Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah – A travel photo essay

If you’re a reader of my monthly newsletter, you’ll have met this gentleman in the September 2012 issue (TIP: if you’ve not done so already, sign up here). You may have even let his face grace your desktop, as I gave away this image in various sizes for use as a wallpaper. He’s a member of the fabulous troupe of Sufi Qawwali singers who perform every Thursday evening at Nizamuddin Dargah in the Indian capital city, New Delhi. It’s really an experience you shouldn’t miss if you can possibly help it.

If you’d like to whet your appetite ahead of a visit, or if you live on the other side of the world from India and must settle for living vicariously through me, then I have a treat for you. Today, I’ve teamed up with the fabulous young writer Meera Vijayann to bring you a photo essay from the dargah. Click the image below to go there now, and don’t forget to tap the audio link at the top of the page before you begin reading – it’ll make the atmosphere complete!

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CLICK THE IMAGE to go to the photo essay.


Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

Through this photo essay, journey with writer Meera Vijayann and I to Nizamuddin Dargah in the Indian capital of Delhi. There, we’ll witness its electrifying Qawwali singers belting their lungs out to this type of Sufi devotional music that’s been popular in the Subcontinent for hundreds of years. Make sure you first click ‘play’ below, so that you can listen to Allah Hoo, one of the most well-known Qawwali songs, as you read.

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At the corner of Humayun’s Tomb, the Nizamuddin Dargah rises, a stony edifice of smoky grey. Pretentious at first sight, yet rich in soul, Delhi is no ordinary city. At the grand entrance of the dargah’s inner courtyard, you begin to forget the deafening chaos and prepare to lose yourself in its music.


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As dusk falls, people hurry into the courtyard. Outside, flower sellers call out to visitors, offering rose petals for a coin or two. After the death of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, some believe, these Sajjada Nashins (guardians who tend to the shrine) continue to fiercely guard the dargah.


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Offer your respects at the mazār (tomb) of renowned poet Mirza Ghalib as the evening namaaz (prayer) draws to a close. People of all ages and faiths gather soon after, and under open skies, the Qawwals begin their routine, their voices reverberating through the compound.


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As the singers break into a Qawwali, enraptured listeners look on. Though few classical Qawwal families have carried forward the 750-year old tradition, its purity remains largely unaffected. Drowning in the melody of harmoniums, verse and song, the evening begins.


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Tourists regularly visit, trying to fit in, donning palm woven caps to honour both saints and singers. Unassuming travellers over the years have played a role in lending the Qawwali a worldly touch. Frayed denims, branded watches and fashionable attire have encouraged Qawwals to spring in film songs, love poetry and Persian verse to embrace their presence.


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Classic Qawwals don’t merely recite, sing and compose; they also explain the subtleties to their listeners. The houses of Qawwali usually begin with the famous verse, Saba ba suen medina rukon Azin duago salam barkha, asking the morning breeze (Nizamuddin Auliya) to pay their respects to the Prophet on reaching Medina.


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After an energetic performance, the evening draws to a close. Amidst cheers and applause, those who remain shower currency on the performers. As the mellow, soothing sounds of the harmonium fill the complex, a strange restlessness descends.


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There is no better way to end the day than by relishing the flavours of Delhi’s streets. As the crowds gradually disperse and leave the dargah, they find several community cooks sitting outdoors, serving a delicious choice of meats and lentils to the hungry. Soak in the atmosphere sitting on a wooden bench, sipping on chai or digging into a plate of kebabs. You cannot help but leave with a sense of fulfillment.


Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II – Say NO to Backblaze!

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of online backup. Today, I feel duty-bound to give some more strongly-worded advice on this. But if you don’t have the time to read what follows, then I think the following graphic pretty much says it all:

backblaze liability Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II   Say NO to Backblaze!

If you thought Backblaze was a great solution for online external hard drive backups, PLEASE think again.

What I mean to show with this graphic is that Backblaze offer a service that they say will guarantee one peace of mind about the security of one’s data, yet the reality couldn’t be further from this ‘guarantee’. The images of the computer, the first arrow and the Backblaze vault are theirs. If one opens the Backblaze panel on one’s system, this is what it shows, together with figures that show the amount of data they’ve backed up. I have added the second arrow and the external hard drive in flames. This is because, on 10th September 2012, I opened my Backblaze panel to find that the several hundreds of gigabytes of data – the RAW files of all my precious images – were no longer showing as backed up. In place of the previous number was a rather small yet conspicuous zero. And that zero remained.


I’ve been through this ‘zero thing’ before with Backblaze. I knew that when an external hard drive is removed, Backblaze registers the data as – in effect – deleted. I understood what they’d told me (and what I’d read on their site) clearly enough: one must plug in one’s external hard drive(s) at least once every 30 days after the application detects that the drive was unplugged to ensure that the data remains backed up. After re-plugging in one’s external drive, Backblaze will see the data it had earmarked as deleted (but not yet irreversibly junked) and ‘deduplicate’. So I waited for this ‘deduplication’ to happen.

It was to be a long wait. And, guess what? It never happened. Their best practices section says to “run Backblaze continuously for five hours once every two weeks”, especially after re-attaching an external drive. Well, firstly, there has never been a time when Backblaze has not been running on my laptop; and, secondly, I left it running continuously not just for five hours, not even for ‘only’ 24 hours (as customer support had suggested), but for several days after starting my system up and seeing that zero. To no avail.

Take your money, and go!

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned in the comments section that I was in touch with Backblaze’s head developer, the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of the company. Brian Wilson is a very nice man, I must admit. But he had no solution to my problem. In fact, he urged me again and again to accept a full refund and to leave Backblaze! That’s not really an optimal solution, after having spent 10 months backing up using his application, to the point that my backup was 99% complete. He said the only alternative was that I could re-push all my data.

Ok, so I’d been pushing all this data gradually over ten months using what most Americans would now regard as ultra slow Internet connections, as I’ve been in countries of the Global South (formerly known as the ‘developing world’). Backblaze, or a service like it, may not be the best solution for people like me, who need to guarantee their clients that their large files are safe while they’re on the move. Mr Wilson kept pointing to the best practices statement that “Backblaze should be able to complete your initial backup in 30 days. If your initial backup is estimated to take longer, then Backblaze may not be the best solution for you”. However, at this stage, my broadband speed was no longer even relevant, as the backup had pretty much been completed. The relevant fact was this: Backblaze thought I had 0 bytes of data. That’s all. Simple. So what could they do about it?

Apparently, nothing. “You must re-push”, he told me again and again. Yes, they had all my RAW files in their data centre (or did they?! I’ll come to that in just a moment), but after 30 days had elapsed, these would be ‘securely’ deleted. If I suffered data loss locally during those 30 days, I could recover my files. After that, they would be gone forever. Re-installing Backblaze was not a solution (I tried it multiple times). The application had clearly malfunctioned, and the greatest technical mind at the company could offer me no answer. He sent me a list of four possible causes for what had happened, and I know for a fact that none of the first three of these had occurred in my case. The fourth, however, seems like a possibility: “Something [could have] triggered a Backblaze bug where it executed the code that normally runs only when a drive has been unplugged for 30 days”.


As a company that’s accepted the responsibility of playing custodian of thousands (tens of thousands? Hundreds? More?!) of people’s precious data, I must say that the man at the top when it comes to all things technical is exceedingly blasé about what this responsibility means. He thought that offering my money back and just walking away from the mess his company had potentially left me in was ‘generous’. In fact, let’s look at the precise wording of what he said:

In all honestly it felt generous to me. Your backup used up disk space in our datacenter for 10 months, we will just absorb that cost to make this right. The drives use up electricity we paid for, we pay security guards, all of that we will simply absorb to make this right. You used datacenter bandwidth we just lost money on to make this right. We have interacted by email with you quite extensively, paying each employee that exchanged emails with you a wage, again, all this cost absorbed by Backblaze. And in addition to all of that cost, we will simply give you back all your money you have ever paid to Backblaze to make this utterly financially free to you. FREE!!

I could write a whole essay in response to this paragraph, but I don’t think I need to. Suffice it to say, as I pointed out, that if they offered telephone support then all of the voluminous communication that both sides spent many hours (days?) on could have been saved with one phone call. Mr Wilson told me that offering this would ‘bankrupt’ the company. I suggested they offer it as a premium service. He wasn’t interested.

Ultimately, the point where anything could have been done (30 days after ‘the incident’) passed and Backblaze’s mirror of my external drive’s data was gone forever. It is of course decent to give a refund under circumstances like these. But under circumstances like these, where all the images I’ve ever shot professionally are suddenly rendered vulnerable, it is also decent to go the extra mile. Backblaze were least interested in stepping up to the mark.

Moving forward

So what now? Well, I’ve done a fresh round of research and found what seems like a decent alternative. I’ve started to re-push, not to the imbeciles at Backblaze but to the seemingly responsible and professional folk at CrashPlan. In addition to replying to e-mails over the weekend (unlike Backblaze), they DO offer phone support, and they don’t seem to fear these things bankrupting them. Indeed, they don’t feel they need to charge more for such service; their offering actually costs less than Backblaze’s.

And what about external hard drives for Mac users? (Carbonite, as I mentioned in my previous post, offer an excellent service, but Mac users cannot back their external drives up to them.) Again, CrashPlan seem to talk sense. “Could you tell me how long this external drive can be unplugged before Crashplan regards the data as deleted?”, I asked them, with memories of the Backblaze madness still so fresh in my mind. The reply: “The external drive can be unplugged as long as you want and the data will never be removed. CrashPlan will maintain the backup as long as you have an active subscription”. Now isn’t that so much more sensible? Compare it to what Backblaze’s CTO told me about the system he himself designed:

There exists a trade off whether [sic.] Backblaze should pounce on any hard drive that is plugged in and scan it as quickly as possible (the behavior that would have helped you), or have Backblaze VERY SLOWLY figure out 30 minutes after the hard drive is plugged in that it needs to be scanned, then SLOWLY index the drive over a 2 – 3 hour period (this behavior dramatically helps lower the impact of Backblaze on your system). After this 30 minutes and 2 – 3 hours, then Backblaze needs to transmit a few files it finds, and then 4 hours [sic.] of transmitting at VERY VERY MOST, Backblaze transmits the “status” to the datacenter which says your hard drive was plugged in.


Of course, only time will tell whether CrashPlan is as good as it’s looked during the first few weeks I’ve been trialling it. I am at least far more hopeful and relaxed about my data than I used to be with Backblaze. So far, almost all of 2012′s images have been backed up to the CrashPlan data centre, and – as I always did – I have everything I’ve ever shot additionally backed up on another huge external drive that I try to keep separately (though that’s not always possible as I’m on the road so often, which is why online backup is so essential to me).

For those who live in the US or Australia (and, soon, Europe), it’s even possible to seed one’s backup to CrashPlan. This means that one pays a bit extra and they’ll send an external drive to copy all one’s data to and send back to them. Naturally, this is a whole lot quicker and will not eat into your bandwidth, nor encroach upon your Internet provider’s fair usage policy. Again, no hint that this sensible service will make the company bankrupt!

Oh Backblaze, what an all-round disappointment you’ve proven. When I first started with you, I tweeted that you were a globally mobile photographer’s dream. Now, I hope that no such photographer will ever make the mistake of choosing your so-called ‘service’ again, at least not until you correct the serious flaws with your product and also stop being so cynical towards your customers.