A Qawwal’s Journey: Exploring Identity and Passion Through Photography

The experience of a Qawwali performance is unique. You see someone clapping to the beats. Another might be harmonising with the lead singer. Strangers sway to the music and somehow feel connected. There is a sense of unity yet everyone simultaneously vibes in their own way. Between the fragrance of rose petals and the surreal energy radiating from the music, you no longer remain merely a listener but become a part of the melody.

Qawwals are humble artists. At most shrines, they sit in open spaces with their instruments and just devote themselves to the music. People are drawn to them. They evoke spirituality and soulfulness in every being around them. That’s the power of a good Qawwal. They transform lyrics from utterances to experiences that stay with you. However, people don’t always grant them the acknowledgement they deserve. Qawwali is a part of our heritage but the collective legacy of Qawwals has remained unrecorded.

Reflecting upon the same, The Sufi Kathak Foundation has just launched its exhibition, ‘The Qawwali Photo Project,’ at Museo Camera Centre for Photographic Arts, Gurgaon. Conceptualised by Manjari Chaturvedi, this is the first project that has aimed to visually document the artists, Qawwals, who are the soul of this passionate art form. The photographs shall be on display until May 8, 2022.

Photo: Dinesh Khanna/The Qawwali Photo Project

The exhibition is a culmination of the work of three photographers, Dinesh Khanna, Mustafa Quraishi and Leena Kejriwal, who have captured the artists performing at various locations across India, including the shrines in Delhi, Amritsar, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Ajmer, and Fatehpur Sikri amongst others. They have not only channelled the energy of the performers but have also captured the Qawwals with their families which gives us an insight into their daily lives.

“We don’t know enough about our history,” says Chaturvedi. “Unlike other spaces in art where artists and their work are known synonymously, qawwals often go uncredited because people don’t always pay attention to who is singing. I used to meet many qawwals and started interviewing them. They used to tell me about their ancestors and how this skill is passed down from one generation to the next, almost like an heirloom. But they had no photographs of their elders. If any, they were random pictures like a clipping from a ration card and that’s unfortunate. They were masters of their art and deserved proper recognition,” she added.

Placing their faces with their music is an attempt to help reclaim the lost identities of qawwals. This subtly expands the attention of the listener from just enjoying the music to appreciating the artists that bring the music to them. “We wanted to explore who the qawwals really are. What goes on behind the scenes of a performance? How do they do their rehaas? How do they teach the next generation? That’s where we have taken this and that’s the kind of thing that has never been done before,” says Khanna.

When you start exploring individual stories, you uncover various nuances within the community. You see beyond the connotations and stereotypes that are associated with them. “I never really associated Qawwali with Punjab but Manjari introduced me to a qawwal named Ranjhan Ali who is a Muslim. He sings qawwali in Punjabi because a lot of his work is inspired by Bulleh Shah. He performs in Dargahs around Punjab which since partition have been looked after by Sardars. Qawwali has a certain basic core which is Sufism. As far as the philosophy is concerned it worships the almighty. The way it is performed has a lot to do with the individual performers, the languages they speak and where they are brought up. The qawwali that is performed in Hyderabad would be somewhat different from how it is performed in Jaipur or Delhi. That’s what makes it so interesting. The kind of audience that you get is not from one religion or region,” adds Khanna.

Photo: Mustafa Quraishi/The Qawwali Photo Project

Traditionally, Qawwali performances have largely remained a patriarchal space. In recent years, women have begun exploring the art form and creating their own space within the community. In Kejriwal’s series, she has explored how women participate by interacting with a few groups. “I tried to capture their sensitivity and what they bring to the table. I could sense that it was very internalised and meditative, almost like a bhakti route rather than a performance for the women I met. It is also so for many males but the energy was very different,” says Kejriwal.

There is a certain duality to Qawwali. Some view it purely as an art form that brings them the best of classical music while some see it as a medium for them to offer their prayers. While it serves different purposes for different individuals, it is important to understand its significance within the space of cultural heritage. “It is a dying art form that isn’t receiving the kind of backing that it needs. Most qawwals are not financially very well off. Only 5-6 people who are good at marketing themselves are able to make a living out of this. Especially during the pandemic, most did not have any money so they started taking small initiatives like selling vegetables alongside performing qawwali. We did arrange sustenance money for many families but there are many more that need support,” says Quraishi.

We often don’t realise that there is an entire community that is taking efforts to keep an art form alive. They own it with great passion, pride and devotion. They identify with the music. It’s how they connect with their culture. The Qawwali Photo Project has a special section titled, ‘I am a Qawwal’, that displays self-documented images of qawwals from across the country. Each one dressed up according to their style and clicked themselves in places they liked. They chose how they wanted to be remembered. While creating an identity for a group, an external perspective can give insight but this is where true representation takes shape.

“I have been working on enhancing the understanding of Qawwali for around 25 years now. I hope this project triggers other forms of documentation also. Many cultures need to be captured. It shall benefit the artforms,” says Chaturvedi.

The project is currently ongoing and the organisers have an intention to expand their coverage.

Ashima Pargal is a recent journalism graduate with a keen interest in pop culture, Indian heritage, and creative storytelling.

Featured Image: Leena Kejriwal/The Qawwali Photo Project