Devotional, General

The Commodification of Ishq

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

The Arabic word Ishq means love or passion. And Islamic tradition has many shades of ishq.

Beset by gilded ornamental lamps, draped in fine shawls and indigenous block-printed ajrak, two brothers sit cross-legged and swoon to an otherworldly love. Their rich voices are accentuated by grandiose hand gestures, as if to draw in the devotion that seems bursting at the seams, and rhythmic clapping from accompanying musicians punctuates their performance. While there are eleven people on stage with a fascinating interplay and exchange of energy between them, each of them seems to also be suspended in a far-off trance...a transcendent state that is experienced as much collectively as it is on an individual level.

It’s a small surprise that their condition is so trance-like, as the words pouring forth are Egyptian Sufi mystic Imam al-Busiri’s thirteenth century ode of praise for the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w): the Burda Sharif. Also called the ‘poem of the mantle’ or ‘poem of the cloak’, the rhapsodic praise has profound historical significance. Today, the grave of the exalted poet—who is said to have created this great art after waking up one morning in great suffering when he found himself paralysed—is one of Egypt’s most visited attractions, with verses from the poem engraved on the walls. Even the Prophet’s mosque in Medina is said to have been adorned by its verses before being lost to the sands of time and people unable to comprehend it.

Yet, its power is widely recognised, with anecdotal accounts listing a host of transformative applications of recitation, ranging from taming wild animals to enhancing memory. Imam Ghazali Institute makes a compelling argument that this may well be one of the most famous poems on the planet. And the widely translated 800 year old poem has spawned a veritable movement—generating a vast body of dozens if not hundreds of imitations, fervent expansions, and reverent commentaries. It’s almost become an institution. In fact, the Journal of Arabic Literature explores the transcendence of this powerful tribute from text to talisman.

Why, then, does this particular version begin with a biscuit logo?

The tradition of qawwali

Ustad Abu Muhammad Qawwal hails from the 700 year old tradition of the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana of Delhi. The word bachon means children, and the nomenclature stems from the earliest disciples of Hazrat Amir Khusrau, who is known as the ‘father of qawwali’. In 2020, Muhammad he was the third generation recipient of his ‘first family’ of qawwali in Pakistan to receive the Pakistani President’s Pride of Performance Award.

He continues a tradition that is unmistakably Indian, and is enmeshed in the-then-unpartitioned soil of the subcontinent. His family tree is redolent with fantastic achievements and quiet Sufi mysticism, and he embodies a lineage that is fast fading—a Qawwal ‘gali’ (lane or alley in the heart of Karachi where qawwals lived and congregated) that is no more. It is a communal lifestyle that’s splintering. Their dietonce replete with heavy, rich and sumptuous food to give the qawwal energy during long sessions of unmistakably Indian devotional music—is now decidedly less lavish. For many in his fraternity who don’t enjoy such mainstream success, it is borderline meager.

For Muhammad and his brother, however, success has been no stranger. Their magnetic style has crossed over successfully into many platforms—including the soundtrack of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And their appearances on Coke Studio are somewhat of a regular (and beloved) feature. His version of the Burda Sharif is not the exception in terms of a classical ode being rendered anew by large corporate entities. It is the norm. And many would argue that massive corporate budgets allow for superior recording quality, enhanced sound and a reinvigoration of the genre. In some cases, such melodious interpretations may even act as a ‘gateway’ or entry point for beginners just turning to the world of Indian classical music.

Shades of Ishq

But Muhammad’s wild success on platforms like Bisconni (the biscuit brand ‘sponsoring’ this rendition of the Burda) points to a commodification of sorts. “Even today, there are still a choice few musicians who have stayed 100% true to the artform,” he says, sounding bittersweet. “My brother, Fareed Ayaz? He’s one of them. But he’s older than me. More evolved spiritually. I...I sometimes feel I’ve compromised a bit in fully communicating the nature of my ishq.”

The Arabic word Ishq means love or passion. And Islamic tradition has many shades of ishq. Ishq-eMajazi, or metaphorical love, refers to love for the Creator’s creation (or mankind). Ishq-e-Rasul denotes love for the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) and Ishq-e-Haqeeqi literally translates to: the ‘real’ love. Love for the Creator Himself. It encompasses a belief that only Allah is worthy of love and devotion.

That’s not to say that an understanding of this type of deep, reverentially divine love isn’t misappropriated. Take, for example, the misappropriation of the popular Sufi phrase Mast Qalander. The renditions of Mast Qalander are as diverse as they are plentiful. From sensuous Bollywood remakes to Coca-Cola ads and rock versions (and that’s besides the various versions with millions of views) the enigmatic history has been all but erased. The fact that it was originally intended to honour the great Sufi pir Lal Shehbaz Qalander is all but forgotten. Many Sufi kalaam (poetry or messages) are misappropriated because they were originally intended for divine love but now are set to mortal exercises of passion and sensationalized.

But at its core, Ishq-e-Haqeeqi is rapturous. It is self-effacing love of the essence, not the form. As such, it can be all-consuming, self-annihilating, sometimes even heavy with images of self-immolation.

It follows, then, that such visceral love would take copious stretches of time to adequately express in verse.

Qawwali 2.0

But this wild uncontainable love might not have a space in commercialist ventures. Artists today are finding themselves having to adjust—to condense eons of passion and metaphysical love into neatly sequestered and commercially viable ‘slots’.

As Mohammed puts it, “My ancestors would have had patrons. Their heart, soul and entire being would be immersed in the prayer and symbolic the musical interludes and the words. It was their sole purpose of existence. To live in praise of divine love.”

But now? He pauses, with a half-wry, fleeting smile. “We cannot deny the reality that we need to use this same art form to fill our bellies. We don't have courts, darbars and royal patrons.” Mohammed is by no means living a paltry life, but the dichotomy between the artform and ad revenue is jarring. It’s a sentiment he sums up with an analogy of taking a bite of food.

With rampant consumerism and inflation, he says, we seek more conveniences in life. More comfort. “And once you’ve tasted a big, plentiful mouthful of food...a small mouthful just doesn’t sit right.”

In pursuit of financial security, if not comfort, the artform of qawwali—and indeed, ishq itself—becomes commodified.

Death of the Darbar?

Yet, there are those who stay true to the genre through their training, ethos and baithaks, even though the remuneration isn’t the same as before. Though the tradition of patronage (where noble musicians of the court were often housed at the ‘darbar’ and provided food and boarding to be freed from worldly concerns) faded quietly into oblivion, and that singularity of focus is a luxury few artists can now afford, the rigour and sanctity with which artists approach their craft remains in place.

In India, much of the funding has been taken on by corporates, with lavish concerts and recordings arranged, often in exchange for gaudily placed, enlarged logos, ‘strategic’ branding and creative meddling. The price of quality and this form of patronage, it seems, is to either sell yourself short—or the art form. Notwithstanding this, in terms of coverage at least, exposure and overall quality, large corporations do play a role in preserving the whatever diluted form is possible.

The question, then, is whether it’s set out to always be a zero-sum game. Whether, until and unless formal structures for state-funding are set in place at a national level, it’s a lose-lose situation. The answer? Perhaps not.

With characteristic wit, Mohammed spouts one of his favourite lines of verse: “The principle of ishq is indeed strange...The student who does his homework is the one who never gets a day off.” he smiles. While he laments the dilution of the qawwali tradition, he acknowledges that times are changing. He is passionate, yes...but also pragmatic, as he knows the outlook is bleak if the art form is not perpetuated and preserved.

And perhaps the adversity the qawwali fraternity is currently facing may end up spawning a beautiful new work of art...great suffering, and all that.

But whether it’s for three hours or thirty seconds, the passion in his eyes as he sings the holiest words in praise of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) shines through with piercing purity.

After all, ishq comes in many forms.

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