“There are certain things that must be done for the sake of history.” That was Manjari Chaturvedi’s motivation for curating the Qawwali Photo Project, an exhibition of photographs featuring the lives of qawwals across the country, currently on display at Delhi’s India International Centre.

“When we started the project, many people expressed concern about the futility of the exercise,” said kathak dancer Chaturvedi, the president of Sufi Kathak Foundation. But she persevered. “The present will not value my work but I strongly feel that history will appreciate it,” she said.

To capture practitioners of the song form in action, photographers Dinesh Khanna, Mustafa Quraishi, and Leena Kejriwal travelled to Delhi, Hyderabad, Dewa Sharif, Safipur and beyond.

The exhibition aims to explore the song form “through the power of images, as a means of expression and communication”. It celebrates the art and oral traditions passed through generations while preserving its history through photographs.

The photo project not only documents the qawwals in their work environment with their audiences but also presents glimpses of their lives beyond their performances.

Scroll.in spoke to Manjari Chaturvedi about the exhibition and her experience of working with qawwals over the years.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

What inspired you to curate this exhibition?

The Qawwali Photo Project was started five years ago, but that was not the beginning of my association with qawwals or the history of qawwali. I started documenting the lives of qawwals almost a decade ago. I have been personally associated with qawwali for 25 years as part of my own productions, and over the years, I have realised that people don’t know much about qawwali. While they may listen to a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan composition and nod their heads to it, they actually have no inkling of what the art form really means.

In 2011, I started hosting talks and mehfils on qawwali, and that was the first time qawwali was brought into an academic format. During our seminars with qawwals, I discovered that a treasure trove of oral traditions associated with qawwali was passed down between generations without any visual documentation of the artists. For example, the only photo of a legendary qawwal I was in touch with was the one on his ration card. It was then that I started talking to photographers and working on this photo project. This is an unusual project that needed photographers to travel to different locations and click organic photos amidst an audience of hundreds of people, but that is the only way this could have been done.

Ranjhan Ali of Amritsar. Credit: Dinesh Khanna

Tell us about the “I am a Qawwal” series that is part of the exhibition.

This has become a very lovable part of the exhibition. And surprisingly, this wasn’t a very concrete idea when we started working on the project.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit while we were collecting the photographs. Due to the lockdown and restrictions, the photographers could not travel to the qawwals, and the qawwals couldn’t hold sessions with an audience. I was in touch with the performers, and I asked them to send their photos and selfies to me on WhatsApp. Soon, the qawwals started enjoying the process because now, they were documenting themselves. It gave them a sense of pride and identity. We received some endearing images during the process – of qawwals dressed up in jeans and T-shirts and wearing sunglasses – and it would have been nearly impossible to produce these images with photographers. This is probably how they want themselves to be remembered.

Have there been any observable changes over the years that have occurred within the ambit of the art of qawwali or how it is perceived by the audience?

Yes, for sure. Over the years, music has dissociated from humans because of the advent of streaming services. Our past generations knew what popular singers like Kishore Kumar or Mohammed Rafi looked like, but now, music has become faceless. This is where qawwali also suffers. Everyone knows what qawwali is, but we need to associate faces with the music.

Remarkable changes have also been seen in the khanqah style of qawwali that is sung in shrines versus the commercial qawwali. The same artist is capable of singing very different compositions in the two places – a huge leap from the qawwali of the past.

Credit: Leena Kejriwal

Tell us a bit about the struggles that qawwals today face in comparison to their counterparts in the past.

The biggest problem that the qawwals today face is the DJ music that has overtaken everything. Qawwals used to perform at gatherings like weddings, birthday parties etc, and now the entire market has been captured by DJs. This transition has happened in the last twenty years, and now the qawwals are struggling to find their space.
Alienation of this music form in recent years is also a struggle. It has become largely associated with religion which wasn’t the case earlier.

Qawwali was integral to Bollywood till around the 1970s, but it has since become an erratic feature. Real qawwals find it hard to compete with technically-sound Bollywood singers who might have sung a qawwali or two in movies and have the means to promote their content on platforms like YouTube. A recorded qawwali that was actually sung at a gathering with hundreds of people in attendance is no match for a studio-recorded version. Qawwals are losing out on this opportunity because they lack technical support. That is the saddest part because no artist should go into oblivion for want of technology.

Credit: Mustafa Quraishi

Is there any lesson to be learned for the India of today from the history and art of qawwali?

The biggest lesson that the art of qawwali can teach us is the lesson of unity. In Kakori (Uttar Pradesh), there is a Sufi shrine that celebrates Lord Krishna through poetry. The Basant festival is one of the biggest celebrations at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. India is a wonderful land, and it has been blessed by an unimaginable number of saints across religions. This is who we are, and this is how we must take things along into the future.

The Qawwali Photo Project is on display at the India International Centre, New Delhi till November 28.