The Beat of Our Souls: an explanation of the dholki

By Durkhanai

From the soulful melodies of the rubab to the somewhat electric rhythm of sitar to the throatal singing of nur sur, music is a part of the culture, deep in the blood of those who are South Asian. Each separate style of music is tied to a language, to a religion, to an ethnic group of people, and these styles are woven together to create the quilt of South Asian heterogeneity. The poetic nature of life is something highly regarded in this region; ghazals and shehiris form the basics of understanding one another. There was a time in South Asia when taxi drivers used to quote Allama Iqbal and Bulleh Shah because of the innate poetic nature of our souls. One such style of music and poetry which originated in the Punjab is now celebrated throughout the area of the subcontinent; this style is the dholki. 

The dholki is a small drum, with one side larger than the other. It is more commonly known as a dhol, and the practice of playing the dhol and singing around it is known as a dholki. Made from wood and goat skin, the dhol resembles a tabla. The larger side produces a heavy, deep toned rumble while the smaller side emits a high-toned chirp. Both sides produce a variety of sounds, low and high, depending on how apt the fingers who play it are. Dholki is commonly played at weddings, engagements, and other festivities. Each family usually has its own notebook on the verge of papers falling out, full of handwritten yrics, with variances based on regions and families. Typical Punjabi dholki songs include “Lathay di Chadar,” “Ballay Ballay,” “Chitta Kukkar,” “Mundayaa,” and “Pikki Paegi.” Some Urdu songs include songs such as  “Rasoolay Pak.” Songs sung with the dholki are often very lyrical, metaphorical, andepetitive. Below is the transliteration and translation of a couple of verses of the Punjabi song “Desan da Raja.”

Desan da raja, meray babul da pyara

King of the countries, my father’s darling

Desan da raja, meray babul da pyara

King of the countries, my father’s darling

Amri de dil da sahara

The support of mother’s heart

Nee veer mera ghori charayaa

My brother sits on the horse

Gori charayaa, nee saiyon ghori charayaa

He sits on the horse, friends, he sits on the horse

Sonay diyan taran da sehra jugalaya

He puts on his headpiece made of gold wires

Sonay diyan taran da sehra jugalaya

He puts on his headpiece made of gold wires

Veer mera da hoya roop sawanra

My brother looks really good

Veer mera da hoya roop sawanra

My brother looks really good

Chalyaa na javay lashakra

It is difficult to bear his beauty

Nee veer mera ghori charayaa

My brother gets on the horse

Ghorri charayaa, nee saiyon ghori charayaa

Sitting on the horse, his friends sit on the horse

Musical tradition in the Indian subcontinent is very much reminiscent of centuries past; assimilation of Islam to subcontinental culture comes with a resonation of indigenous traditions. Music in forms like qawwali is used to attain a certain level of spirituality. Qawwali is something inherently Sufi, so how does dholki fit into this? 

Rather than creating a new form of music, dholki has been adapted to be more “Islamic.” For example, the Urdu song of “Rasoolay Pak” is a favorite of dholki-goers – it incorporates a love for the Prophet Muhammad pbuh in celebration. “Rasoolay pak” is a name for Prophet. The song’s chorus highlights a love for the Prophet. The bride’s dress must be sewn, gold must be bought, and the mom of the bride must be congratulated, all ending with chants of wanting to be blessed by the Prophetic presence during the wedding. 

Bulao darzi, silay jora

Invite the tailor, sew the wedding dress

Jo dulhan pehen kar aayay

The one that the bride will come in 

Dulhan ki amma, se kehdheyna

To the bride’s mom, make sure to say

Mubarak ho, Mubarak ho

Congratulations, congratulations

Rasoolay pak ka sayaan

With the blessings of the Rasul, 

Mubarak ho, mubarak ho

Congratulations, congratulations

Dholki is also a way for oral folk tales and traditions to be passed down generation by generation. Many families have their own versions of specific songs. For example, my family has a tappa (tappa (plural tappay)  is akin to an original rhyming poem), that goes: 

Oy puttar-a! Tanday tanday paani se, nahani chahiye

Oh son, you should shower with cold water

O purttar-a, tanday tanday pani se nahani chahiye

Oh son, you should shower with cold water

Gana ayee gana ayee

The song is coming, the song is coming

Gana chahiye

We need song

O puttar-a!

Oh son,

Mumi ko to daddy se churana chahiye

Mom should be free of dad

Gana ayee ganaa ayee

The song is coming, the song is coming

Gana chahiye

We need song

The second verse is specific to the region my father’s family is from – Sialkot, Punjab. Sialkot is at the base of the Himalayan foothills and next to the border of Indian-occupied Jammu. As a result of geographic topography and ethnolinguistic diversity, there are many variations of the same base song; people add tappay, or their own verses, or random revelancies special to them. The way that dholki differs through areas of Pakistan is akin to the way religion is practiced in different areas of Pakistan. 

Dholkis are also used as a means to preserve Sufi tradition. Some dholki songs are renditions of qawwals. One of these songs in particular is “Laal Meri,” which is about Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi pir (saint) from Sindh. This hymn has been influenced by poems from Bulleh Shah, a Punjabi Sufi poet who lived in the 17-18th centuries, while furthermore being a part of mainstream Pakistani culture through renditions of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the legendary qawal, and Noor Jehan, a famous singer from the creation  of Pakistan to the 90s. The integration of Sufi music into women’s dholki ceremonies is further means of the effect that women and cultural practices had on the way religion was and continues to be practiced in South Asia. The use of Sufi hymns in a common womanly tradition is a way for women to engage with their spirituality, as the setting of qawwals is very male-dominated. The constant intertwining of faith and culture paves a path of adaptation and dynamism; culture is continuously changing, and the way religion is perceived is very much through a cultural lens. See the following lyrics and translation for the song “Laal Meri.” 

لال میری پت رکھیو بھلا جھولے لالن

(اے شہباز قلندر، میری لاج رکھنا)

laal meri pat rakhiyo bhala jhoole laalan

Please preserve my good name, noble Shahbaz Qalandar

سندھڑی دا سیہون دا شہباز قلندر

(سندھ کا، سیہون کا شہباز قلندر)

sindhṛi da sehwan da shahbaaz qalandar

O Shahbaz Qalandar of Sehwan and Sindh

دمادم – جھولے لال، جھولے لال، مست قلندر جھولے لال

(قلندر ہر دم خدا کی یاد میں مست ہے)

damaadam – jhoole laal jhoole laal mast qalandar jhoole laal

With every breath, the qalandar is lost in the ecstasy of God’s remembrance

دلبر دے دیدار نے کیتا مینوں مست و مست

(دلبر کے دیدار نے کیا ہے مجھ کو بالکل مست)

dilbar de deedaar ne keeta mainoon mast o mast

The sight of my beloved has made me drunk with passion

میخانے وچ کون ہووے گا میرے ورگا مست

(میخانے میں کون ہوگا میرے جیسا مست)

mai-khaane wich kaun howe ga mere warga mast

Who in the wine-house is anywhere near as drunk with passion?

اوس دل اندر قدر جہان دی کدرے نظر نہ آوے

(اُس دل میں دنیا کی پرواہ کہیں نظر نہ آئے)

us dil andar qadar jahaan di kidre nazar nah aawe

No thought of the world can be seen to remain anywhere in that heart

جو دل تیرے عشق نے کیتا میرے سوہنیا مست

(جس دل کو تیرے عشق نے کیا، میرے محبوب، مست)

jo dil tere ishq ne ne keeta mere sohniya mast

The heart that love for you, beloved, has made drunk with passion

رت بسنتی اندر ماہی جلوہ آن وکھایا

(بسنت رت میں محبوب نے آ کر جلوہ دکھایا)

rut basanti andar maahi jalwah aan wikhaaya

In the spring season, my beloved came out unveiled

بلبل نہر ہواواں پھل وی ہو گئے مست

(بلبل، نہر، ہوا اور پھول بھی ہو گئے مست)

bulbul nahar hawaawaan phul wi ho gaye mast

Even the nightingale, river, breeze and flowers became drunk with passion

روز اول میں جام جے پیتا وحدت مستی والا

(روزِ الست کو میں نے وحدت اور اقرارِ عبودیت کی مے جو پی)

roz awwal main jaam je peeta wahdat masti waala

Since the day of the Covenant of Alast, when I drank the wine of His Oneness

بوہے کنڈھاں شام سویرے مینوں دسدے مست

(صبح شام ہر لمحے مجھے در و دیوار نظر آتے ہیں مست)

boohey kanḍhaan shaam sawere mainoon disde mast

Morning and eve, the walls and doors look to me drunk with passion

اوہ نہ ڈردا دوزخ کولوں نہ لالچ جنت دا رکھے

(وہ نہیں ڈرتا دوزخ سے اور نہ رکھتا ہے جنت کی لالچ)

oah nah ḍarda dozakh kolon nah laalach jannat da rakkhe

That person fears not the fires of hell, nor hungers after heaven

جو وی ہو گیا ایس جہانے وانگ قلندر مست

(جو بھی ہو گیا اس جہاں میں قلندر جیسا مست)

jo wi ho gaya ais jahaane waang qalandar mast

Whichever person enters the state of the qalandar drunk with passion

چار چراغ تیرے بلن ہمیشہ

(چار چراغ تیرے روشن رہتے ہیں ہمیشہ)

chaar charaagh tere balan hameshah

Four lamps always remain lit to illumine each corner of your grave

Regardless of the variety that is found in dholkis, it is necessary to note that dholkis are holistically a tradition dating back centuries; women play the  dholki out of the pots, clay dishes, ceramics, and dhols that have been passed down through generations. Women of all ages sing crudely and melodically, simply and complicatedly, with passion and soul. Dholki is following the trend, unfortunately, of traditions that are dying in the subcontinent. Fewer and fewer young people are aware of the songs that predate them, they are unable to play the dhol, and instead, dholkis are used as functions of weddings – they are seen as an “event,” where women dance and sing to mass-produced industry songs. The intimate nature of dholkis is changing as culture amongst the upcoming generations changes in regards to culture and tradition. Years before, dholkis were something that happened informally, with family and those close to you; in the present, they are being used as a vain attempt of showcasing wealth, extravagance, and materialism, all of which they dispelled in the past. Although dholkis are diminishing, they are also being preserved by those who value them; Coke Studio has created many renditions of typical dholki songs which have pushed those songs to prominence in mainstream society. These efforts are not enough, however. Cultural preservation is a must, and it is necessary to record the songs sung across different families, different areas, by those who speak different languages, if we are to understand the vital role dholkis have played in the past, and could potentially play in the future. 

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