the potential to cause real damamge to the spirit of Qawwali. Only time will tell. As of now, this change seems to be unstoppable.

Many thanks to Anhad for organizing such interesting sessions. "Baat Cheet" is organized every Wednesday at 6pm. 

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