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Nizamuddin - Qawwali

INDIA | Saturday, 14 December 2013 | Views [1271]

New Delhi, August, 1st 2013

I had arrived in New Delhi a few days earlier and had only that short time to get used to the smell, the dirt, the suffering, the heat, the spices, the noise, the madness of rickshaw driving, the disorganisation, the ... huge gap which exists between our European living and the everyday Delhi hectic life of men, women, children, dogs and more. When I arrived in India I felt a slap in my face. I was told India is where yoga was invented and most practiced: what I found was everything but peace.

It was around a cup of chai that we decided to head to Nizamuddin mosque. We knew that during ramadan, muslims gather in the mosque on thursday evenings to chant the traditional Qawwali music, which is a crossroads between traditional muslim and hindu instrumental mantra. I found the idea interesting as if one studies the country's history, it is obvious that muslims and hindus have a heavy past of war making. Therefore, a Qawwali had the sound of a reunion driven by forgivness between the two religions and the cultures they carry.

We jumped in a rickshaw, my sister and I, dressed in a head scarf on top of the typical kurta outfit. In many Indian places it is suggested to blend into the population as best as you can especially when you have coloured hear and eyes to lessen the staring/ touching of men as much as women and children. As far as I am concerned, in areas where people have nothing for a life but themselves, it is a way to show my respect of the dress code to a welcoming culture as much as the former argument I just pointed out.

We arrived in Nizamuddin West when the night was almost dark after hard negociations with a local rickshaw. Nizamuddin West is mainly a long street which crawls up to the mosque in which you can portray men, all wearing the muslim white cap and kurta, circulating in a manner of upward and downward slow moving yet forceful human traffic jam; on the sides are bazaar like shops cooking street food, selling flowers or other gifts to offer as you pray. Beyond each side stand handmade living areas on numerous levels with children playing everywhere and women in the doorways.

I feel affection for the way one can sense the familliar atmosphere while walking up to the mosque: it feels like the place is one extensive family having a gathering linked by the strong culture and beliefs they share. It feels like their God is shielding upon all of us although I do not belong to this religion.

In this turnmoil we arrived at the gate: the spectacularly well conserved  four hundred and fifty year old mosque entrance made of marble and handcraft. From there on we had to walk bare foot, left our shoes and headed into the maze like dark corridor where I could hardly see one meter ahead. The more one walk in, the better they get used to the smell, the dark and finally can picture the poor. The ill, the disabled, the homeless or lonely lay there of the soiled floor begging for charity from the religious on their way to pray. I was heartbroken by the number of children running to me saying "hello" while grabbing my arm to who I replied "hello" with a hearty smile but left with empty hands.

We continued walking further on dirt and spit. Finally we arrived to an open sky ten meters long water basin surrounded by fifteen meters high ruins from where children had fun jumping off, the outcome of the second marble tunnel led to the mosque itself. While asking around where the Qawwali was, we realised no one semed to know about it... Nonetheless, something was undoubtely occuring in the overcrowded mosque. Women and children on one side of the central dargah (mausoleum of the soufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya), men on the other: everyone was sat down waiting while a few were trying to yell out orders.

We sat down on the crammed women's side for ages when suddenly food started to be served. The mosque was serving diner to the rupee- less: one slice of watermelon, a pakora, half a banana and a mountain of flies on top. We passed on the paper plates to our neighbours.

Next moment, we were brushed away by the mosque staff sweeping the floor with oversized brushes while not really caring who was standing in their way forcing the crowd to push around for their barefeet not to be brushed away with the litter caused by diner on the floor. Meanwhile, others washed their faces, feet and hands in the washbasin containing dark, probably unhealthy water. A man caught my eye as he was drinking the water... I wondered if his bicoloured skin was linked to what he drank, I thought many diseas must be caused by this common habit to clean and drink water from religious sites before praying.

All the men faced the mosque and prayed after which everyone became restless and we tried to ask when was Qawwali happening, still no one was able to tell. For the second time the mass sat down forming a corridor like partition in the center; this time men and women were together. We noticed at the top of the corridor was the music band settling. When they got started everyone listened religiously to the tune and voices singing in turn like a Jazz band would let each instrument perfom solo. A few wealthy women, who were not present for diner, were escorted and placed next to the singers and us. They seemed to be VIP's in the community.

Some started singing and closing their eyes, feelling the spritituality within them. Everyone was enjoying the moment for themselves without fighting their way through the packed audience or bothering anyone, we felt at peace at last. A man walking up and down the corridor was collecting money from those who streched their arms up giving notes. The contrast between the high tech camera and the mainly needy spectators was quite stricking: we were being recorded on TV.

 It was only around 9pm that we both looked at each other and said almost in tune "shall we make a move". We had noticed that increasingly people in small corners yet all around us were dancing in the craziest way. Men and women seemed as if possessed by demons; in trance they were throwing their heads so violently from one side to another in circle motion and with so fierceful energy that I was genuinely afraid that one of them would smash themselves against a wall and get seriously injured. These people looked mad and in need of help but everyone seemed to find this normal. We noticed they all came from behind a wall and decided to have a glance to what went on there. We found a man burning non identified things and people consuming it.

We decided to leave, went back through the maze which had allowed us to access the mosque earlier. It was now empty with only a few very small children sleeping on the floor. I suddenly remembered when my own parents through parties with all their friends and I was so little I could not stay up all night, I always ended up falling asleep in a corner or on a couch while others were dancing though the night. I believed these children also were too sleepy to be part of the party, I also felt disheartened to observe that their community, or their parents if they had any, did not care about them to let a small child assist to such disturbing dances or rituals. Adults were so uncontrollable and out of their minds in the Qawwali that their children could be sleeping on a filthy floor, people tripping on them or just be missing, no one minded.

I would like to understand what took place in the mosque after 9pm when we left. I was told that the transcendental dances are a form of exorcism to chase the demons out of your body. I wonder if part of the ritual consists in taking drugs or if spirituality can really drive you that mad. Additionally, nobody was keen to tell Qawwali was happenning because the muslims dislike people from outside their community to get involved.

Qawwali has set before me a dual picture: misery and hope. Hope because I believe that happiness comes with others and the mosque's community is for the deprived a light of hope: a feeling to belong somewhere in this world.


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