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In the early 13th century, the Chishti order of Sufis was founded at Ajmer. Centuries later Akbar, a ruler who genuinely searched for universal truth and religious tolerance, acknowledged the enormous contribution made to India by the Muslim Sufis, especially by those of the Chishti order, and made frequent pilgrimages to Ajmer on food to show his reverence for them.
The term sufi is derived from the word suf (wool), which referred to the garment sometimes worn by these ascetics. The Chishtis were the best known of the dervishes, ‘poor men’, who achieved a state of ectasy through song and dance, which gave rise to the genre of Sufi Music.
Qawwali is the most well known form of Sufi music. Qawwali is a music form that streches back at least 700 years. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines or dargahs throughout South Asia, it has also gained mainstream popularity. Qawwali music received international exposure through the work of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The poetry in a Qawwali is implicitly understood to be spiritual in its meaning, even though the lyrics can sometimes sound wildly secular. The central themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing (of man for the Divine).
Qawwalis tend to begin gently and build steadily to a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic states both among the musicians and within the audience. The singing style of qawwali is different from Western singing styles in many ways. For example, in words beginning with an "m", Western singers are apt to stress the vowel following the "m" rather than the "m" itself, whereas in qawwali, the "m" will usually be held, producing a muted tone. Also in qawwali, there is no distinction between what is known as the chest voice and the neck voice (the different areas that sound will resonate in depending on the frequency sung). Rather, qawwals sing very loudly and forcefully, which allows them to extend their chest voice to much higher frequencies than those used in Western singing, even though this usually causes a more noisy or strained sound than would be acceptable in the West.
A popular form of Sufi Music is the Ghazal (Or Gazal). The ghazal is a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same meter. A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The form is ancient, originating in 6th century Arabic verse. It is derived from the Arabian panegyric qasida. The structural requirements of the ghazal are similar in stringency to those of the Petrarchan sonnet. In its style and content it is a genre which has proved capable of an extraordinary variety of expression around its central themes of love and separation. It is one of the principal poetic forms which the Indo-Perso-Arabic civilization offered to the eastern Islamic world. Most ghazals can be viewed in a spiritual context, with the Beloved being a metaphor for God, or the poet's spiritual master. It is the intense Divine Love of sufism that serves as a model for all the forms of love found in ghazal poetry.
Traditionally invoking melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions, ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian musicians. The form has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thanks to such Persian poets as Rumi and Hafez and later due to Indian poets such as, Mirza Ghalib. In the eighteenth-century, the ghazal was used by poets writing in Urdu, a mix of the medieval languages of Northern India, including Persian. Among these poets, Ghalib is the recognized master of the Ghazal.
Another Classical form of Sufi Music is Kafi. Some well-known Kafi poets are Baba Farid, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast and Khwaja Ghulam Farid. This poetry style has also lent itself to the Kafi genre of singing, popular throughout South Asia, especially Pakistan and India. Over the years, both Kafi poetry and its rendition have experienced rapid growth phases as various poets and vocalists added their own influences to the form, creating a rich and varied poetic form, yet through it all it remained centered on the dialogue between the Soul and the Creator, symbolized by the murid (disciple) and his Murshid (Master), and often by lover and his Beloved.
The word Kafi is derived from the Arabic kafameaning group. The genre is said to be derived from the Arabic poetry genre, qasidah, amonorhyme ode that is always meant to be sung, using one or two lines as a refrain that is repeated to create a mood. Kafi poetry is usually themed around heroic and great romantic tales from the folkfore, often used as a metaphor for mystical truths, and spiritual longing.
Kafi singing is characterized by a devotional intensity in its delivery, and as such overlaps considerably with the Qawwali genre. Just like Qawwali, its performances often took place at the dargahs (mausoleums) of various Sufi saints in the region. However, unlike Qawwali, the musical arrangement is much simpler and may only include one harmonium, one tabla, one dholak and a single vocalist. The emphasis remains on the words rather than the music itself, since the central aim of Kafi music is to convey the essence of the mystical lyrics. The central verse is often repeated. There are no fixed styles of singing of Kafi. Traditionally dervishes in Sindh used instruments like Yaktaro, a one-stringed plucked instrument, and wooden clappers, chappars, though many contemporary singers have chosen their own variations.
Some of the early notable exponents of this form in the 1930s, when classical singing became highly popular, were Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, who used the dhrupad style in his rendition of Sindhi Kafis, and his contemporary in Sindhi kafi singing, Ustad Allahdino Noonari, who used the fusion form.