On days when my mother wouldn’t make too much of my insincerity towards religion, I’ve often told my mother in good humour that if I could bow down to anyone except for god it would be the maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahab, possessor of the most beautiful voice in the world, that has the power to hook me to 20 minutes long Qawwalis early in the morning. Even when I’m out with my friends, I would often fight with them to play these “excruciatingly long” (in their words) Ghazals, Nazms and Qawwalis instead of some rock music or the deafening EDM.
Such is my dedication to this pristine form of art!
One such morning while listening on loop to, ‘Kali Kali Zulfon ke phande na daalo’ which literally translates to ‘do not lure me with your lustrous (black is used figuratively) hair…’, I realized that I was missing something.
After several references to jawani (youth), adaayein (charm) and dagha (deceit), I realized that it was basically a song about a bitter man defeated in love, blaming the failure of his lost pursuit on his beloved’s beauty and all its typical consequences – that she is unfaithful, her demonized beauty compared to a snake that would kill his innocence, blaming her for casting ‘evil spells’ (hints about witchery, anyone?) on innocent men with her black tresses.
All blame is rested on the woman’s beauty (read: sexuality). Ring a bell?
Let us dig a little deeper
On the surface, you could just go on and on listening to this man singing unending praises for a woman, but once you venture deeper, guess what you find? Alas, everyday sexism and subtle propagation of rape culture.
In another Qawwali song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, ‘Husn waalo’n se Allah bachaye’ literally meaning ‘May God save Me from the Beautiful ones’, he goes on to describe how a man should take upon himself any disaster but not fall in love with a ‘beautiful’ woman. There is an elaborate description of all the possible reasons for a beautiful woman to be deceitful and tyrannical, fond of doing zulm (inflicting pain) on her lovers. A line from the song, ‘Inki fitrat mein hai be-wafaai’, goes on to attribute the deceit of these pretty women to their very nature.
To offer a gist, an extremely attractive woman is being defined by the Qawwal as an evil tramp who would ‘phasao’ (trap) the men around her and use her sexuality to play them. A typical everyday trope on the internet, right?
In ‘Kali Kali Zulfo’n ke phande na daalo’, there is actually a very clear reference to the state of human society in a dystopian/degraded state because of the beloved’s beautifully ‘scandalous’ black hair and pink cheeks.
“Ye sumbal se gesu, ye aariz gulabi,Zamane me laayenge ik din kharabi…”
In an abundance of examples of similar nature, what we find is that these poets were really obsessed with what seems to me like the perfect image of a ‘modern’ woman – one who knows she is beautiful, one who embraces her sexuality rather than demonizing it and one who does not hesitate in using it.
Language: Bollywood vs offbeat forms of music
Bollywood, owing to its populist approach and resultant fame enabling a clear understanding for the audience, has been under the scanner multiple times whereas other lesser known forms of music and art haven’t. Bollywood songs are heavily parodied and every day a new film or song on women empowerment or other relevant social themes can be seen. Bollywood and other mainstream forms are now coming up with lesser problematic content (or are at least trying to).
As a result of its decline in post-Partition India, Urdu, as a language has suffered stagnation, at least in post-Partition India and has not evolved as much as other languages such as Hindustani (used in films and Bollywood songs) has.
Qawwali and very often other forms of Urdu poetry become inherently misogynistic because of the time/culture it takes birth from and its long-dated history of not being critiqued. When Urdu originated, it was primarily only men who worked on the language. So naturally, the language has words which these men wanted.
Of course, Urdu is one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but for it to survive, its sexism needs to be addressed for it to fit into an ever-growing society. Just like any other form of art, Urdu poetry is also a reflection of the society which demands a more egalitarian vocabulary and artists now. As a tool of communication, it has the power to shape cultural norms.
Were Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and other maestros sexist?
Nusrat sahab was famed not only for his Qawwalis but for many other forms or songs he sang such as the ghazal, nazm and even religious forms such as naat and hamd. He has sung the song ‘Chaap Tilak’ written by Nizamuddin Auliya’s disciple, Amir Khusrau and ‘Afreen Afreen’ penned down by the present day lyricist Javed Akhter. He was also known to be influenced by Rumi.
Considering the delayed growth of the language and the stagnation that it has seen, it’s safe to assume that these artists may not be necessarily sexist (mostly just ignorant), but at the same time, we must remember that in no circumstances should this be acceptable!
Ignorance is no excuse when it means propagating rape culture and contributing to the oppressive structures against women in any intensity. It is high time that we start to expect the new age of poets to evolve and do better than their role models. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, are you listening?