A year or so ago, I attended an open-air Qawwali concert in Jaipur by the famous Sabri Brothers, who claim direct descent from Mian Tansen himself, the legendary Hindustani musician in Akbar’s court. Qawwali, for the uninitiated, is the devotional music of the Sufis of the Indian subcontinent. A famous recent exponent of the form was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The concert, hosted by Rajasthan Tourism, was free to all. I noticed that the first quarter of the audience space was far better lit; it had nice sofas and comfy chairs and the quality of seating steadily declined further back. This front section was of course for “Invitation Only” pass bearers. (No points for guessing where I was.) I watched sodas being served by liveried waiters to these chosen people, cordoned off from the rest by ropes and policemen. At least one person expressed solidarity as I grumbled about this open discrimination at a tax-sponsored event.
The concert of course couldn’t begin until the chief guest had arrived, who was none other than Shrimati Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. As my father had predicted, she showed up an hour late – apparently a habit with her – in keeping with the time honored way of Indian honchos asserting their importance to the masses. Meanwhile, the audience had rearranged the neatly laid out chairs and blocked all passageways. I looked around from where I sat – there was no way to leave except to climb over chairs, which were now all occupied. In other words, I was trapped in the middle of a crowd getting boisterous by the minute. My attempts to relax and see the humor in the situation were proving only partially successful.
The concert finally began. The speakers were piercingly loud but the crowd fell silent for the most part. The two brothers sang rapturously of the glory and mystery of the almighty, His inscrutable ways, His grace and beauty manifest in the things of this world. This I liked; the music was pleasant enough, punctuated by energetic bouts of virtuoso vocal callesthenics. They represented a non-denominational religiosity that I no longer possess myself but which I understand and appreciate intellectually. To varying degrees, such mystical expression has flowered in every human culture.
Songs to the divine were interspersed with songs of love, suggesting that uniquely subcontinental mood of longing and desire for the human beloved. But the beloved they sang of was invariably and literally young, with flowing dark tresses, glowing fair skin, supple gait, intoxicating eyes. The idea of two graying, balding, paunchy men whipping themselves up in a lather conjuring up idealized feminine qualities best found in a few nubile women struck me as both perverse and comic. I wondered: How can this obsession with physical form qualify as great poetry?
A surfeit of puerile and soppy sentimentality from middle-aged men is what drove me off ghazals (a sister form of qawwalis) in the first place. Nothing of her mind or will; if she reacts at all, it is to tease and withhold; or she is adored like an ethereal being. It seemed to me that to these men, it was unthinkable to sing of the love of, say, a 60-yr old man for a 63-yr old woman. But the crowd was mighty pleased, bursting with wah, wahs – a stylized approval for a stylized emotion.
Most of their love songs struck me as no more sublime than a school-boy's crush, born of sexual inexperience. Indeed, too many secular love songs of the qawwali and ghazal kind that I recall have this quality – fitting products of a prudish culture where the youth typically acquired no "hands-on" experience with the opposite sex. Then they married a stranger, fossilizing many of their mawkish ideas about love. I couldn't help thinking: if only my fellow middle-class citizens got laid more often in their youth – experimenting, falling in/out with a partner or more before marriage – they would likely have less arrested ideas about love and the poetics of love.