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Karachi – Cultured Once More

Reclaiming life

Some diehard Karachiites have taken it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This is how they go about it

Reclaiming life

Karachi’s population in the latest census may be debatable but its status as a megacity remains undisputed. Matching the size, Karachi’s problems have been equally gigantic and complicated — ethnic clashes, gang wars, conflict, governance issues, a decaying infrastructure and a population size that has the city bursting at the seams.

In all of this, Karachi’s diverse and vibrant culture seemed as if dying out. Till some diehard Karachiites took it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This has all happened in the last decade or so.

“For almost three decades, Karachi has suffered unmitigated violence,” says Ambareen Main Thompson, Executive Director Society of I AM KARACHI (IAK). “A breakdown of law and order and the brutality of political and commercial mafias meant that both public spaces were lost and the public narrative was taken over by hate, divisiveness and intolerance.”

Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.

“There’s also this culture of disconnect with the past that some of the organisations and movements are attempting to bridge,” says Rumana Husain who has authored two books on Karachi and is one of the people on the forefront of the present cultural revitalisation.

It was almost one hundred and fifty years ago that the British made Karachi the centre of military, administration, trade and culture, she says. “The city has continued to be competitive and dynamic, and there are many-layered cultures within it, which emanate from its multi-cultural population.”

As someone who has been part of cultural initiatives like IAK, Children’s Literature Festival, Badal Do! Movement and Citizens Against Weapons, Husain acknowledges the surge in Karachi’s cultural activities. “One of the most significant initiatives in this regard was taken by the government, when General Pervez Musharraf established the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in 2005 and appointed the legendary Zia Mohyeddin to head it. A number of actors, director and musicians have been trained by NAPA, and they have fed the burgeoning entertainment industry of Karachi.”

Thompson recalls that in 2013, when the situation in the city improved somewhat, the Karachi Youth Initiative (KYI) was launched which sought to engage the youth in more constructive and healthy activities as an alternate to violence and extremism. “It was from this that IAK was born in 2015 where civil society stalwarts like Jamil Yousuf, Amin Hashwani , Shahid Firoz, Sheema Kirmani, Ghazi Salahuddin, Rumana Hussain, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and others came together to take ownership of this platform as its founding members.”

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IAK is a city-wide collaborative movement initiated by concerned citizens and civil society organisations of Karachi. It has provided a hub to promote socio-cultural activities and uses arts, culture, sports and dialogue as tools for conflict resolution and peace-building. “IAK works to change hate narratives, to reclaim public spaces, to build peace and tolerance and, most importantly, to channel youth to alternate narratives,” says Thompson. “Its programmes are all apolitical, areligious neutral forums where excellence and personal initiative and interest are the only criteria for inclusion.”

One of IAK’s most prominent initiatives has been the Walls of Peace initiative that worked on replacing negative graffiti-covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values, such as peace, tolerance and diversity. This was done in partnership with Vasl Artists Collective. Some 2000 walls across Karachi were cleaned and painted, engaging with 30,000 children to produce artwork for the walls of 2017.

One of the initiatives that served to resuscitate Karachi’s cultural activities is, no doubt, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) that was launched in 2010. While in the beginning, it was more limited to the literati, it is now a more mainstream event and many Karachiites see this as a positive sign. Forums like The 2nd Floor (T2F), among others, have given Karachiites spaces to talk, reflect and connect.

Read also: An ode to Lyari 

“Cultural activities, historically, required patronage of the elite — the rulers, the royalty, the nobles and the rich. Only in recent years, and especially after the industrial revolution, has culture become more democratic,” says Roland De Souza of Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment. The organisation was formed in 1988 by concerned citizens to create a platform where Karachiites could come together and raise their voices regarding the city’s neglected living environment and ways to improve the same.

While Shehri has focused more on Karachi’s environment, its aims include creating a healthy and secure physical and social environment for the citizens. “The proliferation of cultural activities needs a certain amount of quiet and peace,” adds de Souza.

While an improvement in the general security conditions may have helped these initiatives, private initiatives can only go so far. “Despite every effort, none of the aforementioned initiatives can come close to what the government machinery can do in this regard. The funds, the resources, the (wo)man-power that the government has at its disposal isn’t comparable to any of the private initiatives,” says Husain. “Nevertheless, all those act as balm for the wounded soul of this blemished city.”

Much needs to be done despite so many efforts by the civil society. “Since green spaces are now less than 3 per cent of Karachi, community centres, such as T2F, Pakistan Chowk, the Grid and the TDF Ghar are all havens. In a city of 27 million, there is but one arts council and three theatre stages today compared to 11 in 1991. Of the parks that exist, many are locked and out of reach for the general public,” says Thompson.

Masuma Halai Khwaja of Karachi Biennale (KB) says that while the KB has had logistic support from the bureaucracy, the police and the LEAs (law enforcement agencies), they didn’t have any financial support. Also, the ‘go aheads’ are tough, she says, “sometimes due to red-tapism, and at other times because exhibiting certain art exhibits at public spaces is an expensive proposition and is not an opportunity these initiatives get for free.

“But it is very true that Karachi’s overall security situation has helped in this resurge as people are finding it safer to work on the streets.”

The KB17 programme is currently underway and Khwaja says the response from the public has been phenomenal. Seeing artists, and Karachiites in general reclaim public spaces, “I am very hopeful about the future”.

In Husain’s opinion, “if the Sindh government could inject life in the few existing libraries in the city, set up small reading rooms and lending libraries, raise a few cinema houses on the ashes of the old ones, the masses could also enjoy some cheap but quality entertainment, as the multiplexes in shopping malls are an expensive outlet, only suited for the moneyed minority.

“Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.”

For Karachiites, that is the hope they cling on to.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/reclaiming-life/#.Wfgx-WiCzIV

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CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

Corporate culture, humane or not?

Deadlines, pressures, one meeting at the heel of another, unforgiving targets, coupled with the constant need to prove one’s self…Welcome to life in the corporate world.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/corporate-culture-humane/#.WQ7BI-klE1m

 

Corporate culture, humane or not?

The money is good. The future is promising. But the pressures are incessant. Pakistan’s corporate sector is teeming with newbie 20-somethings who feel once they have entered the big bad corporate world, they have it all figured out and their future is secure.

Yet, the irksome nitty gritty of corporate culture and the price one eventually pays is something they may not have anticipated. Experts and senior management grapple with how to create a healthy workplace culture. Counselling sessions with experts of organisational psychology help.

Yet, in organisations where the silos mentality, red-tapism, closed-door policies and put-me-down attitudes exist, the culture is far from healthy. Life in the corporate world is a tight-rope walk. If you make it to the other side intact, you must have played your cards right or you are plain lucky.

Experts differ on how and if the goal of healthy organisational culture may be achieved.

“When an employer hires someone freshly out of school, the business has to be humane enough to recognise that. We have to understand that the purpose of a business is to improve the quality of life of all stakeholders. So you need to ask your employee ‘what are your dreams and how can we can help you fulfil them’. It’s not about manipulating; it’s about enabling,” says Maqsood Babri, better known as Max, a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist who facilitates healing of individuals and organisations.

Enabling is the opposite of being exploitative, but more often than not, employees fall into the rut of being exploitative due to the number games like Key Performance Indicators (KPI). “Targets are the worst thing; they push a person towards achieving numbers instead of quality,” adds Max. Numbers come at a cost; often, the cost is the well-being of the employee and the organisation.

At the end, there isn’t much in the employees’ control. At the most, what can be mitigated is negativity and interpersonal friction through counselling. “However the counselling need not be mandatory,” says Max, adding that the management needs to work on creating a congenial and inclusive workplace environment – both physical and psycho-social.

“There are people and there are people,” explains Sarfaraz Rehman, in light of his experience both as a former CEO and a present-day consultant and executive coach. Talking of those at the top, he divides them into kinds. “You will always find those who are adept at delegating and so spread the work pressure. Then there are others who are very political and find ways to spread the blame of performance; this is a significant percentage. That is one way of dealing with pressure. There are also those leaders who are bold and iconic. They do not take the pressure of unreal expectations and keep a balance, but also reach for the stars.”

However, the price must be paid. Sometimes one’s inner self, at other times one’s family, and often both suffer at the hands of the demanding work whirlpool. In Sarfaraz Rehman’s opinion, what suffers most is one’s family. “In most CEOs’ case, they are the biggest affectees. Travel is a killer. Years spent at airports and in hotels — it damages health. The children and the spouse take the brunt,” he says.

Known for his leadership skills, Rehman is one for building teams. “I have disliked parts of corporate culture all my life. But I have been blessed with the understanding of people. I know how to make them gel and tick and be inspired and driven. Long ago, I left the need to do things myself, and built teams around me, who, for whatever reason, have been ready to die for a cause I have put in front of them. That has helped in allaying work stress.”

The key, then, lies in the leadership giving employees a sense of ownership, and for that they have to be treated as allies and not target-oriented humanoids who lose their unique abilities. 

Pressed for time all the time is a good way to describe life in the corporate world. The deadlines, pressures, one meeting at the heel of another, and unforgiving targets, coupled with the constant need to prove one’s self, is no mean game.

“The stresses start affecting you once you have a family. Till you are single, the effect doesn’t really kick in. In the corporate world, there are no short cuts. In any good company, it is given that the magnitude of work is a lot, and they will take the work of four people from two,” says Kahkashan Sayied, an HR Consultant with three decades of experience, who describes herself as someone who wants it all, and is willing to work hard for it. Her association with the corporate sector has been worth it she says “because there have been challenges but also rewards”.

The pressure, she explains, increases as you climb up the rungs of the corporate ladder. “People think the involvement is just 9 to 5. It is not.” However, she has made it work. She says that one can balance work life [with personal life], but the key is to be very, very organised and follow a routine at every. “The stations of your life also keep changing with time. You needn’t be regimental, but spontaneity can be afforded only on the weekends, and surprises are not welcome.”

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However, the price must be paid. Sometimes one’s inner self, at other times one’s family, and often both suffer at the hands of the demanding work whirlpool. In Rehman’s opinion, what suffers most is one’s family. “In most CEOs’ case, they are the biggest affectees. Travel is a killer. Years spent at airports and in hotels — it damages health and also takes the edge off living. The children and the spouse take the brunt,” he says.

He adds that this leads to loneliness, which may lead to infidelity. “But executives won’t talk about it. Many are very lonely in travel and this leads to untoward actions in far-off hotel rooms in strange cities. Those who don’t, have learnt to bear this pain and loneliness, and reconcile to a life on the road. It takes a huge toll and it isn’t worth it. Years later, your body in its cry for help will tell you that you have misused it,” he says.

With a lopsided focus on work, the incentive of reward can lead to greed. “If an employee is offered 10 per cent of the salary on their trip, that is what the focus will become. In that process, you miss out on the childhood of your children. It means your spouse has to take care of the home front while you are gone. The freedom that you are gaining is coming at the cost of someone being imprisoned,” says Max.

The quality of life is the time we get for ourselves and our families. It is something one has to be constantly cognisant of. But the plump pay cheque and the buzz of the corporate world that makes one feel indispensable blurs the lines and clouds the vision.

In Max’s opinion, this is one reason why there needs to be more than one breadwinner per family in a country like Pakistan where unemployment is common, so that no one has to do overtime, which consequently affects quality of life.

The impact is not just on the family but also on one’s own well-being. Yumna Usmani, a counsellor and trainer, says that some employees show signs of stress through symptoms like general unhappiness, easy and frequent agitation, bouts of anger, isolation, low energy, and a lack of interest in challenging tasks. In her opinion, the reasons for this “are usually a lack of control over the job, being overly pressed for time, not being able to consult, poor relationship with a colleague, or personal and professional insecurities”.

“The role of a psychologist at such a point is to provide counselling to the overwhelmed individual. Through counselling you can clear the clouded senses, calm the agitation, and revive the energy,” says Usmani.

However, many, over time, learn how to balance the elements. “Pressure in itself is not necessarily bad. It can help us to excel. But being in a constantly stressful situation can be unhealthy and counterproductive,” says Amin Hashwani, businessman, social activist, and author of the visual poetry book Untouched Octaves.

Hashwani feels it is essential to have the ability to step back from a situation to take a 30,000 feet view and to put things in a broader context. “Meditating regularly since early age has helped me tremendously to cope with stressful situations and always view the positive side of life. It prevents me from being reactive or judgemental and help me realise that everything happens for the better.”

Taking out time for one’s self is profoundly important. “During counselling, I highlight the importance of time for self: regular breaks, making friends, breaking of projects into small steps and not withholding seeking help when needed,” says Usmani.

Sayied still finds time for political activism and dog-earing books as avid readers do every night, and advises that one must not forget to focus on one’s own happiness and well-being. “You have to monitor your food pattern, exercise regularly, sleep adequately and stay happy if you want to survive. But by happiness I don’t mean euphoria. I mean contentment.”

Hashwani echoes her sentiment and says, “Sports and exercise help remove the emotional toxicity we normally build up during the course of a day and get the positive chemicals running in our streams”.

The world has begun to wake up to the damages of emotionally and physically burnt-out employees. Thus, newer concepts like flexible hours and agile working have caught up, as has the idea of lesser working hours and a definite two-day weekend at least.

“I don’t see anything wrong with your life revolving around your work. But you have to love your work,” says Saiyed. 

With most people working in the corporate sector spending 12 to 14 hours every day at work, the ambience is extremely important – both physically as well as in terms of the culture and values of the organisation. Jargonised conversation, presentation-after-presentation and incessant meetings may help give a pretentious semblance of a conducive environment, but may actually breed a culture of selfishness where everyone is just watching out for their own interests. These attitudes often trickle down from the top.

Sunlit spaces with ventilation affect efficiency positively. Max even gauges the health of a business environment through what he calls a cliché. “If the toilets in an office are not wonderfully maintained, it means the organisation is not doing well. It shows that you have not been able to educate or motivate your employees enough.”

If walls are broken down, synergies can actually work between individuals and departments. “I laugh a lot deliberately. Many would think it’s frivolous but it’s a defensive wall. It leads me to feel that failure is not that big a deal. So I laugh, I share and I act casual — it makes the world lighter and easier during failure,” says Rehman, explaining how he created a comfortable and positive work environment as a team leader.

“No one thinks I am a Sahib or a big deal. This carefully nurtured image of Sarfaraz Rehman, the humble, laughing, caring friend, helps create ordinariness which in turn reduces expectations and stress,” he concludes.

Qawwal Gali after Amjad Sabri

Farahnaz Zahidi July 24, 2016

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/qawwal-gali-sabri/#.V5RfIfkrLIU

The palpable fear after Sabri’s murder in the historic neighbourhood in Karachi and much more

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Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals. — Photos by Faisal Sayani

The atmosphere in Qawwal Gali is uncharacteristically subdued since Amjad Farid Sabri’s life was snuffed out prematurely. “I knew him from the time when I called him Ummi and he called me Saifee, and we were just young boys, not Amjad Sabri qawwal and Saifuddin qawwal. I still cannot believe he is no more,” says Sabri’s friend, Saifuddin Qawwal, still shaken weeks after his death.
Waves of fear after Amjad Sabri’s murder in broad daylight have reverberated 9 kilometer south from the late qawwal’s residence in Liaquatabad to Qawwal Gali, the historic neighbourhood in Karachi where the clans of the famous Qawwal Bachay reside. Yet, these custodians of the Qaul refuse to shift to more affluent or safer residential localities of the city. “This is not just our area. It is our tradition. Our lifestyle.”
Karachi’s Qawwal Gali is the collective name given to a group of five streets, named after five renowned Qawwals: Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Moeen Niyazi Qawwal, Kallan Khan Qawwal, Jaafar Hussain Nizami Qawwal and Bahauddin Qawwal. Between 80 to a 100 families of qawwals reside in these streets near the Shoe Market area. They safeguard a tradition that travels back to almost 800 years, when their ancestor Miyan Saamat learnt this spiritual musical art form from Hazrat Ameer Khusro, the 13th century Sufi musician, poet and scholar. Popularised versions of the unforgettable and powerful poetry of Ameer Khusro, like “Chaap tilak sub cheen” and “Mun kunto maula”, have trickled down to Pakistani masses, who get a feel of spirituality through these renditions. But the hub of the original, undiluted art is the Qawwal Gali. These families have been guarding these compositions over the centuries, and their entire lifestyles are moulded to fulfill the responsibility of keeping alive a tradition they see as almost sacred.
While Sabri was not a Qawwal Bacha, a shared tradition and profession has led to lasting bonds between all networks of Karachi’s qawwals. In the wake of his death, all of them, too, are overcast by fear. The qawwal Gali in downtown Karachi, then, is ironically the one place that they feel safe in. “It is our sanctuary. Fear is nothing new to us. Staying here is our only survival,” says Saifuddin, who is an important member of the Najmuddin Saifuddin Qawwal Brothers ensemble.
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”

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The fear factor is not just about safety; they also fear their younger generation will get lost in the contemporary world and lose out on this art they see as a divine gift. Their offspring, with increasing exposure to the outside world, do express the desire to move out towards better areas. “But we explain to them how important it is for us to stay here,” says Saifuddin.
“Our community has a lot of unity. Our joys and sorrows are shared. There are certain cultural traditions we live by. We would not survive elsewhere and neither would our art,” says Rauf Saami, the eldest son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, and part of the Saami Brothers ensemble of Qawwals.
Rauf does not believe in coercing his children into this profession, but wishes that this ilm (knowledge) does not die out. “But times have changed. I’m realistic.”
Qawwal-Gali-004
The work of qawwals is very nocturnal in nature. “Our work is at night. We leave home early evening and return around twilight. The more posh parts of Karachi are not alive during night time. Can you imagine what neighbours of Karachi’s affluent parts would think if 12 men are entering a house every day at 4am?” says Saifuddin.
The Qawwal Gali does not go to sleep. Its residents sleep during the mornings and are up and about in the evenings. The chai dhabas never close. The riyaz (musical practice) never stops. The hustle and bustle never dies out.
“While we are away, whether for performances at night or during our frequent travels outside Karachi, we are at peace that our families are safe. Here, everyone watches out for each other’s families, despite professional rivalry.”
Rauf echoes that sentiment. “We don’t only look out for other qawwals but also for our supporting members of the ensembles. We are there for each other whenever we need each other.”
The qawwali business is seasonal in nature, and the flow of money can be ad hoc. The community also supports each other in lean times when the earning is limited. In such times, they pay each other’s hospital bills and children’s school fee.
The women of Qawwal Gali are the biggest support for their men. “The women of our households do not have any complaints. They understand the demands of our profession,” says the 26 years old Toqeer Ahmed, who belongs to the Khurja Gharana’s Nohar Bani branch. Their ancestral lineage are one of the first things they learn, but their women’s names are not registered in those lists, neither are they allowed to sing. Till today, a majority of the qawwals marry within their families.
“My nikah is to be held soon,” shares Toqeer with a smile. The match was fixed within his family, “but my choice was also considered. This is a big decision. How can it be done without my choice?”
When asked if he is ever tempted to leave this profession or Qawwal Gali, Toqeer’s answer is a vehement no. “This profession is our recognition; we must protect the tradition our ancestors left us with. I started learning this art at the age of seven.”
In Toqeer’s opinion, if the Qawwals try their hand at any other profession, it would take them hundreds of years to make a mark.
“Why should we lose out on the honour and respect this profession has given me? And as for the Qawwal Gali, it is the only place in the world I feel I am me. It is my identity.”
In true Qawwal Gali-esque style, Saifuddin sums it up by reciting this couplet in Urdu:
Apnay markaz se agar door nikal jaao ge
Khaak ho jaao ge, afsaanon mein dhall jaao ge…
(If you wander away from your pivot,
You will become nothing but ashes, nothing will remain of you but tales and fables)

Karachi’s heritage: Qawwal gali

5 lanes in Karachi, 800 years of history.

In a cup-sized chai dhaba, off a constantly flowing street near Shoe Market in inner Karachi, a deal is taking place. Agents of event organisers are talking to young men who have barely grown facial hair. These are the sons of the Qawwal bachchay, men who shoulder the task of taking forth a centuries’ old tradition.

This year the suffocating Karachi summer has coincided with the Islamic calendar months of Rajab and Sha’ban, which are peak season for the Qawwals. Rates and dates are being decided. Diaries are being feverishly filled and numbers are being exchanged on inexpensive worn-out cell phones. Paans pass from hand to hand in the spirit of sharing. So too are lines of spiritual poetry, effortlessly woven into the negotiations, for after all, this is part of creating amaahol or ambiance.

The paan-and-poetry infused sweet-talking is a particular form of marketing. The young Qawwals are vying for the prominent programmes and anxiously keeping an eye on who will be signed up the most. Name-dropping ropes in ancestors long dead who were in some way connected to the man who started it all: Hazrat Ameer Khusro. Also making an appearance in the conversation are celebrities and politicians who are the shaagird or students of the great Ustaads. It is also a source of pride that the artists here can say they have performed at Ajmer Shareef in India.

This is Karachi’s Qawwal Gali or lane, which actually refers to a neighbourhood of five streets. They are named after five of the most celebrated Qawwals: Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, Moeen Niyazi Qawwal, Kallan Khan Qawwal, Jaafar Hussain Nizami Qawwal and Bahauddin Qawwal.

Its residents are the Qawwals who refuse to let this art form die. “That is what we want to do,” says Toqeer Ahmed, who is in his 20s and belongs to the Khurja Gharana’s Nohar Bani branch of classical singers. “I know of no one in my community who wants to leave this art. This is what I was created for.”

Thus, the Qawwal bachchay, as they proudly refer to themselves, fiercely guard their heritage. Indeed, conversation in Qawwal Gali always goes back 800 years. These families have been celebrities for centuries. They may physically live in the present, but live in the grip of a glorious past. Names of their ancestors are medals that they wear every day of their lives. Each family claims to be the gharana and most of them know their family shajra or tree by heart.

Housing in Qawwal Gali. PHOTOS: FAISAL SAYANI

Most of them moved here in the 1950s and 1960s from India. Every second person in this galiclaims to belong to an authentic gharana or household. Research shows that not all of them belong to the original 12 families, but have learnt the art from them. The mishmash of interconnected lineages and where they inherited the musical art form of the Qaul, all seem to lead back to Hazrat Ameer Khusro. The father of Qawwali, as he is often called, was a 13thCentury Sufi musician, poet and scholar and a spiritual disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Qawwali, originating from the word Qaul or the uttered word was a form of expressing religious reverence. “Some 805 years ago, our ancestor Miyan Saamat learnt this musical art from Hazrat Ameer Khusro,” explains Saifuddin Qawwal, who is part of the Najmuddin Saifuddin Qawwal Brothers ensemble. “Twelve young Qawwals were trained by Hazrat Ameer Khusro. The original Qawwal bachchay are descendants of those 12.”

Qawwal Gali. PHOTOS: FAISAL SAYANI

Qawwal Gali is home to many families but according to Saifuddin, those who are the Qawwal bachcha gharanas are about five to six. Fareed Ayaz, the Saami brothers, Najmuddin Saifuddin brothers, Abdullah Niyazi, Subhan Nizami are the main names, he says. When asked how one can differentiate between the gharanas and Qawwals in general, he explains that it all boils down to lineage. “This heritage of all the genuine gharanas connects to our ancestor Tanras Khan; his time was about 134 years ago.”

As can be expected with the passage of such time the number of original families has changed as has the type of music performed. The Qawwali you will hear today is a much diluted version of the original shudh Qawwali. The new synthetic versions merely entertain or provide a quick spiritual fix and lack the original reverence and deliberation that was once a pre-requisite. According to Saifuddin, the modern audiences are mainly responsible for this sea change. “We give what they demand,” he says. “I am not satisfied with where Qawwali is going today; this is not what our ancestors introduced,” he adds. “Innovations are taking it to a point where we are losing the original Sama that was sung. Magar such baat hai, pait kee khaatir karna parta hai. The truth is that we have to do this to earn a living. Even those of us who are trained to sing the authentic Qawwali have begun innovating for commercial reasons.” He gives the example of his family’s Hamza Akram to argue that changes are still being seen as acceptable as long as they keep the art within the framework of original teachings.

Some of the activities in Qawwal Gali. PHOTOS: FAISAL SAYANI

Saifuddin’s assertion that audiences are to blame is generally shared. But qawwals such as Rauf Saami, the eldest son of the living legend Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, react differently to this reality. “We have to bring up the taste of listeners once again, and sensitise them to better listening,” he says as he believes that true Qawwali is an acquired taste. The responsibility of carrying forward and stemming the tide of degeneration of the art form is acutely felt. It is a collective responsibility, as Rauf Saami’s use of the pronoun ‘we’ indicates.

The sense of community runs parallel to the pride in heritage. Qawwal bachchay cannot and do not lead solitary lives or perform individually. They need each other, not just to provide the rhythmic background clapping and chorus, but also for moral support. And even if one member of a troupe is the star during a performance, the limelight will be shared. Qawwal bachchay survive in numbers, and they know it.

“Our survival is in community existence. We perform in packs,” says Rauf Saami.

Azeem, son of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, with a taanpura. PHOTOS: FAISAL SAYANI

The Saami Brothers belong to one of the most renowned and authentic Qawwal bachchagharanas that is recognised for its repertoires, tans and alaaps. Rauf is the grandson of the world renowned Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal after whom a street is named here. Their ancestral house in Qawwal Gali has witnessed many changes. The architecture of the house is reminiscent of styles found in old Peshawar or inner Lahore. Other homes in the neighbourhood are located in apartment buildings typical of the over-crowded Saddar area in Karachi. The ground floors of each building are generally taken up by shops for paan, chai and groceries. As the Qawwals stand around and talk in the street, the women peek from balconies with shy smiles. Washed clothes hang out to dry on every balcony.

“Our women don’t sing. Just like women cannot enter a mosque, they are not allowed to sing Qawwali,” explains Saifuddin. “Our older women sometimes sing within the four walls of our house; but they should only sing tunes that are created by our family or ancestors.” The Qawwal bachchay do not marry outside the community either: “No one else will understand our sensibilities and lifestyle.” The young Toqeer sheepishly nods in agreement. “I will marry only within my community,” he adds. “Otherwise the girl will not be able to adjust to my family.”

A chai dhaba near Shoe Market in inner Karachi. PHOTOS: FAISAL SAYANI

This sense of protectiveness of a culture is understandable. As the epicenter of a complex art form, Qawwal Gali has become a hub of eager laymen who have a burning desire to learn the art, and enter the coveted space by apprenticing as shaagirds of the Ustaads. The sons who have learnt the techniques passed down for centuries become the teachers of these students across Karachi. They set off each day on their motorcycles to give “tuitions” after a late afternoon meal, which is breakfast for them, owing to a nocturnal lifestyle. But once in a while, a chosen student with potential will get a chance to visit the main Ustaad, usually the father or an uncle of the juniors, at their home in Qawwal Gali. The hierarchies here are well-defined.

The Qawwals are territorial; their turf consists of their students and fan base. They are fiercely competitive and will try and outdo the others on stage as well as in claims of authenticity. “Professional jealousy does exist among us,” concurs Saifuddin. “Like in a market if there are shops of many cloth-sellers, each will try and attract the customer.” The neighbourhood’s curiosity over a new visitor to one family is ample proof of this.

Ustad Ghulam Khusro Khan of the Nohar Bani family claims that to classify as a truegharana, one must have a grip of the 12 genres of classical singing. This is the criterion:DhurpatSaadhraHoriTirwatChatranTaranaTappaKhayalChannParbandSargam,Ba Maani Sargam — and one must know them all. “Those who don’t are just those who pretend to be genuine,” he says. Breadth of knowledge of the art form and its trajectory are also important markers of authenticity. He reels off the names of his ancestors, of festivals they have been invited to and of celebrities who are his students. Tough rivalry with other Qawwals and a feeling of being under-appreciated on television has left Ghulam Khusro bitter. The competition here is cut-throat.

Yet, as a community, they stand by each other in times of trial. The men travel extensively to perform worldwide, especially with the upsurge in global interest for Qawwali in the last decade or so. In their absence, the other men of the community are there to see that families are well protected.

Patrons of this devotional form of music world over reward Qawwal bachchay generously. Hence, most of them can afford to live in better, less crowded and cleaner localities but choose not to. Saifuddin explains it simply: “This is Karachi’s safest area. This part of the city never closes. We sit out here in the street all night. Our people are here. Why would we go anywhere from here?”

Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi 

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 29th,  2014.