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29 July 2011

My Favourites: Qawwalis

This post came about because of a discussion with my father, for whom I was downloading some music. His enthusiasm for the music and films of an earlier generation continues unbridled, and our discussion began with a search for songs from old hindi films. It is interesting to note that while it is easy enough to run songs from the 50s and later to the ground, songs from the earlier decade are few and far between. And so, to get good recordings of Amirbai Karnataki, Zohrabai Ambalewali and their ilk was not a sinecure.

And it set off a thought – I had been neglecting my blog of late, so why not a post about a now-ceased-to-exist (in films) music form? The qawwali was once an integral part of our films, and it was a sad day for music lovers when it ceased being so. In one sense, this post also came about because my father wanted me to download some old qawwalis that he had in cassette form, and I discovered how hard it was to find them.

Originally a form of Sufi devotional music, the qawwali can trace its roots back to 8th century Persia. How and when it made its presence felt in Hindustan is a matter of conjecture. However, it not only crossed borders, it also flourished, particularly in areas which had a strong Muslim presence. The modern qawwali, as we know of it in India, is a combination of the original Persian musical tradition brought in during the first wave of migrations from Persia and the music prevalent in India during the period.

Indeed, it is thanks to my father that some of these qawwalis made its way onto my list, quickly becoming my favourites. In fact, the non-filmi qawwali is one I had never heard before. My list is restricted to films from an earlier era, and so, qawwalis from later films like Amar Akbar AntonyHum Kisise Kam Nahin, and Zamane ko Dikhana Hai, melodious though they are, do not make an entry. Interestingly, all of them featured Rishi Kapoor as the qawwal. (Hmm, like Sunil Dutt and the piano, Shammi Kapoor and various musical instruments, maybe that is an idea for another post...) And I think the last qawwalis I saw picturised were in Farah Khan’s filmi tribute to the films of the seventies – Main Hoon Na, and the wonderful Khwaja mere Khwaja from Jodha Akbar. 

And so, here in no particular order are ten of my favourite qawwalis:

1. Humein to Loot Liya Milke Husnwaalon Ne
Film: Al-Hilal (1958)
Music: Bulo C Rani
Artistes: Ismail Azad Quawwal

Starring Mahipal, Shakila, Sheikh Mukhtar and Indira Bansal, the qawwali in this film followed the more common (to viewers) 'filmi' trope of the male singer complimenting his lover *and* complaining about her coldness / heartlessness etc., Scored by the underrated Bulo C Rani, the song definitely ranks amongst the finest in the genre, the antics of the artistes on film notwithstanding. Actually, close your eyes, and give yourself up to the lyrics and the music. You won’t regret it.

2. Chandi Ka Badan, Sone Ki Nazar
Film: Taj Mahal (1963)
Music: Roshan
Artistes: Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Asha Bhonsle, Meena Kapoor
An ode to eternal love, Taj Mahal was the story of Shehzada Khurram / Shah Jehan (Pradeep Kumar), and Arjuman Banu (Bina Rai), who later became enshrined in history and legend as Mallika-e-Alam Mumtaz Mahal. It is for love of her that he built a magnificent white marble mausoleum, which became famous as one of the seven wonders of the world. Myth has it that the Emperor had planned another mausoleum in black marble on the opposite banks of the River Yamuna but there has never been a shred of evidence to support this theory. 

With Bina Rai playing Mumtaz Mahal, and Pradeep Kumar as Prince Khurram, the film also starred Veena as the imperious Noor Jehan and Rehman as Shahenshah Jehangir. And while it is rather a stretch to see Jeevan portray a Royal (he somehow didn't fit the Raja-Rani type characters in my mind), Sahir's lyrics and Roshan's music and the golden vocals make listening to this a pleasure. 

3. Teri Mehfil Mein Kismet Aazmaakar
Film: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Music: Naushad
Artistes: Lata Mangeshkar, Shamshad Begum

Now, this was a visual treat as much as an aural one. Proud, imperious Nigar Sultana is Bahaar, a court dancer, who aspires to the crown of Hindustan. While Madhubala, glowing, gorgeous Madhubala, is Anarkali, the courtesan for whom a prince (a dashing Dilip Kumar) was willing to sacrifice both a throne and a nation. And the difference between the two women is most marked in this song - almost a competition, where both Bahaar and Anarkali describe their (contrasting) views of love. And so, while Bahaar likens her love to a rose, Anarkali is content with its being a thorn - for after all, as she says 'Kaanton ko murjhaane ka khauff nahin hota' (Thorns do not fear withering).

It is a competition that Bahaar wins (the prince offers her a rose), yet loses; and Anarkali loses, yet wins (her prince has laid his heart at her feet) - only to lose everything she holds most dear in the end, in one last throw of the dice. The fates are not kind to lovers. 

4. Nigah-e-naaz Ke
Artistes: Asha Bhonsle, Sudha Malhotra, Shankar-Shambhu 

It is hard to choose just one qawwali from this film when there are three lovely ones to choose from, and so, countering my usual habit of keeping to *one* song per film, the next three qawaalis are from Barsaat ki Raat. With Roshan’s music and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics, the musical score was memorable, to say the least.Unlike hindi films now where songs have become  fillers, and an opportunity to take the cast and crew to exotic locales, the songs and the competitions in Barsaat ki Raat form an integral part of the story. This is a film that justified the hero being a poet and a qawwal, and every one of the innumerable songs only served to underline the fact.
As the plot alternates between the poet-hero’s (Aman) search for his lost love, and his erstwhile landlord Mubarak Ali’s quest to regain his lost reputation, Nigah-e-naaz ke brings forth the latter’s two beautiful daughters who boast (deservedly) of their beauty, only to lose the competition to their rival, who has unknowingly used Aman’s lyrics (a morose Aman writes the lyrics for the competition at the behest of a wanna-be poet who then passes Aman’s lyrics off as his own.). 

5. Pehchaanta Hoon Khoob / Jee Chaahta Hai Choom Loon
Artistes: Asha Bhonsle, Sudha Malhotra, Balbir and Bande Hasan
This is the second of the qawwali competitions – and is a rematch between the two daughters of Mubarak Ali and Chand Khan to whom they lost the first round. They are in danger of losing this round too, only Aman is at hand this time to help his old friend and his daughters; his written-on-the-spot nazms help Shama and Shabab to win; and Chand Khan is not a complete loser – he gets to wed Shabab. 

6. Na Toh Kaarvan Ki Talaash Hai
Artistes: Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsle, Sudha Malhotra, Manna Dey, SB Bathish and troupe

This is perhaps the baap of all filmi qawwalis and is a masterpiece in that regard. Lyrics, music, picturisation - all meld together to offer one of hindi cinema’s most unforgettable sequences.
If Mubarak Ali wants to reclaim his place as the best qawwal of all time, he needs to defeat his rival, Daulat Khan. And the film makes its way to the famed Ajmer Sharif, where the final musical duel is to be fought. By this time, the lives of the main protagonists have been well and truly knotted together. 

Chand Khan, now married to Shabab, accompanies his wife and sister-in-law on the harmonium, and Shama and Shabab match Daulat Khan verse for verse, but soon, a distraught Shama, knowing that her love for her Aman is one-sided is too distraught to continue the duel; Aman takes over, and with new verses, triumphs not only in defeating the famed maestro, but also in unravelling the Gordian knot of his own love life. 

7. Nigahein Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai
Film: Dil Hi to Hai
Music: Roshan
Artiste: Asha Bhonsle

A charming Nutan, Asha’s liquid vocals, Sahir’s lyrics – what’s not to like about this qawwali? The movie was so-so (somehow the Nutan-Raj Kapoor pairing worked only in Anari), but the songs were to die for. This qawwali portrays a maiden’s lament – the wish to meet with her lover; with Nutan at her coquettish best, a heavily disguised Raj Kapoor (why is it that the audience *always* sees through the disguise?), and a dashing (but clueless) Pran. 

8. Sharmake Ye Kyun Pardanashin
Film: Chaudvin ka Chand (1961)
Music: Ravi
Artistes: Shamshad Begum, Asha Bhonsle

After the disastrous box-office performance of Kagaz ke Phool, it was Chaudvin ka Chand that rescued Guru Dutt films from bankruptcy. And perhaps, that is why, the latter film diverged completely from the lyrical quietness that lit Kagaz ke Phool. Chaudvin ka Chand is melodramatic, overly long, and is one of those films where you are sitting palm to face wondering *why* the characters cannot *talk* to each other in the first place! But then, where would the film be if they did?!
In a film where the plot hinged on love-at-first (and only)-sight-of- a-maiden’s-face-behind-a-flyaway-veil, is it any wonder that there is an ode to the veiled beloved? Guru Dutt peers from behind the blinds as the camera focuses lovingly on the breathtakingly beautiful Waheeda (the title song of the movie is an understatement where she is concerned!)… In a morbidly lachrymose tale of friendships and sacrifices, ill-fated destinies and star-crossed lovers, the woman is merely a pawn – never mind if her wishes are unheard, or worse, ignored. But oh, the songs, the songs!!! 

9. Milte Hi Nazar Tumse
Film: Ustadon ke Ustad (1963)
Music: Ravi
Artistes: Asha Bhonsle, Mohammed Rafi and Manna Dey
Starring Pradeep Kumar and Shakila, the picturisation of this qawwali is supposedly when Dinesh (Pradeep Kumar) is on the run – hence the disguise (Elementary, my dear Watson!). The plot is convoluted enough to make one tear out one’s hair in despair, but if you like masala thrillers, then this is definitely a movie for you.

This qawwali was also originally sung by Shakeela Bano Bhopali; unfortunately, the director Brij decided to retape it with Asha Bhonsle. 

10. Chadta Sooraj Dheere Dheere
Artiste: Janab Aziz Nazan
This is one of the non-filmi qawwalis that I had never heard until my father told me about it recently, despite it being one of Janab Aziz Nazan's most famous qawwalis. I have searched around but have not found it used (in a film) at all, which is a surprise because there was a period when Janab Aziz Nazan held sway over the genre, and was a very integral part of the Hindi film industry. Since there are no visuals to distract you, the lyrics play a more important part than usual. This one is unusually Sufi-esque, ruminating over life and its vagaries. 

While this does not fit the era (50s – 60s) which I am writing about, this is yet another of Aziz Nazan's contributions, and a qawwali worth listening to.
Director I.S. Johar used only a part of the famous qawwali in his eminently forgettable film starring a Rajesh Khanna-lookalike alongside his daughter Ambika Johar. (For what it is worth, Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor made fleeting appearances in the movie.) For the full (and original) version of this beautiful song sung by Janab Aziz Nazan, listen here.

The visuals in this two-minute clip are banal to say the least, so watch only if you are a die-hard fan of Ambika Johar. If you are like me and say 'Ambika Johar, who?' then do yourself a favour and click on the link to the original qawwali. 

I am in a continuing search for more songs from this genre, so please feel free to post your favourites. 

While researching songs for another post, I came across a couple of qawwalis that I had missed - one, a relatively rare one since very few people know of Shammi Kapoor's films before he attained the rebel star status with Tumsa Nahin Dekha.

Aankhon mein hai tu
Film: Laila Majnu (1953)
Music: Ghulam Mohammed
Artistes: Mohammed Rafi, Khan Mastana and Chorus
And indeed it is very difficult to think of Shammi playing the lovelorn Kaif. The other's omission is inexplicable since the song is one of my favourites, and it is picturised on one of my favourite actors - Balraj Sahni.
O Meri Zohra Jabeen
Film: Waqt (1965)
Music: Ravi
Artiste: Manna Dey
And I particularly like this one for showing the love between two 'mature' characters - there is mischief in Balraj Sahni's eyes, and it is quite evident that he wasn't thinking of mere companionship when he was so publicly courting his wife. 

© Anuradha Warrier


  1. I'd received a couple of requests from stuartnz to do a 'favourite qawwalis' list, and I'd drawn up a tentative list sometime back, so I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag by sharing some of the 50s and 60s qawwalis that I particularly like - but I will go so far as to say that I think that Na toh karvaan ki talaash hai is, in my opinion, the baap of them all! What a fabulous song - absolutely the best qawwali out there! I remember, when I was a kid, we had the audio cassette of Barsaat ki Raat at home, and my sister and I would often fast-forward the tape so we could listen to this qawwali as soon as possible. :-)

    By the way, here's one later qawwali that's pretty good AND doesn't have Rishi Kapoor (I agree - he was the qawwali expert of the 70s!):


  2. I am so looking forward to your list, Madhu. I love qawwalis - there is something in its cadence that calls to me. I must confess that I had forgotten about them for quite a long time. It's my father who recalled them to my memory - and I am so glad.

    So, when is your list coming out?? :)

  3. My qawwali post will only be published sometime later this year, Anu - perhaps October? I have about 9 posts to do in this 'linked posts' project that I'm doing right now, and that's going to be followed up by four wonderful guest posts that are lined up... but the qawwali post will definitely happen!

    Okay, now I'm off to read your Waheeda post. :-)

  4. Ouch! That is a long wait! But I am sure it will be worth it. I promise to forgive you provided you do not inflict another one of those 'Indian' movies on us! Really. I am still gagging from the two clips I saw.

  5. Hah!! You saw only the clips, Anu - I sat through those movies. They were horrendous - and no, no more of those coming up. I think you'll probably like what's up next. :-)

  6. And yet you saw them - I admire you. :)

  7. Ha! I'm so glad I unearthed this blog, Anu. Qawaalis are a favourite of mine, and it's been a long time since I heard any. So it was a nice hour or so of music as I systematically worked my way through your list. My favourite is 'Teri mehfil me kismat aazmakar' because I like the contrast between the way the two women view love.

    Did you know that Madhubala was so ill by the time they were shooting this song?

  8. Thanks so much for the compliment, Sridhar. You really made my day.

    Yes, I do know that Madhubala was ill - which is why there is so little movement in the song. And the lyrics are amazing! Two other songs that really move me are Mohabbat ki jhooti kahani pe roye and Humein kaash tumse mohabbat na hoti. Talk about resignation!

  9. Just got to India last night, still jetlagged, and you post! Such a melodious post too. It is not surprising, is it, that our lists resemble each others a lot? Only, I used all three qawaalis from Barsaat ki Raat.

    Here was my list...

  10. Parda Hai Parda...Shirdi Wale...

  11. Definitely. But my posts are (usually) restricted to films from an earlier era. I did make mention of these, though.

  12. Shukriya Anu!

  13. You're welcome, Hakeem Baig. : ) Thank you for visiting, and commenting.


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