To begin with, can you tell us about the genre of Qawwali and its origins?
Qawwali is said to have originated from Khwaja Mohinuddin Chisti Ajmeri. In those times, it was called Mehfil-e-Sama, and it was mostly limited to elites and performed behind closed doors. The term ‘Qawwali’ was given by Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. He realised how powerful an instrument this genre was in terms of bringing people closer to the almighty. He requested that Hazrat Amir Khusro prepare a few Qawwals, called the ‘Qawwal bachche’. These were trained by Khusro himself, and took the Qawwali art form to the masses. That’s how Qawwali started.
And we are lucky that our ancestors actually were a part of the ‘Qawwal Bachche’, personally trained by Khusro himself. The tradition of Qawwali has been running since then in our family – that is over 900 years now – and generation after generation we have taken it forward.
What’s the unique thing about the Qawwali genre? What makes it different from other forms such as Khayal, Thumri, etc.?
If a Qawwali is performed the right way, reciting the old Sufi couplets, there’s a very unique and a powerful vibe it generates. When you sit in a ‘Mehfil’, you experience this really good feeling which starts to grow inside you. It all comes from the almighty, when a Qawwali really takes you to a transcendent zone of calm, peace, and tranquillity.
Tell us about your childhood? How were you introduced and initiated into Qawwali?
We consider ourselves really lucky that we belong to a family which has such rich traditions in this art form, dating back almost 900 years. Our grandfather, Padmashri Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi, is the only Qawwal honoured with a title of Padmashree by the Indian government. When we were very little, our grandfather started training us in Hindustani classical music. As we started learning, he would have us sit on stage with him during his performances. That was a great learning experience seeing him perform, also understanding what kind of Qawwali would appeal to which audience. Like this we grew up, first training with our grandfather, then under our father. We gave our first stage performance when we were hardly 11 or 12.
And the tradition of teaching continues in our family. Today, we are teaching the same way to our kids. Since childhood, the atmosphere in the house is of music, and because of the work that our ancestors have put into this, Qawwali comes naturally to us.
Through your childhood, you grew up in an atmosphere completely filled with music. Tell us, what’s your fondest memory related to music from that time?
Yes, definitely. A lot of artists used to visit my dadaji. Big artists like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, Birju Maharaj, Allah Rakha Khan Saab, etc., all had a lot of love and respect for my grandfather and would always make it a point to visit us whenever they were in town. And when they used to come, the atmosphere was really euphoric. Everyone used to be sitting in the hall, and they would sing and play all night.
My grandfather would also have us to sing for them. And we would get a lot of love and blessings from such great artists. Once, Ustad Amir Khan Saab had visited us and, after hearing us sing, he was truly ecstatic. He told our grandfather – ‘Warsi Saab, your grandsons have a gift of ‘Sur’ and ‘Lay’. I know one day, they will bring a lot of name and fame to you. They are going to make you proud’.
These are some really fond memories. Love and blessing from such people are really the reason for our success today. This is what really keeps us going forward.
What are some of your favourite Qawwalis, the ones you enjoy performing the most?
There are a lot of different forms of Qawwalis that we perform, and we try our best that whatever we do perform is liked by people. But if I have to pick something, ‘Sufiana Qawwalis’ are something we truly enjoy performing. Kalams of Hazrat Amir Khusro are our favourites. When we perform Qawwalis like Dum-a-Dum Mast Kalandar, Chhap tilak sab Cheeni, Alla hoo, that’s when it really touches our hearts. And when it touches our hearts, it automatically has an impact on the Mehfil, too.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a Qawwali without clapping in the background. What is its significance in a Qawwali?
Clapping or ‘Taali’ is a really important part of the Qawwali style. The first thing is that it keeps the rhythm in control. But there’s also an art in Taali. With the sounds of clapping, it generates a Sama, or an atmosphere. It’s like creating a circle. When we sing, we derive pleasure from the sounds of Dholak and Tabla players, and when they play, they are enjoying the rhythm created by the Taali. So this creates a circle of pleasure, and that automatically attracts the listeners.
In the end, how do you think the younger generation is adopting this art form? What would be your message for them?
Absolutely, we do a lot of programmes for the youth, visiting a lot of colleges to perform. And I’ve seen when the youngsters listen to Sufiana Qawwali, they really enjoy it. So many times, young college kids have come up to me and said that they really like Sufiana music and Qawwalis. So it’s a big thing that it’s reaching the kids, and they are liking it.
Our only request to today’s generation is to not distance themselves from our music, our heritage. All of our Indian musical forms are truly great, be it Classical, or Ghazal, or Bhajan, or Sufiana – all Hindustani music has immense power and depth. We urge the youth to explore our rich heritage in music.