Ghazal and Qawwali: The Gifts of Rumi, Khusro and Ghalib

Yes, there is truth to the idea that Ghazals and Qawwalis are the passions of the old.

Despite my limited proficiency in Urdu and my complete ignorance of the intricate differences between the different forms, I have seized the few chances I have had to attend such gatherings. Each time I have been surrounded mostly by the older generations.

I think this may be partly due to the frequent use of complex Urdu or Punjabi poetry which is difficult for the generally linguistically-challenged generations of today – myself included. It could also be because there is a greater focus on the lyrical value of the words sung, rather than simply emphasising repetitive foot-tapping musical numbers which appeal so much to the mainstream. But mostly, I think it is because of the deeper existential and melancholic themes that dominate the poetry – which appeal to older people who have perhaps had the gift to reflect on the past experiences in their lives, unlike the naive and inexperienced younger generations.

Even the deceptively simple poetry written by relatively modern poets like Nasir Kazmi and sung by Khalil Haider – another personal favourite of mine – is reflective, melancholic and contain deep existential truths within them. This is seen as dreary, depressing and alien to many younger people who may be limited in their experiences of life and would naturally prefer happy go lucky songs.

Now I’ve made myself sound old in physical age, when I’m actually not.

But I will proudly confess to having an old reflective soul with love for nostalgia and everything soulful, as well as a child-like curiosity that has survived the contamination of adulthood. Yes, a catchy beat still gets me going, but the sheer depth of transcendental love, pain and beauty that can be expressed in a few verses of a Ghazal or Qawwali and the powerful evocative emotions it invokes within me are simply incomparable.

Thankfully, the world is still blessed with singers, who with their god-gifted earthy and rustic voices and musical talents to beautifully express those very universal emotions of yearning, loss, and suffering in love – whether that is human love, or the mystical intoxicating love for the Divine that is the underlying metaphorical inspiration for much of the poetry.

This is why listening to such poignant verses have spoken to my soul from a young age and leave me with goose bumps every time. In fact, their survival has depended on singers who have cherished and preserved the art form by advancing it through the lineages of their families for hundreds of years.

The roots of all this beauty go back to the poetic traditions of masters like Rumi and Mirza Ghalib whose spiritual love poetry have been major lyrical influences for Ghazals. However, many other poets and their poetry are also used in Ghazal and Qawwali compositions, depending on the singer and composer’s tastes.

The great poet Amir Khusro, whose tomb lies to Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, is credited with blending the Persian, Arabic and Indian musical traditions to produce the Qawwali form.  It will come as no surprise then, that devotional Qawwalis are still performed regularly at the dargahs (shrines) of revered men such as Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Auliya and Khwaja Chisti.

Nizamuddin Dargah

Nizamuddin Dargah

Someday, I too hope to be there experiencing this communal expression of love for the Divine.

In the meantime, I’m always on the lookout for great Ghazal and Qawwali singers, a few days ago I came across a man named Munnawar Masoom on YouTube. After being left awestruck by his sublime rendition of ‘Bismillah’ with Kailash Kher, I discovered another Qawwali sung by him in Urdu – the source of the poetry is unknown to me as of yet and the English translation is based on my limited understanding of it!

Here are some verses from it:

Dushman Ko Mere Rakhna Salaamat

(A prayer to God, Keep my enemy safe from all calamities)

Warna Mere Marne Ki Dua Kaun Karega

(Otherwise who will pray for my death)


Jaati Hui Mayyat Ko Rukhwa Ke Ye Bole

(I stopped the moving corpse in the funeral procession and said)

Thehro, Kahaan Jaate Ho? Wafaa Kaun Karega?

(Wait, where are you going? Who after you will show this type of loyalty toward me?)