The haunting Raag Zeelaf is a rare raag. Opionion among Indian Classical Music (ICM) experts is divided between those who claim that it was invented by Hazrat Amir Khusrau and others who give him credit solely for popularizing it. There is little debate, however, over Amir Khusrau's pioneering and overarching influence on ICM, especially in the Khayal and Qawwali genres. Several extant raags owe either their existence or popularity to him, as well as to later sufi saints and to Muslim patron rulers.
Zeelaf is classified under thaat Bhairav. A thaat refers to a group of raags that share certain key musical traits. The thaat system of classifying the raags of ICM was introduced by the musicologist Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande in the early 1900s. In Pandit Bhatkhande's system, 195 raags were arranged under ten main thaats. He named each thaat after one prominent raag in the same thaat. The raags themselves pre-dated Bhatkandhe's thaats.
The ten thaats are:
Zeelaf has been used by Qawwals and Khayal singers alike to deliver sufiana kalam. The khayal rendition below, for instance, uses these sufi lyrics:
Sultan Nizamuddin navi, Rakho moray mun ki deel
Sahib-e-jamaal tu hay, Ta ta balhari jawoon
The recording starts with a detailed introduction of Zeelaf's technical intricacies by the renowened ICM musicologist Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (1912-1984). The actual bandish (i.e., composition ) starts at 2:10.
The introduction drives home the inherent complexity of the system of raags. Each raag is confined to a set of notes (sur) and rules of ascent and descent. The master performer improvises his bandish within that framework. Even a single misplaced note can take the bandish into an entirely different raag and thus spoil the performance.
Listening to such gems of Khayal (and Qawwali), one appreciates the genius of both the Sufi saint who wrote the poetry and the master musician who invented the raag or the particular bandish. Not to mention the performer who brings the two together to create the mystical experience. This is the sublime legacy of Amir Khusrau's tradition.
Vocals: Ustad Badar-u-Zaman and Ustad Qamar-u-Zaman.
Tabla: Ustad Shaukat Husain.
Sarangi: Ustad Nazim Ali.