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Pride Of Performance Award: Ustad Abu Muhammad Qawwal Upholds The Ancestral Legacy

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Haroon Shuaib recounts the history of Qawwali and pays tribute to the contemporary descendent of the pioneering Qawwal from the courts of Delhi Sultanate

On September 7, 2020, history was made when the third member of a family of qawwals was conferred with the President’s Pride of Performance Award. Ustad Abu Muhammad is the latest scion of the undisputed first family of qawwali in Pakistan to receive this laurel and a direct descendant of Miyan Samat Bin Ibrahim, who was a disciple of Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the music genius of the thirteenth century. In 1967, Ustad Abu Muhammad’s father, Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal, received the Pride of Performance and Abu Muhammad’s elder brother, Ustad Fareed Ayaz, received the same in 2006.

As the legend goes, though qawwali existed even before, it was formalised by Hazrat Amir Khusrau when a Hindu pundit from South India named Gopal came to the court of Sultan of Delhi, Alaudin Khilji, with a large retinue of students and posed some theological questions. The questions were compiled in the form of 28,000 verses of Sanskrit, a language only spoken by the Brahmans. The Sultan and his courtiers were left bemused by their challenge. Then, the Sultan requested the biggest Sufi saint of his time, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, for guidance who deputed his favourite disciple Hazrat Amir Khusrau to formulate a befitting response. According to Ustad Abu Muhammad, “Amir Khusrau, prepared our ancestor, Miyan Samat Bin Ibrahim, to respond to the boastful arguments raised by the pundit in just 28 verses set to music. Amir Khusrau’s remarkable response impressed all in the court, especially Pandit Gopal who fell to his feet and admitted his defeat. It was then that the requirements and rules for the performance of qawwali, as defined by Amir Khusrau, were imparted to a group of 12 young musicians led by Miyan Samat. This group came to be known as Qawwal Bachchay.”

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Acknowledged as the most commercially and critically acclaimed qawwals today, Ustad Fareed Ayaz and Ustad Abu Muhammad started their training under their father’s watch at a tender age. According to Ally Adnan, an authority on the institution of qawwali, In my opinion, Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz are the finest qawwals in the world today and the ones who most truly reflect the institution of qawwali founded by Amir Khusrau more than seven hundred years ago. It is great that the Pakistani government has recognized his merit as a qawwal and honored him with the Presidential Pride of Performance award.”

With a considerable body of work already behind them, perhaps the first introduction of Ustad Fareed Ayaz-Abu Muhammad to the younger audiences was through Coke Studio season four in 2011 when their qawwali “Kangna” (bracelet) left everyone gasping for more. The piece was later used by Mira Nair in her film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s book of the same name. The duo went on to perform in 2012 and 2017 editions of Coke Studio, each time creating the same magic with their immaculate pieces such as “Aaj Rung Hay” (Today is the festival of colours) and “Piya Ghar Aaya” (Beloved has arrived).

The heavenly “Aadam” included in Coke Studio Season 12 (2018) has a Persian quatrain in the opening as written and originally composed by Hazrat Amir Khusrau himself. This section called Tillana is in Raag Adanan. One of the 12 twelve Qawwal Bachchay had a cleft lip and his lips could not touch each other. Amir Khusrau invented Tillana in such a way that the lips of the singer never touched each other in the entire section. He did this to give the disadvantaged young qawwal an edge. The second section is Chota Khayal composed in Raag Bahar. The last section is Tarana, again in Raag Bahar. The three sections are seamed together through the consistency of taal, namely Teentaal. Besides being a treat for the ears, the energy emanating from the pulsing claps, the intense facial expressions, and the equable glances exchanged between the choristers make it an equally enthralling spectacle.

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“Our father wanted us to have a portfolio of immense breadth in terms of raag, taal, genres, poetry and topics. He wanted us to have a wide and broad repertoire so that people of all sorts would find our qawwali interesting and we could perform whatever they liked. It is heartening when youngsters request us for kalam which is woven in traditional arrangements. I am grateful to those who recommended my name for this laurel and truly humbled that I was considered worthy of joining the ranks of my father and my elder brother,” Abu Muhammad reflects.

Having performed in almost all continents and corners of the world, Ustad Fareed Ayaz-Abu Muhammad duo certainly know how to create the magical connection between the listeners, the performers and the kalaam in a mehfil-e-samaa.

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