Patwari: Can we turn to your new album, Ishq? There are five pieces in there, can you talk about how this album came about, taking us through the pieces?
Sonny: Sure. This album is ghazal-specific. Lyrically, it is more romantically involved than our first album, which was strictly religious. So, with this album we wanted to go into a space where the lyrics could be taken either spiritually or in a worldly-romantic sort of way, or both. Ishq-e-haqqiqi and Ishq-e-majazi are always there in Sufiana kalam. So, it was with this idea that I started thinking about other poets who have not been rendered in this way. The idea is that if we render poetry that has this doubling of the two ishqs in a qawwali (a devotional music genre), the listeners will be forced to think of them in this light. So, I started with old poets like Saher Ludhianvi, and then looked at Ahmed Faraz, Faiz, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Bahadurshah Zafar. Then we looked at contemporary poets that are alive, like Munawar Rana, and then a poet named Tahir Faraz whose poetry I love, and Dr. Nawaz Deobandi. So, I searched this wide range of poetry to see what we can incorporate into our sound. We also looked at Anwar Masood who is a comedic Punjabi poet. We wanted to see how far we could push ourselves within the qawwali genre. That was what our thinking was for this album. Now, let me take you through the individual pieces in the album.
The first is Tujhe Dekhein by Bahadur Shah Zafar, rendered in Raag Darbari Kannada. Darbari Kannada is a very romantic raag. I felt like the poetry itself exuded romance and fit the raag really well. It is common in qawwali to juxtapose authors and that I thought was very important. So in all of the qawwalis in this album, we have incorporated various authors and poets to enhance or add a difference aspect to these poems.
The second is Mahi Ve Tere vekhan laiee chuk charkha gali vich DawaaN. So charkha, when I first heard it, it evoked a sort of journey. I asked my grandpa to help me understand its meaning. So we went into an intellectual discourse about it, that charkha here is not, or not just, a charkha. We see here, again, the doubling I mentioned earlier vis-a-vis Ishq. So charkha, in that other meaning, is your body. Mahi Ve Tere vekhan laiee – Mahi here is God, so, in order that you could see me, Mahi, I was born. To be able to see you, Mahi, I am at a distance gazing at you from a far—because, you have to take a certain distance to be able to see and appreciate true beauty. So, what we did in that piece was to juxtapose Chitra Singh’s Charkha mera rang la, to make it a little playful. This way it also diversifies the audiences of the qawwali to include both those specialists that are steeped in Sufi poetry and the masses who may have heard the Chitra Singh piece. Mahi Ve also has sort of a nostalgic feel to it, so I brought in Raag Des. Des has a bit of a patriotic feel to it, and reminds you of your homeland musically.
Patwari: Well, that probably explains why this is my favorite in the album.
Sonny: Yeah, we try to stay true to the meaning of the words. But, at the same time, we try to squeeze a bit more out of it musically. So, I think that’s why this qawwali with its combination of poetry and music was well received.
The third qawwali is a poet new to the qawwali audiences. I don’t think anyone else has sung Tahir sahib in a qawwali. Tahir Sahib is from Rampur on the Indian side of Punjab. He’s a well-known poet and has written some truly beautiful poetry. We also have another one of his poems in our planned follow-up album (possibly titled: Ishq volume 2):
Sham-e-gham tujh se ju dar jate hain/shab guzar jaye tau ghar jate hain/Waqt se pooch raha hai koi/zakhm kya waqa’I bhar jate hain
It’s just overall beautiful poetry, and so is his style of delivering his poetry. What we’ve included in Ishq is something that I think has a very spiritual meaning, but, of course, the doubling of meaning is there. It is:
Itna bhi karam unka koi kam tau nahin hai/Gham de ke woh puchein koi gham tau nahin hai
So, what we do is we may use one sher in a recorded qawwali and a different one while performing live. We used this qawwali in the release concert for our album. The second sher we sung there was:
Naqsha jo mujhe khuld mein dikhlaya gaya tha/Ai sahib-e-alam yeh voh aalam tau nahin hai
So, what this second sher did was to allow us to produce a girha [knot] based on this verse. Ai sahib-e-alam yeh who alam tau nahin hai—this sort of juxtaposes the journey of man looking at the world today.
With this we even addressed the audience (at our CD release concert), an audience that is first and second generation immigrants, as to what they came here to do versus what they are doing. So, we went from there into: Ae khuda teri dunya de vakhre ne dastoor bade/Sachya nu koi puchda nai ai, joothe ho gaye mashhoor bade
From there to: Masjid chahe lakhon ki bani ho, Hindu ka vahan dil naiN lagta/Mandir chahe heeron ka jada ho, Muslim ka vahan dil nahi bahata/Iss se acha tu maikhana bana de, jis ka dil chahe woh pi jata
Then there’s a Gurdaas Mann piece we brought in with that idea of Ai sahib-e-alam yeh woh alam tau nahin hai:
*Har pasey ghor undhar vadhe, kithey zulm vadhey, hanker vadhey/Loki rabb no manun nu hat gaye aa, ais karke mara-mar vadhey/Koi Muslim hai koi Hindu hai, koi Sikh, Essai, Nindo hai/Koi khara hath bandooq phaRi, talwar phaRi tarshool phaRi/Mazhab de thekedaran nu, gal pucchiye uttar koi naiN/Mazhbaan de puttar sare ne, bande da puttar koi naiN*
*Ai sahib-e-alam yeh woh alam tau nahin hai*
We did a different girha in the album. With the girhas we do something else as well. What I had always heard is that Ghalib is amazing, or Mir is, or Zafar is; what we wanted to highlight were the poets that are alive today and are making beautiful poetry. Somebody like Rahat Indori, for example, is really beautiful. It is a privilege to be living in the times where such poetry is being produced and we wanted to honor these contemporary poets, for it is a privilege to be able to sing such beautiful poetry.
Next up in the album is Hazrat Amir Khusro’s Bahut Kathin hai dagar panghat ki. That is a vey popular qawwali and numerous qawwals have sung it. With this we brought a somber note: Kaise mein bhar laon madhva se matki/Mein jo gayi thi panya bharan ko/Daur jhapat mori matki phatki
So what we did at the end of it was to bring in something that is usually done at the end of Rung. That is, to bring in the lineage of Sufi saints. So the last line has Laaj rakho morey ghoonghat pat ki, laj rakho. So with the ‘laj rakho’ we brought in other poetry of Khusro:Sakhi mein kaise kahoon mujhe laj rakhe, mohe pi ki nazarya maar gayi/Ghar wale mujhe kawari kahein so kahein, mohe pi ki nazarya maar gayi
And then we brought in the lineage: Nizam-uddin Auliya laaj rakho…
So I think that’s a new twist to Bohat Kathin hai. And that’s in Raag Janasammohini, which is a more playful raag. The lyrics are a bit darker, the raag is happier. This combination allows the audience to enjoy it while being mindful of the depth of the piece.
We end the album with Rone se Ishq mein aur bebak ho gaye / dhoye gaye hum aise ke bas pak ho gaye–by Mirza Ghalib. I wanted to end with a different note while keeping that doubling of meaning intact. Ghalib was an obvious choice. This one is in Raag Madhuvanti, an afternoon raag, which evokes a person lamenting on a rainy afternoon about a lost love or a difficult devotional journey that they are going through and then becoming cleansed in an afternoon rain, or reflecting on their journey in the afternoon rain.
Patwari: Thank you for describing the album for us. Listening to your album brought back memories of Sahri-time in Punjab, the smell of parathas and the sound of qawwali being telecasted as we got ready to start our fasts. That, I guess, was my first experience of listening to qawwali. I have not experienced that in the past few years on my visits. Now, if anything is playing at all at Sahri-time, it is dour talk-shows or a q & a with a religious expert or a televangelist.
Sonny: I think we are trying to start a new trend instead of becoming a ‘me-2’ product. We not only want to sing qawwali but also bring new ideas to qawwali-listeners on the one hand and bring qawwali to new audiences. That is what I think [Nusrat Fateh Ali] Khan sahib, an inspiration for us, was doing, and we wish to follow in his footsteps.
To tell you something from my own life, my first cassette of Khan Sahib’s qawwalis had Allah-hu in it, and I listened to it without a break. I would take a nap, put it on play and within 28 minutes I would wake up, rewind and listen to it again. On the other side of that cassette was Nitt Kher mangaN, and that was just beautiful and explained what love is about even to the uninitiated. That to me is what’s important, that qawwali brings in new audiences into its world, and that it can build an understanding across different ways of thinking. It is a transcendental conversation about love and devotion. The frenzy that love succumbs to in Sufi poetry, people can relate to that. And then add in that other layer of meaning—that love in this tradition is also spiritual love—and qawwali becomes a rich form, like no other.
Patwari: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan after his collaboration with Peter Gabriel became all the rage in Pakistan, and from there onto Bollywood. Some may think of that as sullying of his previous work, a selling-out, or a vulgarization. But that late phase of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music was my gateway both to his previous work and to other qawwals. So, commercialization or not, it did bring those people to this music who otherwise would not have taken to it.
Sonny: Yeah, I agree. I mean there’s commercialization of his music that happened. But through it, he was able to bring qawwali to those who would have otherwise never heard it. But, this critique (commercialization) is levied always on the frontrunners, the trailblazers, like Pandit Ravi Shankar, for example. The commercialization did occur, but, then, sitar is now a household name everywhere not just in India, and that is largely because of him. Khan sahib was similar: he made qawwali a global phenomenon. So, now when I hear the word “commercialization” used for him, I think it is a bit insulting given what that man was able to do.
Patwari: So, what’s next, after Ishq?
Sonny: The present album is half of what we recorded in 2014. We actually recorded 5 more pieces that we hope to bring out as another volume, may be as Ishq vol.2, in the near future. In that second part we have done what Shiv Kumar Batalvi in the 1970s did, and Munawar Rana in the present day has done, and which goes back to Hazrat Amir Khusro hundreds of years ago: making the addressee of the ghazal as the mother. So, for example, the very famous Mai ni mai has this mother figure as divinity, and that is the theme we wanted to explore with our next album.
Patwari: I very much appreciate that in this interview you are exploring, in depth, your work, the traditions you draw from and the inventions you bring to them, your aims, that is, starting a conversation that you hold to be the real purpose of your art.
Sonny: Thank you. Yeah, I think it is important for South Asian qawwali artists to be fully cognizant that this tradition comes from its South Asian and Islamic roots, and that this is as much an intellectual conversation as it is an artistic and a musical one. For example, we performed at the Global Fest in New York in January 2015– when the Paris shootings had recently occurred. So, before we started our performance, we said something like …our message is not that that kind of bad stuff does not happen but that the media and the worldview needs to acknowledge other things about South Asia and Islam as well. There is so much love and interfaith engagement and just the idea of openness in its art, and that needs to be represented. That is what we take our task to be.
Patwari: Thank you so much for doing this interview and for sharing your thoughts with us. You have been very generous with your time. We love your work. Keep on keeping on!