In the male-dominated world of singing, it’s hard as it is for female qawwali singers to continue to take their vocation forward, but when they are survivors and victims of child Sheikh marriages, domestic violence, physical abuse, their singing becomes more than social messages of awareness
HYDERABAD: Decked up in artificial white stone jewellery an 18 year old girl shyly adjusts her purple dupatta while wearing a high saffron brocade cap above which sits proudly a white feather tucked between strings of pearls. The glitter in her eyes isn’t just of youth, it’s of tears and suffering as well, as she waits for ustad ji and the harmonium player along with fellow qawwalas on a sleepy summer afternoon in a small old house near Moghalpura Police Station.
The house is the office of NGO Shaheen known for its work in advocacy of human rights and rescuing women from various abuses. Meet Saleha who was married off at the age of 15 by her father to an old man of 64. She was taken to Delhi on the pretext of seeing a sick relative. Her eyes get watery while women sitting around on plastic chairs comfort her, asking to share her story. She fiddles with the golden lace of her dupatta and begins, “I was forcibly married off and would be beaten with a large stick often by my husband if I didn’t get physically close to him.
I’d call home from a neighbour’s phone and my parents would refuse to take me back even after knowing my ordeal. This continued for a few years. Once I cried to my husband saying I wanted to meet my parents and later as the train slowed down near Secunderabad, I got down only to be held captive by the railway police who also caught hold of my husband rebuking him for marrying a minor.” She was sent to live in a madrasa with other victims of child abuse and child labour. After some time she was brought to Shaheen and a truce between her and her family was established on the condition that she’d visit the NGO daily for a few hours. That’s where she talks with counsellors, practises gota making, bangle making and sings qawwali with other survivors.
As she finishes her story, the expression on the faces of other women in the room darkens for a few moments before regaining the composure. Most of them are survivors of physical violence, sexual abuse and child marriages. One of the survivors of child marriage, 36-year-old Wasim Fatima from Fateh Darwaza, Old City was married off to a 55-yer-old Sheikh from Dubai while she was just a child of 12. “When they brought sweets, fruits and beautiful dresses for me, I was so happy.
I went out to play with other children showing off the gifts I received. For me marriage at that young age meant achha khana and rangeen kapdey. My mother didn’t want me to send off so early with the Sheikh, but he insisted on taking me to his hotel room,” she recalls with a distant look in her eyes. Later, he forced himself upon her and was sent home as his other wife found out about his new marriage.
He never contacted her again and much to her horror she realised that she was pregnant. “My mother was terrified as it was too late for abortion,” she shares adding that she gave birth to a girl who was brought up by her mother. She has not re-married and has been with Shaheen for the past 10 years. Another survivor is Sultana Begum from Nasheman Nagar in her mid age whose nose was cut off by her husband and her face smashed with a big stone. But the enthusiasm on her face belies the gashes on her skin as she claps and sings with other qawwalas. Why they are so committed to qawwali is clear when you sample lines like:
Zulmo sitam tum uspe na karna
Beti ko apne dil se lagana
Beti bachao, beti padhao or a spoof of Mughal-e-Azam qawwali:
Dilon mein thhaan li hum nay kabhi hum na chup baithenge
Nirbhaya Act mein usko phasa kar hum bhi dekhengey
These verses, though sung in qawwali form, convey messages to other women who are victims of incest, sexual violence, domestic troubles, child marriages etc. Poet-activist and founder of Shaheen Jameela Nishat has penned the lines.
When we look back, it was Sufi saint-poet Amir Khusro in Delhi who popularised the form of qawwali infusing Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian elements way back in 13th century. The tradition continues to flourish both in the northern part of the subcontinent, the other side of the border and here in Hyderabad. That’s how in the movie Rockstar we see a heartbroken homeless Ranbir Kapoor swooning with the mellifluous tunes of kun faya kun at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin.
And it’s only in a grand old movie like Mughal-e-Azam that we see qawwalas. But in public performances we rarely see them on the stage except for celebrity singers like Abida Parveen from Pakistan, who despite trained in Sufiyana music has taken a qawwali like style. It’s always the male singers who are seen, heard. Has the city seen the tradition of qawwalas? Was there a custom of their singing at family functions or private gatherings? It was one Shakila Bano Bhopali from Madhya Pradesh, who popularised the singing of women qawwals in 60s. Explains Jameela, “Qawwali mehfils at dargahs are old tradition here in Deccan.
There have been no qawwalas except for geet singers like Arjumand Nazeer wo’d perform at private functions or weddings. Bazme-e-Khwateen-e-Deccan was formed during Independence era, but belonged to the elite class. What qawwalas here at Shaheen are doing through these verses is that not only are they conveying their own stories they are also empowering other victims.
They don’t charge for performances as the same is for social message delivered beautifully to other women.” They have performed in several places like Lamakaan, Goethe Zentrum, Phoenix Arena, Hyderabad Public School for HLF and elsewhere. What they also do is that they go to different houses in Old City to find out if someone is being harassed or if the victim is aware of it. Sometimes they are welcomed sometimes not. They also tell young girls if they can be sexually abused in marriages and help them realise if they are actually being tormented within family.
So, is this another form of therapy for the survivors-qawwalas and not just an awareness tool? The women look at each other and Archana a survivor of domestic violence says, “We all come together and deliver the message that other women need to know. Through these lines we in a way relive and release what all we have gone through.” Avers the counsellor Devaki sitting amidst the survivors as the conversation lingers, “You see, these lines are also infused with Child Marriage Act, Nirbhaya Act, Child Protection Act and more. The girls connect to their pain while singing and some of them begin to cry as they see the poignant lines as mirrors to their own lives. This somehow dissolves their grief preparing them to face life head on.”
Meanwhile inside the courtyard, a carpet is spread out and the women sit one by one in their colourful clothes ready to tell the world their stories with resounding claps and qawwalis.
— Saima Afreen