Two groups of women sit facing each other, comfortably stretched against pillows. Lights are flickering around them. In front of the ensembles lay instruments: an Indian harmonium, and a tabla. The women stare into each other’s eyes. Qawwali competition is about to start.
Did you think a battle of the voices is a Western invention? Musical skirmishes had been organised in northern India and Pakistan before it was cool. Qawwali, or Muslim Sufi music, usually sung in Urdu, Punjabi, or Hindi, was meant to glorify God. In Sufism, a deity could only be known through the experience of his love. Sufism, as a mystical system, implies the possibility of reconnection with the Absolute. Music, movement and singing can help to do it.
However, this is not what the women in the room decorated with flowers are expecting. They greet each other with a traditional Muslim gesture popular in South Asia, lowering their head and bringing their fingertips to their forehead (hind. aadaab), and they begin the musical duel.
Tradition and modernity in Qawwali
In the traditional qawwali, the ensemble consists of about eight men. One of whom is a cantor, i.e. chants songs and usually plays the harmonium. The others sing along with him or play the drums: tabla or dholak. Everyone sways to the rhythm of the music and claps their hands.
There are also cantors among the two groups of women in the video. And although it may seem that the video aesthetics and the traditional themes of qawwali will make them touch on sublime topics, this is not the case. Each of the cantors sings their “Creep Qawwali”, a story about unwanted messages that appear in their inboxes on Facebook, dick pics sent to them by strangers and “creeps”, i.e. guys who break the rules of functioning in society, making every woman skin’s crawling. Standing in front of a victim’s windows? Sure. Impersonating her caretaker? Of course.
The topic of the qawwali may not be entirely sublime, but unfortunately it is universal. Stalking, or persisting harassment, is a phenomenon that occurs in almost all countries around the world. Research in European countries shows that
in England and Wales, 12% of respondents said they had experienced repeated harassment, while in Sweden the figure was 9%, three-quarters of whom were women. Another British study showed that 19% of women and 12% of the men surveyed felt that they had been victims of stalking. In Germany, 12% of respondents said they had been stalked at least once in their lifetime. About 85-87% of the victims were women, and in half of the cases the perpetrators harassed their former partners.
Sisterhood of Qawwali
Among the shouts of admiration for the apt lines sung by the cantors [Hind. Wah! Kya burn kiya hai! – Wow! But she put it out!], the women outdo each other in descriptions of the stalking behaviour of their “creeps”.
“Your creep isn’t even a real creep,
My mother would love to see him at our wedding. (…)
[My creep] brought me a pizza one day
And said something very shady:
I delivered you pizza, will you deliver my baby?”
As the rhythm of the qawwali gets faster and faster, the women notice that certain traits and behaviour of their “creeps” are similar. Is it possible? “Does your creep’s name start with an S?” “Does your creep’s name start with a K?”. “Suresh Kumar?” Yes! It was the same stalker all this time!
“The battle for voices” ends with a sisterly embrace of the cantors. Together, it will be easier for them to deal with the dodgy types.
The witty form of the “Creep Qawwali”, the vivid expression of the actresses playing in the music video and the feminist overtones of the song resulted in 2 million 800 thousand views on YouTube.
It’s not about competition
However, the Qawwals, or men singing mystical Sufi music, argue that qawwali is not about competition. The image of two bands trying to compete with each other with their musical artistry has been spread by Bollywood films such as Barsaat Ki Raat [hind. Rainy Night] or Mughal-E-Azam [hind. Great Mogul].
However, even traditionalists like Ustad Chand Nizami had to come to terms with the fact that qawwali has become secularised and that today cantors sing also about unhappy love, loneliness, or an unwanted admirer.
Indeed, female musicians. The traditional qawwali is still dominated by men. Women’s bands make their way to the mainstream much less often.
It will not be a feminist anthem
However, lest it be so colourful and feminist, at the end of the performance we learn that the show we just had the opportunity to see is not a social campaign aimed at appealing to the minds of men who cannot accept rejection. Truly Madly, the logo on the right side of the screen is… a dating app. A comedy track that efficiently captures the absurdities that await women surfing the Internet, therefore, will not become a feminist anthem. It serves other purposes. But it doesn’t matter: India and Pakistan are countries with a rich culture of protest and contestation movements. There will be no shortage of feminist protest songs.
Creep Qawwali was created thanks to the collaboration of the comedy group All India Backchod with the Truly Madly app. The video features Shweta Basu Prasad, Dipika Pandey, Shrishti Arya, Ridhima Bhasin, Manvi Garg, Shraddha Patel, Ana Ilmi, Sahiba Sawhney, Manasi Chandu, Megha Chandu and Juby Anna Babu.
The article is published as part of a series in which we introduce music from various cultures. We pay attention to its contexts and characters related to it. The originator of the series is Michał Misiarczyk.
Andrzej Siemaszko (red.), Beata Gruszczyńska, Marek Marczewski, Paweł Ostaszewski, Dagmara Woźniakowska-Fajst, Stalking w Polsce. Rozmiary-formy-skutki. Raport z badania nt. uporczywego nękania, Archiwum Kryminologii, Nr XXXII (2010)
Gendered Sufi Music. Mapping Female Voices in Qawwali Performance from Bollywood to You Tube Channels