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Pioneering Book

Partho Datta

By Regula Burckhardt Qureshi
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2005, pp. 265, Rs. 595.00


This book has been in print for almost thirty years and it is a tribute to Regula Burckhardt Qureshi and her pathbreaking account of qawwali that she has had such a loyal readership in India and Pakistan, the home of this pre-eminent form of sufi music. Qawwali together with ghazal and khyal was one of the genres of music to be recorded on 78rpm discs from the early decades of the twentieth century. From the 1950s qawwali was also widely used in Hindi films giving it an audience and reach of the commercially popular song. In fact the setting of Hindi film qawwali is usually romantic, a pretext for the hero and heroine to sing coyly to each other which obscures the fact that traditional qawwali is sung mainly in a dargah and is a deeply religious experience. The latest (and notorious) example of transformed qawwali in Hindi film is the hit song “Kajara Rey” from “Bunty and Babli”. However there also existed patrons who often organized qawwali performances during Holi to mark the advent of spring, but such occasions have more or less gone out of fashion.   Burckhardt’s book with its formidable scholarship and academic rigour is an ethnography of qawwali as performance in sufi shrines in north India especially Delhi. There are very detailed descriptions and analyses of the qawwali experience (in which only men are allowed to participate), the repertoire of singers, the nature of the music and most importantly its place in sufi practice. The author reminds us that for centuries Sufi communities have sustained this musical tradition in the mahfil-i-sama (the assembly of listening) and it was through this act of listening that the sufi sought to activate his link with his spiritual guide, departed saints and ultimately god. Qureshi’s larger goal is systematic ethnomusicological enquiry which she defines as “establishing the meaning or significance of musical sound in terms of its social use and cultural function”. She asks: “How does qawwali, the music, articulate with qawwali, its context of performance? Or, in other words, how does qawwali musical sound become meaningful outside itself?” (p.5). She writes that qawwali embodies the ideology of Sufism and this in turn acts as a driving force for the performance. Interestingly she also demonstrates how this music affirms traditional social structures which at the same time promotes individual self-assertion. Qawwali she suggests provides a crucial entry into ...

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