I was doing my usual morning browse through the news sites for something worth talking about, and I ran across a bigger story than I expected. In the middle of photos from Priyanka’s Paris trip, and a follow-up story about the Udta Punjab piracy case, there was news that a Pakistani Qawwali singer who had worked in the Hindi film industry had been shot and killed while riding in a car in Karachi.
I don’t really have anything intelligent or new to say about this, beyond the same sign off that most of the articles have, that I hope his soul rests in peace. But I do want to highlight some of the work he did while he was still on the earth with us. And not just his work, but the work of his whole family, which has been creating Qawwali music for hundreds of years, and contributed some of it to the films I love.
Especially because, according to some early reports, it is his artwork that lead to his death, as the extremist factions disapprove of using Qawwali music to praise God. And possibly specifically targeted Amjad Sabri because of the way he and his family have attempted to bring their music out of the traditional spaces, and into public performances and popular culture. Which is the same reason the great mass of Pakistanis loved him, and thousands have turned out for his funeral, mobbing the roads and bridges as they followed his coffin.
I love this song, I love how it makes the lead up to the final confrontation of the film not just a regular fight between a good guy and a bad guy, but a spiritual confrontation between the warring forces within the characters.
This song is why the Sabri family was most recently in the news, they objected to the use of their song in this film. Not, it should be noted, because they had any issues with the message of the film, or the placement of a religious hymn into a popular movie, but simply because their family did not get the credit for writing the piece.
It’s unsurprising that the family had no issues with the message of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, since they were already involved in the controversial-at-the-time film Henna. Henna is kind of a footnote now, but in 1990 it was generally agreed to be the first mainstream Hindi film to deal with an inter-religious romance. Of course, the romance involved amnesia and all sorts of other qualifiers, which is why it is kind of a footnote now and Bombay is usually considered the real “first” inter-religious romance. But back in 1990, it was kind of brave and nice for the Sabri family from Pakistan to be willing to be involved in this.
They were also part of this fabulous massive number from the end of Rajkumar, nicely mixing their song style in with a whole melange of other style, creating a sort of pan-South Asian flavor, that is very in keeping with the way Hindi film tries to combine all the different historical and ethnic groups of the subcontinent.
And finally, this is not a Sabri song, but it is my favorite Qawwali, and as this attack was an attack on the validity of the whole genre, on the spirituality of song as a means of worship, especially when those songs are sung not just in sacred spaces but as part of popular secular art, I feel like it is an appropriate way to end.