Archiving the lives of the faceless qawwals


At the Sufi Kathak Foundation’s Qawwali Photo Project, we are greeted with evocative photographs of qawwals performing at various shrines across the country. From the Nizami brothers to Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, Qawwal Ustad Ranjhan Ali to Dargah Hazrat Bannay Shah in Amritsar, to Qawwal Sarvjeet Tamta at the Shaheen Bagh protest – these images document the lives of “faceless” practitioners of these 700 years. ancient form of art.

Organized by the founder of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, Manjari Chaturvedi, the exhibition attempts to highlight the importance of remembering these artists who have been largely forgotten. “If it hadn’t been for famous qawwals such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bollywood films and Coke Studio, the art form might have been largely unrecognized,” Chaturvedi explains. “This is because qawwali is considered a laid back art form. Even though it is popular, no one knows what qawwalis are, who qawwals are, what they sing; there were no academics related to it. There is only one book on qawwali written by Regula Qureshi, ”she adds.

This is a one-of-a-kind effort to document the intoxicating performances of the qawwals, their lives and their association with the Sufi shrines where they perform. Chaturvedi has worked with the qawwals for 25 years and has documented their lives since then. “While documenting their personal history, they mentioned their grandfathers who were also great qawwals. When I asked them for a photo, they produced a small passport size photo used in ration cards. I would think that a legend of a man is forgotten because it has not been documented. I realized that we weren’t even documenting today’s qawwals. Then we started the Qawwali Photo Project to document the qawwals, ”Chaturvedi said.

Qawwal Saleem Hasan Chisti in Dargah Shaikh Saleem Chisti, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Source: Mustafa Quraishi)

The exhibition, which runs until Sunday at the India International Center, features photographs by Dinesh Khanna, Leena Kejriwal and Mustafa Quraysh. Khanna documents the important shrines of Delhi, Amritsar, Jaipur, Hyderabad, and Ajmer, while Quraishi images tell stories of Dewa Sharif and Safipur and explore Shaheen Bagh’s resistance in Delhi. Kejriwal captures female qawwali performers such as Chancal Bharti who break down the barriers of a largely androcentric tradition.

“The images represent practitioners with their families, in their daily lives and in their interaction with the audience and the pulsating energy connection between them. The qawwals become the voice of the prayers of the hundreds of devotees who crowd into the shrine in search of grace. With this project, we seek to bring out interesting perspectives captured through mind and lens, regarding the cultural and social dimensions of the art form that unfold like the pages of a visual history ” , Chaturvedi.

Sufi Kathak Foundation Qawwali Photo Project, qawwals, qawwali music, qawwali performances, express Indian news Despite the fact that Qawwali as an art form has gained the attention of the Hindi film industry, hundreds of its practitioners in small towns in India go unnoticed, unrecorded. (Source: Dinesh Khanna)

True to its spirit, the exhibit also features a fascinating qawwali performance each evening from practitioners from Delhi and out of the city. The exhibition’s “I am a Qawwal” photo-documentation project brings together a series of images of qawwali practitioners that are either selfies or captured by family and friends. “We think it provides a perspective in which we see them comfortable, in their element, not laying down wood for professional turning. Despite the fact that Qawwali as an art form has gained the attention of the Hindi film industry, hundreds of its practitioners in small Indian towns go unnoticed, unrecorded, unrecognized for their genius and management of our rich heritage, ”she says.

“These musicians come from families where artistic knowledge and practices have been passed on for generations as a precious heritage. Art is how they connect with themselves, their communities, and their sense of spiritual purpose. Technology sometimes dehumanizes the musical form, suppresses the human, and only the sound becomes a memory. This project gives the image to the sounds, the identity to the people who give us incredible music, ”she says.

Another Chaturvedi initiative in which practitioners talk about their performance art, their life and their association with spiritual art is the Qawwali capsules, where practitioners speak. This is focused on small town musicians who practice their art among people in an organic, non-commercial setting.

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