Getting up before dawn to eat and then remain fasting till sunset has never been an easy task for the Muslim community during the month of Ramadan. After iftar, or breaking of the fast, and the mass prayer called Tarawih that ends close to midnight, most of the fast observers or ‘rozedars’ are drained of energy and can struggle to be up again in the early hours of the morning to repeat the cycle.
To wake the rozedars, there used to be a group of people; volunteers who sang sehri songs from 2am while passing through the alleys of the older parts of Dhaka. Those songs were mostly sung in the Ghazal fashion and in the Urdu language, and were known as Qasida songs.
Old Dhaka had a rich culture of Qasida singers from time immemorial, but it is a tradition that is now almost lost. Historically, these singers were patronised by the Sardar of different moholla (neighbourhoods). Their songs were part and parcel of the lives of Old Dhakaites during the wee hours of Ramadan.
A tradition borne in moholla culture
Rashed Al Amin, a leather businessman of Khajidewan area of Old Dhaka who has been living there for the past 54 years, said that Qasida songs are something that he had grown up with.
“I can still remember the lines of some of the old Qasida songs. ‘Uth te hain pichle pahar raat ko kha kar sehri. Shauq se rakhiyo tu kal roza, main tere vaari,’” said Rashed.
Rashed’s maternal grandfather was once known as Nannu Sardar, the head of the Khajidewan neighbourhood. “In my childhood, before the start of the month of Ramadan, a group of Qasida singers used to visit our home to get my grandfather’s blessing. There was a culture of patronising those singers.”
He said that now with the emergence of satellite TVs, Internet and social media, many people, especially the younger generation, barely sleep before sehri. “Before, it was not like that. After the Tarawih prayer, people used to sleep and it was hard for them to wake up at dawn again for sehri.”
The soulful ghazals that lulled people into wakefulness are possibly centuries old and written by famous shayars (poets) from Lahore or Delhi.
“Later, some of the Qasida singers wrote and composed songs in Bangla during the late 80s. But Qasida songs are mostly sung in Urdu,” he said.
Even 10 years ago, Qasida singers could be spotted in the Khajidewan area, but with the disappearing culture of mohollas and sardars, the culture of Qasida is under threat as well.
“The high rise apartment cultures have devoured this part of the city too. Qasida songs were appropriate in a close-knit neighbourhood with two or three storied buildings on both sides of the streets. But as these houses get replaced with high-rises and the joint families become nuclear instead, the Qasida culture is also being replaced by TV and Internet.”
Practitioner of a lost art
While almost all of the Qasida singers have thrown in their towels, a few singers like Shamsher Rahman of Posta, Lalbagh still bear the mantles of the long tradition of Qasida songs.
Shamsher Rahman took charge of a Qasida music group after his Ustad Jumman Miah died in 2011, who performed Qasida songs for 62 years.
“I have learned Qasida directly from my Ustad. I have also performed with him at different neighbourhoods in Old Dhaka.”
Shamsher said that before, they used to go to different mohollas and take permission from the sardars to perform throughout the Ramadan month.
“We used to do that voluntarily, but people in the neighbourhoods used to give us gifts and money. Besides, we used to get Bakhshish (monetary gift) after the end of Ramadan, on the day of Eid-Ul-Fitr.”
But now, things have changed. Shamshed and his group are no longer doing this throughout the month. “Now we perform only if any organisation hires us to do it.”
Shamshed however, believes that the culture of Qasida songs will not be lost completely. “There are still a few groups who are practicing the tradition. I believe Qasida songs will survive the test of time.”
– Performance and recitation of religious music and poetry has been a feature of Muslim piety for many centuries in different cultures. The tradition of devotional poetry amongst the Ismailis in Persia (modern day Iran), known as Qasidas, is part of the broader literary tradition of Persia found among other Muslim traditions as well.
– Qasida is a form of poetry which typically runs more than 50 lines, and sometimes more than 100, and has a single presiding subject, logically developed and concluded. The poem is written in praise of religion or saints.