It has been 76 years since Pakistan was born and obtained freedom from the British to govern its masses. And as the clock strikes 12 tonight, India would also begin celebrating 76 years of freedom and self-governance. In these 76 years, both the countries have seen many ups and downs, and their relationship has gone through extremes, frosty most of the time, and lukewarm otherwise. Although a majority of people in India and most of Pakistan share high amounts of genetic, cultural, linguistic and religious history that spans over centuries, the last 76 years have been very potent in creating an invisible divide. This has led to a ridiculous amount of mistrust, and most recently and worryingly, a deep hatred in the minds of the masses. If there are just two or three rotten apples in a bag, why are we throwing away the entire bag rather than sorting out the good apples from the bad ones, and sharing them? I rest my ramble here, and in the following few pages, I would like to share my experience of something beautiful that I encountered during my travel across the border - a 700 year old tradition that originated in the heart of Mughal Delhi, that has now found abode in the temples, dhargas and dusty by lanes of modern day Sindh.
I visited Karachi in the winter of 2022, around the same time New Zealand men’s team was touring Pakistan to play two tests and three ODI matches. Although I was dying to go watch a day of test cricket at the National stadium in Karachi, I had more pressing personal tasks at hand. I was visiting the family home of my British Pakistani wife, and we were having a small party to celebrate our Covid wedding that took place in the winter of 2020 in London (in midst of the famous tier 4 lockdowns imposed by Boris Johnson). During this short trip to Karachi, I dutifully wrote my diary entry for the first five mornings until I was down with a painful stomach bug for the rest of my stay there. I wrote about my journey from JFK to KHI, the food that I ate (mostly Halwa Puri since I am a vegetarian), the birds that I saw (does the K in Karachi stand for Kites), dust covered glass buildings, smells of the Empress market, and many others. I would abhor myself till the end if I do not paint in words about my memories, sensations and feelings during my two-week long trip to Pakistan, and particularly about the Qawwali night of our wedding party. Do feelings have memories? Yes, they do.
Here is what I had noted down in my diary, the morning right after the Qawwali night of our wedding. I had woken up feeling like I was floating in air, with the sounds and rhythms still humming at the back of my ears.
“I am still a bit hungover from last night’s Qawwali performance by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed. It was like a dream. I still can’t believe that they were sitting right in front of us and staring into our eyes and singing at our wedding! This was an out of the world, once in a lifetime experience. So many things had to come together at the right place and right time for this to happen! I had to discover the music of Fareed Ayaz two years ago, I had to understand his philosophy of life and his love for Kabir, and realize that it resonated with a lot of what we believe in, and we had to get the time, mind space and money to have a wedding party, two years after our original wedding in London. Sometimes when such things happen, I just don’t know how to react, my mind slows down and I am taken back by the sheer intensity of the moment. I experienced joy last night. I was overwhelmed to receive approval for a merry matrimony from an ancient school of thought that has continued to stay relevant, defying the various interpretations of the laws of love over centuries. I was dressed in a gray kurta-pajama, and wore a black Peshawari slipper. My British Pakistani wife was looking so gorgeous in her gray suit, wearing a pearl necklace and my maternal grandmother’s bangle that came all the way from Mayiladudurai in Tamil Nadu.”
It was a typical Karachi winter evening, the sky was clear with an occasional patch of cloud here and there. The temperature had rapidly reduced to ~ 10 degree Celsius from being relatively warm in the afternoon. We were heading to the Qawwali venue at Malir on the outskirts of the city, conveniently located away from the hustle, bustle, noise and the dust of Karachi’s belly. The core wedding team, consisting of me - the lone Tamil man in a faraway and yet strangely similar city, my partner/wife/fiance/girlfriend, her sister, her brother, her cousin, her two close friends, her aunts and her house help and kids, were all huddled into a tempo van driven by a Pashtun looking driver who spoke Urdu with a strange accent. Inside the dimly lit van, I sat by the window watching the world go by on a busy Shahrah-e-Faisal Road. I saw men on motorbikes wearing shalwar kameez, men driving Toyota Hiluxs with tinted windows and armed guards on the rear open seats, and some men walking on the pavement staring into the inside of our van as we stalled at traffic signals. I wondered what they wondered. The van went past Frere Hall, the Air Force Museum and Jinnah International Airport, and I realized how strange it was that I could remember these roads from my journey from the airport a few days ago. The van came to a standstill in the midst of a traffic jam. I imagined for a second that I was in Chennai, stuck on a similar traffic on Sardar Patel road on my way to Adyar from Guindy, and with the CEG campus on my left. Throughout my stay in Karachi, I often marveled at the oddity of my situation, even though nothing was odd about it.
Looking back at the day now, everything seems like a foggy distant memory except for two things - my wife’s presence, and the music from the night. The stage was about two feet tall, covered in a white cloth. The backdrop was a hanging of green and white silk-like linen, and several long stips of Jasmine flowers were hung from the ceiling. The simplicity of the stage was about to be engulfed in the complex tapestry of the sounds. My wife and I were the first one’s to take our seats in front of the empty stage, and the rest of the wedding crew followed suit eventually. For a brief few minutes before the concert, I was introduced to the man himself, and was told that I was from Madras. His eyes lit up when he found out, and he uttered a few words in Tamil/Telegu to my surprise, and referred to me as babu. He was born in 1952 in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, this was a time when both Tamil and Telegu were popular with the population of the erstwhile state of Madras Presidency. He then spoke to me in Urdu about Kabir, and in his own words “Nobody knows Kabir and his heart more than I do”. Even though I do not understand Urdu completely, I somehow understood everything that he was saying. I remember making my way back to the seats and telling my wife ‘what more fitting theme other than Kabir’s poems on limitless love and devotion does an Indian Pakistani British wedding require?’ And I couldn’t think of any better person in this world than Ghulam Fariduddin Ayaz Al-Hussaini Qawwal to have blessed us at the Qawwali organized to celebrate our wedding.
A few minutes later, to the sound of harmonium or reed organ playing the tune of mera piya ghar aaya, and rhythmic claps from the other crew members, Fareed Ayaz made his entry to the center of the stage, escorted by young members of his Qawwal. With a mischievous smile, he entered the stage dancing to the vibrations from the reed of the harmonium, looking straight at us, placed his left hand over his chest, and gave a nod. I think this was the moment when all sense of time and space around me began to disappear. Sitting cross legged, two feet ahead of me and staring straight into my eyes, was Ustaad Fareed Ayaz - one of the living forebearers of the centuries old Qawwal Bachon Ka Gharana Delhi. Sitting to his right was Abu Muhammad, his younger brother, who along with Fareed Ayaz took their 700 years old philosophy of life straight into the heart of GenZs and millennials by their wildly popular rendition of mera piya ghar aaya in Coke Studio Pakistan in 2018. Wearing a white salwar kameez, a white sindhi cap, and a block printed Sindhi Ajrak neck wrap, Fareed Ayaz was dressed the exact opposite of his younger brother who was wearing a black salwar kameez, a black sindhi cap with intricate golden design, and a black Ajrak shawl! Sitting to his right was his other younger brother, also with a harmonium at his disposal. With two brothers by his side, and his family members at various positions on stage, the concert began with him uttering praise to god, and saying “every living being on this planet knows of god”.
Picture: Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed, Karachi, Pakistan
The first song was “Mein Nizam Se Naina”, an ecstatic poem on love and surrender written by Aamir Khusroe dedicated to his master Nizamuddin Auliya. The literal translation would be “I stole a glance from the eyes of Nizam”, it is a beautiful song about losing oneself in devotion, a powerful sufi poem that transcends all societal norms and what a great way to start the qawwali night. The song then moved onto “Ghar naari”, a personal favorite of mine. Before the Qawwali, Abu Muhammed had asked us to send them a list of songs that we would like to hear. Once we sent him our list, he commented that all the songs we had requested were pure sufi qawwals that haven’t seen so much fame like the ones adapted by Bollywood. I would like to think that Ghar naari is one such song that has not become as popular as masth qalandhar or mere rashke simply because it wasn’t adapted in any movies etc. Perhaps, this gives me a simple pleasure that I get to enjoy a hidden treasure or a gem that many don’t know about! Before each and every song that they performed, Fareed Ayaz spent a minute or so explaining the philosophy behind the lyrics and engaged in conversations with the audience.
Early on, they realized that I do not understand Urdu, and therefore they relied on my wife to translate the messages to me. Despite my inability to comprehend everything they said, I was totally in trance, in a zone where I was watching words wander out of his mouth and weave magic in mesmerized minds! While singing Ghar naari, Every time he uttered “main nijam se naina laga aaii re”, I could not help but understand and feel the beauty of falling in love. I felt Amir Khusro’s innocent love to his peer, and Fareed Ayaz’s grandiose genius slap me out of this deep sleep. I have heard rumors of people going mad listening to this song, and I can begin to understand why. This song is perhaps the pinnacle of how great literature can move a man’s mind and matter into a sacred realm.
Before every song, through his lyrical explanations, Fareed Ayaz created a spiritual platform or aura for the song that was about to come. Once the audience gets entrapped in this mood, the words and lyrics start to form a mirage in their minds, and the audience starts seeking for more. Combined with the rhythmic claps from their family members on stage, the sounds from the harmonica, and the soul piercing narration, the audience cannot help but start swinging and swaying to an invisible wand. My next favorite song of his was “maula maula laakh pukare”, despite calling maula many times, maula still escapes us! As a smile forms on his pan stained mouth, his head shaking to the rhythm of harmonium, and tears hanging at the edge of his eyes, Fareed Ayaz explains what love is from the teachings of Baba Zaheen Shah and Kabir. Through his words, he explained the futility of words and meanings in knowing the truth. By reciting the heart and soul of Kabir and Khusroe on our wedding qawwali night, Fareed Ayaaz and Abu Muhammad transcended traditions, borders and religion, making us humans look like fools for the fear, order, and beliefs imposed upon us.
Picture: Fareed Ayaz listening to Tajdar e Haram, Karachi, Pakistan
An hour or so into the concert, Fareed Ayaz was helped by his family in getting off the stage, and he placed himself on a chair near the first row of the audience. He was no longer a performer, but became a part of the audience, enthralled by the songs from the younger members of his family. For a full four minutes, he sat on the chair with one-leg crossed and closed his face with the palms of both his hands, listening to Tajdar e Haram sung by a little boy from his family. The boy stole the show with his performance and reminded the audience about the importance of carrying forward cultural traditions into the future generations. The qawwali concert had many other songs performed including mann kunto maula, piya ghar aaya, allah hoo etc. I do not have any recollections of how those four hours passed by, when the performance ended at 1:00 am. As they finished their last song, encouraging the audience to stand up, dance and clap to their rousing performance, little did Ustaad Fareed Ayaz know that this performance touched the heart of hearts of this Tamil man from Madras who understood very little of urdu or sufism, and yet was going to bed that night with a stomach and heart full of wise and strange emotions.
Once the concert ended, we walked up to him, and thanked him for blessing us with his presence. He replied with a message for us “Love knows no form, no boundaries, no gender…” and he added that one day he hopes he can perform in India once again. On a cold December morning at a farm in the outskirts of Karachi, a 700 year old tradition that started in Delhi, continued to spread the message of love in plain, simple and uncomplicated words to all the common men and women present there.
And I wonder, if this is what a short glimpse into the neighbors turf has taught me, how much more can we learn from each other, how much more can we offer to each other if we open up just a little bit. Imagine a world where you can go on road trips from Mumbai to Multan to visit the 2000 year old Suraj Kund, or learn Bharatanatyam lessons at local schools in Karachi, or find plenty of Anwar Ratol mangoes in the markets of Mangalore or a startup in Chennai with offices in Islamabad, or attending University in Lahore only to find work in Bangalore? I cannot help but think about all the possibilities and opportunities we are denying the people of the two countries. I am not a fool to not know about the geopolitical lockhorns (and also “who’s got the better mango” fights!) the countries find themselves in, but alas I can dream. If only we could embrace our mistakes from the past, and confide in each other our hopes and aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous South Asian Union? If only.