New Wine from Medina: Aesthetics of popular qawwali lyrics
AbstractWine and intoxication are among the motifs that suffuse the poetry traditionally performed in qawwali music. Qawwali is a musical genre that has developed in the context of samā ʿ, listening as meditation. This practice, much favoured by South Asian Sufis belonging to various orders, utilizes music and poetry as a potent means of directing the attention of devotees towards the divine reality. In this process, the metaphorical language of poetry plays a significant role as it is conceived as a bridge connecting the visible, human reality with the hidden and divine.
Although qawwali performances outside the samā ʿ context were not unheard of prior to the twentieth century, it was only then that a large scale venture of qawwals to new stages of performance begun in earnest. They started to perform in concerts – both live and radio – and films and their music became widely disseminated through recordings. The shift from the privacy of Sufi hospices and shrines to the public sphere led to the emergence of popular qawwali style characterized by distinct conventions relating to music and lyrical content. Popular qawwali has lost its function as a transformative meditative technique and acquired characteristics of entertainment even while retaining religious orientation.
The paper explores the impact of these developments on qawwali lyrics by analysing the transformation wine imagery has undergone. In the poetry performed in samā ʿ assemblies, the metaphorical dimensions of wine are not explicated and the task of understanding inebriation as a result of divine love rather than of wine the drink, for example, is left to individual listeners. Popular qawwali lyrics, by contrast, avoid religiously dubious motifs like wine. When wine in rare occasions is mentioned, the lyricists or performers take care to explain its metaphorical meaning in explicitly religious context. I suggest that this tendency arises from the rhetoric that emphasizes doctrinal orthodoxy and meticulous fulfilment of religious obligations as the sole building blocks of Islam. Anything appearing even remotely irreligious is deemed avoidable. This rhetoric has dominated the discourses concerning South Asian Islam since the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, the denigration of Persian poetics and, by extension, culture by modern thinkers like Iqbal has contributed to the avoidance of conventional poetic motifs.
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