Afternoon Qawwali at the Yousoufain Darga

Originally published in The India Magazine, Vol. 17 (October), pp.50-54, 1997. 


Between the claypots, the flowercarts of roses, there are children are dressed as stars.  There is a goat on one foot, on a ledge, and a chain looping from its neck to an iron grate.  There is a crow and a songbird.  Droppings appear abruptly, along with the buckled feet of an old man with a newspaper--who speaks with arcs and motions to the sky and to me.  There is mention of some gift or bliss, and he ventures a rising and falling of names of this place.  It is now clear:  the gift is on his face and on the sunbaked crumbling graves. 

Who would have known even to look for a piece of desert or a yard of shanties  for the comfort of the faithful--straw and plastic bag rooves not quite collapsing--or just as suddenly the austere greeting of the domed shrine in blue-streaked marble and tile?  Not that this place is so well hidden--nearly abbutting Nampally Railway Station, strung by webs of crooked lanes to the Musi river, not out of eyeshot of Golconda--but who would have known?  Hyderabad is like this.  Reclusive places announce themselves as sites of blunt importance once you find yourself in their gravity.  The Yousoufain Darga is like this.  Entering its close-quartered shade and its shale-inflected sun, it offers itself not just as the tomb of a saint and graveyard of devotees, or as a Sunday gathering spot for devout Hyderabadis--Hindu and Muslim--but as a kind of injuction to corral the day to day world into a certain broader, more permissive perspective.  Hence the fecund connections:  the claypots, the flowercarts, the children dressed as stars.  Hence the woman wrapped deep in satiny browns, bending her bouquet into a stone-inlaid cove--the stone clean and her scalp now scrubby, some weeks after having offered her hair.  And other women and their girls clustered behind stone-lattice screens, some motioning lips and ears and rocking.  And men and boys, all so crisp in kurta pyjama, everywhere hugging thrice their salaams. 

The most abiding labor in the darga, and the source of the darga’s energy and constancy, is its succession of qawwali songs, its Urdu and Arabic devotional utterances that contribute as much as the architecture to the shaping of the darga’s spaces.  The music is Sufi in origin, and is, at the minimum, highly syncretic, and at its best irresistibly heretical, roving the terrain of fantastical romantic love, ‘ishq-e majazi, to the realities of mystical love, ‘ishq-e haqiqi, to alcoholic intoxication, to the true plenitude of the divine.  Indeed, the underlying power of the music is a bhakti that hurls you mercilessly toward your own habits of delimiting pleasure by creed and conviction.  The music hurls you, and if you shatter the habits, then you shatter them.

Songs begin with the slow vamp of the harmonium, and the tabla and the dholak, the double-headed finger drum, which stirs, faintly--part ominously and part ticklishly.  In time the tabla will show itself the appointed keeper of the music’s ecstasy, and the dholak the keeper of the ecstasy’s own delight.  The qawwal, the singer, is the reedy-voiced contractor of the abundance, the herald of piercing hesitancies and gaudy and spare releases.  He is not a celebrity, but a hard working mystic:  devoted to the raising of a salutory joy in all who remain to listen. 

Rickshaw drivers, street sellers, shopkeepers and salarymen alike come to greet one another perhaps not quite as respectful strangers, but in an altered relation to ordinary distinctions:  in the profile of fanafillah, absolute oneness, which emerges for some suddenly, for some gradually, for some not at all.  The qawwal’s voice is like finely gritted sandpaper on the contours of a voluptuously polished marble figure:  it gives teeth to blind ears and you begin to gnaw at the form that emerges before you.  The qawwal settles on a phrase, and repeats it again, again, again, calls to it and finds that it faithfully responds in his own throat.  He joyously breaks into a virtuosic coloratura, and discovers to his pleasure that the phrase is still there afterward, and rejoins it, adjusts it, raises and lowers its heat subtly.  The audience begins to warm, and the qawwal is alert:  he enhances its tempo and volume to circulate the adrenaline of the group, raising the quality of ambient adoration to higher and higher levels.

Skillfully alternating melodic plaint and pluck, the qawwal’s genius is to allow words to become sensitivities under human skin, to enter into the drop of blood that is the human heart, as a well-quoted verse has it.  The qawwal is a master tracer of the patterns of the divine in the human soul, a master revealer of the ways that the birth and death of love are staggered events in the mind.  He creates music by pointing with the melodic motif not up and away but down toward the inner ground of love in the listener.  The qawwal sings:


Your head splits, and the pain is there for life:

Love’s a different drunkenness, a different aftermath.

The qawwal sings and you begin to detect the movements of a certain worship within yourself, a subversive worship because it is not generated by will, indeed it precisely eludes will.  The qawwal knows well the gulf between the will to love and the feeling of loving.  The latter is infinitely more diverse and proliferate.  It cannot be regularized.  Indeed, the qawwal does not want to regularize it, but to rhythmitize it, to lure it into the world by obliging it to music.  The qawwal sings and deftly, sedulously, like a slave and a master at once, activates your own vulnerability to the beloved lingering within you.  You are surprised to learn that this beloved lingers both with great nobility and great fierceness, and at once you are filled with extraordinary awe and extraordinary fear:  awe to find that the beloved is a destiny and has been waiting for you all along, fear to realize that this beloved, your destiny, is precisely capable of wrecking your heart altogether.  The qawwal sings:  you are no longer driven by your will to love, but are simply in the midst of it, and so bound by a tighter yoke.  You have become the ardent wish to give yourself away to love and still to remain.

Made from clay--but what we are, we are.

Our power is greater than the power God gave us.