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When the giants squabbled (music soared)

Published Aug 08, 2013 04:16pm


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The 1970s and early 1980s were a golden age of Quwalli in Pakistan. This genre of Muslim devotional music first emerged almost 700 years ago in Afghanistan and Iran.

But from the 11th century CE it found a more receptive home and audience in South Asia that had begun to attract the attention and interest of a number of Sufi saints, who began to arrive here from Central Asia, Persia and Baghdad.

However, when Quwalli arrived in South Asia, it was in the shape of Sufi devotional music practiced by Sufi orders in Persia and Turkey in which the poetic deeds and beauty of the Almighty and his creations were sung to the tune of hypnotic and repetitive music and whirling dances.

The genre became to be known as Quwalli when it came into contact with the classical musical traditions of South Asia and devotional music of the dominant religions found in the subcontinent.

It adopted the many instruments developed by Amir Khusro, a brilliant 13th century musician and poet in the court of India’s Muslim Delhi Sultanate (12th-15th century CE).

Though the music genre that, when it arrived in South Asia, had a tradition of being restricted to the inner workings and members of Sufi orders, by the 16th century (in the subcontinent) it became to also reflect the emotional and devotional dynamics of the populist culture and milieu that began to develop around the cult of living Sufi saints, and more so, around the shrines of such saints.

These shrines that today can be found across both India and Pakistan were visited not only by the region’s Muslims, but also by Hindus and (later) Sikhs.

There is a history of conflict between Sufism and the more orthodox strands of Islam in which Sufi saints and orders rejected the strict ritual and doctrinal regimentation of orthodoxy, accusing it of divorcing Islam from its spiritual content and soul.

The orthodox ulema retaliated by condemning Sufism for introducing ritualistic and philosophical innovations (biddat) and at times, out rightly rejecting Islamic rituals prescribed by the Sharia – the Islamic body of law formed by various Islamic jurists some two to three hundred years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad.

They also scorned at the culture that began to develop around Sufi shrines in which common peasants, traders and homeless men and women indulged in music, drugs, drink and sometimes crime.

The Sufis responded by suggesting that the shrines were perhaps the only places in the realm where men and women of all creeds, castes and classes were welcome, and where the poor could find some shelter and food.

To the Sufis, Islam meant serving and respecting all humanity because all men where God’s creation.

But the most interesting aspect of this conflict was how Sufi saints and the orthodox ulema in the subcontinent (during Muslim rule) vied for influence in the royal courts.

Muslim regimes of the region, from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal Empire, employed a number of Islamic scholars and ulema. But knowing well the influence and the popularity the Sufi saints enjoyed among the Muslim, as well as the Hindu subjects of the region, the Sultans and emperors were more inclined towards favoring the saints.

It is, however, also correct that not all Sufi orders were always entirely copious, pluralistic and accommodating. Some also scorned at the popular culture that had developed around them and were critical of some of their contemporaries of rejecting the Sharia, Islamic ritualism and indulging in doctrinal innovation.

Nevertheless, the popular memory of the conflict is still more about Sufi saints who had abandoned the world of material well being and power politics, and isolated themselves to acquire a unique spiritual link with the Almighty.

Most of the popular Sufis we know today reach us through their poetry composed in certain ragas which points out to the fact that these Sufi were indeed poet musicians. Some of their thoughts are clearly subversive and anti-establishment. However, most historical records about them paint pictures of pious men of God, wholly devoted to rituals in the way of the ulema.

This link, it is said, they achieved by roaming and being with the masses and then after transcending regimented religious rituals, retreated inwards through intense reflection to experience the compassionate presence of the Almighty – a presence whose power and beauty may render a mortal man senseless and annihilate his self and ego (fana), but make him one with his creator.

The annihilation in this respect is the price the saints were willing to pay and often (in their poetry) described the process as passion play demonstrated by a lover willing to burn himself and his being to be close to his beloved.

Sufi musical and literary genres are abounding with this narrative of Sufism. This narrative, when it became a centerpiece of Quwalli, also suggests that after transcending conventional Islamic ritualism, the faculty used by Sufi saints to make that ultimate link with the Almighty was an inner spiritual knowledge heightened and triggered by beautiful poetry sung to the tune of equally passionate music.

A 16th century painting of a Sufi befriending a goat and a wolf.
A 16th century painting of a Sufi befriending a goat and a wolf.

According to the same narrative, the Sufis who’d made that link seemed intoxicated by their distinct, all-encompassing love of the Almighty; like a man drunk on wine and (thus) unhindered by the inhibitions of those who limit a man’s potential to fully realise the spiritual and intellectual faculties that the Almighty has bestowed upon him.

This is another aspect of the Sufi narrative that (many if not all) Quwallis enthusiastically embrace. But they purposefully and teasingly remain ambiguous, by, for example, following up one verse that directly praises the consumption of wine with a verse that treats it as a metaphor for an inhibited love for the Almighty and his creations.

The originating point of such narratives associated to Sufism and the art forms that they inspire is said to be (what all Sufis believed) was perhaps the most beautiful and mystical verse in the Qu’ran (Ayat an-Nur).

The Sufis believed that this verse contains the true essence of Islam and the overwhelming beauty of the power of the Almighty as a compassionate, mystical force:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp —
the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star —
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it. Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.

-Sura An-Nur, Verse 35

The Quwalli remained popular with the masses in India and Pakistan but its first true manifestation of a modern and commercially viable art-form emerged in Pakistan between the 1970s and the early 1980s.

Its popularity in this respect was squarely based on the rise of two Quwalli enthusiasts who went on to become giants of the genre.

Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers not only revived a keen interest in Quwalli that cut across the classes, both also became two of the most commercially successful quwals, whose exploits were later matched by the mighty Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the 1990s.

More so, their greatest achievement was to reignite a passion for Quwalli among the Urdu-speaking, urban audience that had completely abandoned and left behind the Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi Quwalli.

Quwalli was one of the most popular genres in rural Punjab. It was mainly performed at shrines and the people who frequented these shrines were from the rural areas. Sabri and Aziz Mian created an urban audience for Quwalli. The audience they appealed to is not today's elite who listen to Munshi Raziuddin and various other groups, and even Abida Parveen. Sabri and Aziz Mian's audience were mostly Barelvi Muslims (the majority Sunni sub-sect in Pakistan) and some Shias of lower middle class.

Aziz Mian was the first in line. Sometime in 1972, a regular visitor at Lahore’s historic shrine of the Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, was seen pacing up and down inside the shrine as if in a trance.

With long, unkempt hair, colourful kameez-shalwar and wild eyes he could’ve been one of the many fakeers or even a homeless vagabond, who for centuries have frequented the famous shrine.

But he was no ordinary fakeer. People knew him as a young quwal – or the singer and performer of Sufi devotional poetry and music.

People who often saw this young quwal at the shrine also knew that he was highly educated. He was Aziz Mian - the man who would rise to become not only one of the most famous quwals in Pakistan, but also perhaps the most unique and controversial.

He was subversive in a populist sense. His Quwallis were a popular version of Iqbal's 'shikwa jawab-e-shikwa' that ignited the lower middle classes’ imaginations.

Aziz Mian

It would be the Quwalli that he wrote on a crumpled piece of paper on the grounds of the Ganj Bakhsh Shrine that day that would lift his status and popularity to unprecedented heights.

Unlike most quwals, Aziz Mian almost always wrote his own lyrics. And the lyrics that he scribbled at the shrine that day became the words to the epic Quwalli, ‘Mein sharabi’ (I’m an alcoholic).

When the Quwalli came to the music stores, it became an instant hit, and Aziz Mian was no more a struggling young quwal looking for an opening.

Born in 1942 in a lower-middle-class family in Delhi, Aziz Mian migrated to the newly created country of Pakistan in 1947.

Coming from a musical family, Aziz Mian began learning Quwalli from the age of 10 at the Ganj Bakhsh Shrine.

He started to drink, smoke and became addicted to strong, tobacco-laced paans at an early age, and was often arrested for committing petty crimes of vandalism and hooliganism as a teen.

Though restless and quarrelsome, he, however, managed to excel at school and then (in the early 1960s) went on to pick up multiple degrees in Urdu, Persian and Arabic Literature from the Punjab University in Lahore.

Though he had been performing live and had already cut a few albums, it wasn’t until EMI-Pakistan released the first version of ‘Sharabi’ (in 1973) that Aziz Mian shot to fame.

On ‘Sharabi’, Aziz Mian also discovered and stamped a style of writing, composing and vocal delivery that he would retain for the rest of his career.

Taking the approach of the ‘quarrelsome Sufis/Fakeers’ of yore who in their state of reverse trance undertook loud emotional dialogues with God, dotted with a series of paradoxical questions, Aziz Mian would start slowly, break into a catchy chorus with his ‘Quwalli party’ (Quwalli group), and then suddenly stop and shout out his argument in a blistering display of speed-talking in which he would address God, complaining how he loved him but felt that he wasn’t being loved back; or why such a perfect entity like God would create such an imperfect creature like man!

Aziz Mian was a heavy drinker, and like various famous Sufi poets he often used the state of drunkenness as a metaphor for the state and kind of effect the love for God had on him.

But he would also praise alcohol on its own terms.


Aziz Mian performing ‘Mein sharabi’ in Lahore.

By the mid-1970s, Aziz Mian had risen to become the region’s leading quwal and was selling out concerts across Pakistan and India.

However, many of his concerts used to also disintegrate into drunken brawls when Aziz Mian would purposely work up the audience into a state in which many among the crowd would lose all sense of order and control.

He would explain this as being a stage from where the brawling men could take the leap into the next stage of making a direct spiritual connection with the Almighty.

A cultural writer reviewing one such Aziz Mian concert in Karachi (in DAWN) in 1975, described him as being ‘the Nietzschean Sufi!’

Aziz Mian also benefited from the cultural policies of the first PPP regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1972-77).

The policies instructed state media to regularly telecast folk music and Quwalli on TV and radio, especially during a weekly show called ‘Lok Virsa’ that became a huge hit with the audiences.

This also helped another group of quwals become equally popular. These were the ‘Sabri Brothers.’

The Sabri Brothers were a lot more melodic and hypnotic in their style and began drawing huge crowds.

Soon, a rivalry began to develop between Aziz Mian and the Brothers.

The Brothers often mocked Aziz Mian of being violent and lacking melody. But Aziz Mian went on honing his unique style.

Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers both stood for the same Sufi traditions and narratives that had developed in the region, but the Brothers disapproved of Aziz Mian’s open praise of wine in his Quwallis – even though alcohol was often consumed at the Brothers’ concerts as well.

The Sabri Brothers

The rivalry between Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers took a more aggressive turn when in 1975, both released their biggest hits to date.

Aziz Mian extended ‘Saharabi’ by adding another 30 minutes to the Quwalli until it became an almost 50-munute epic called ‘Mein sharabi/Teri soorat’ (I’m an Alcoholic/Your Face).

The record, released by EMI-Pakistan, sold millions within months.

The same year (1975) the Sabri Brothers released ‘Bhar doh jholi’ (Fill my bag) that also became a massive seller, especially when it was chosen as a song for popular Pakistani actor, Muhammad Ali’s 1975 hit film, ‘Bin badal barsaat.’

The Brothers also appeared in the film singing the Quwalli at a shrine where Ali’s character is shown with his wife (Zeba), pleading the Sufi saint buried there to ask God to grant them a child.


The original recording of Sabri Brothers’ ‘Bhar Doh Jholi’ (1975).

Aziz Mian thought the Brothers were too conventional and that their spiritual connection with the Almighty was not as stark as his.

In 1976, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto invited Aziz Mian to perform for him in Islamabad and share a drink. Aziz Mian gladly obliged.

As Aziz Mian was enjoying another burst of popularity and commercial success with ‘Mein sharabi/Teri soorat,’ the Sabri Brothers – slighted by Aziz Mian’s comments about them – followed up their hit ‘Bhar doh jholi’ with a thinly veiled taunt at Aziz Mian.

They released ‘O sharabi, chor dey peena’ (O Alcoholic, stop drinking).

The Quwalli became an immediate hit, sung in the typically steady, controlled and hypnotic style of the Brothers, but this time also varnished with a bit of humour towards ‘drunkards.’


Listen to a bootleg recording of the Sabri Brothers performing ‘Sharabi chor dey peena’ in 1977 here.

If you listen to the recording provided above of a live version of the Quwalli, you’ll notice that when one of brothers mocks ‘drunkards’ (Aziz Mian), he is doing it in the most tongue-in-cheek manner. Because conscious of the fact that the audience was also enjoying their drink, the other brother laughingly suggests, ‘but of course, no one drinks here (in this hall).’

Aziz Mian was quick to retaliate. He wrote and recorded ‘Hai kambakht, tu nein pe hi nahi’ (Unfortunate soul, you never even drank!) in which he derided the Brothers for not understanding and experiencing the ‘spiritual sides of wine.’

A 30-plus-minutes opus, Aziz starts by proudly owning up to liking his drink, then suggests that those who don’t drink and give lectures on morals but indulge in other misdeeds are hypocrites. All the while, he continues to taunt the Brothers for never having experienced wine.

In the long climax of the Quwalli, Aziz Mian’s taunting turns into anger and he dismisses his detractors (and the Brothers) for not understanding his intoxicated love for the Almighty because they have no clue what it meant or felt like.

According to EMI-Pakistan that released both the records, together Aziz Mian and Sabri sold over a million LPs and cassettes in 1977 alone!


Listen to the original 1977 recording of ‘Hai kambakht tu nien pi hi nahi.’ here.

Pakistani quwalli had reached a commercial peak, and then went global when both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers began touring outside Pakistan, enthralling audiences in various countries.

The soviet album cover of the Sabri Brother’s 1978 concert in Moscow.
The soviet album cover of the Sabri Brother’s 1978 concert in Moscow.

A CD version of the first Aziz Mian album released in the United States in 1978.
A CD version of the first Aziz Mian album released in the United States in 1978.

Aziz Mian fell on the wrong side of the law when in April 1977 sale of alcoholic beverages (to Muslims) in Pakistan was banned.

During the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88), Aziz Mian’s concerts were often raided by the police and people arrested for ‘drunken behavior.’

From 1980 onward, Aziz Mian would add more conventional and religious quwalis to his set list but always wrapped up his concerts with ‘Mein sharabi.’

However, now he would launch into the Quwalli by laughingly and jokingly addressing the crowd (in Punjabi), saying, ‘I’m about to sing ‘Mein saharbi’ (crowd would roar). But you guys don’t have to worry. They’ll arrest me, not you!’ (Crowds would burst into laughter).

On a number of occasions Aziz Mian was approached by anti-Zia students and political outfits to release a Quwalli against Zia.

Instead, he decided to add extempore lyrics to his famous quwallis that spoke about how men intoxicated by their love of God and justice stood up to tyrants who had no understanding and appreciation of this unique kind of love.

In 1982, during a small concert in Karachi where Aziz Mian had been invited to perform, he noticed some policemen inside the venue.

Believing they would begin harassing the gathering the moment he launched into his ‘pro-wine’ quwallis, he decided to test the patience of the cops by singing what became to be the longest quwalli recorded in the history of the genre.

Beginning the concert with the passionate ‘Allah hee jannay kon bashar hai’ (Only God knows who is human), he then launched into ‘Hasshar kay roz yeh poochon ga’ (On the Day of Judgment, God shall ask) – a quwalli that went on for 115 minutes!

Recorded at the venue and then released, the epic quwalli talks about God inquiring man about his (man’s) hypocrisies. Aziz Mian taunts the puritans who call him a drunk by suggesting that in reality they were the ones who were drunk on things that were far more sinister than alcohol: Power, hypocrisy, prejudice and myopia.

But by the time the Zia dictatorship ended (1988), Pakistan’s ‘Gold Age of Quwalli’ was already over.

Frustrated by not being able to play enough concerts and record a lot more albums in Pakistan in the 1980s, Aziz Mian’s drinking problem got worse.

In the late 1980s both Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers were directly challenged by a little known quwal who would (for a while) go on to regenerate the Quwalli genre in Pakistan and once again turn it into a popular global phenomenon.

Nusrat Fateh Ali

Nusrat Fateh Ali had arrived in the urban, Urdu-speaking areas of Pakistan.

Immensely talented, Fateh Ali took the melodious dynamics of the Sabri Brothers and the lyrical spiritual paradoxes aired in Aziz Mian’s quwallis and fused them into a style that was flexible enough to be adopted and related to on an international level.

Nusrat Fateh Ali’s 1993 epic, ‘Tou aik ghorak danda ho.’ In it he adopts Aziz Mian’s style of arguing with God fused with the Sabri Brothers’ melodicism.

Nusrat Fateh Ali dominated the quwalli scene across the late 1980s-1990s, selling albums and playing to packed audiences around the world. But like Aziz Mian, he too had a passionate ‘love affair with wine.’ He died of liver failure in 1997.


In 1994, Ghulam Farid of the Sabri Brothers had already passed away. Aziz Mian continued to perform throughout the 1990s but the rise of a new batch of quwals lead by Nusrat Fateh Ali never allowed him the space to make his comeback and regain the popularity and commercial success that he had enjoyed between 1973 and 1982.

With his liver failing, Aziz Mian continued to drink. Exhausted and ailing, he died during a tour of Iran in 2000 at the age of 56.


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Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (45) Closed

ubed Aug 08, 2013 04:31pm

no mention of patiala and sham chaurisa gharana, who at their peak always fought to show other down. paracha sahb indeed forgot one of the most ferocious yet constructive squabble in the history of classical music in Pakistan

RBS Aug 08, 2013 05:02pm

From Aziz Mian's qawali: Aray Kambakht Tu nay pee hi nahi: Tu meray shai'run ka haqeeqat mey ma'ani na samjha, Wada-e-Haq ko angoor ka paani Samjha

Anoop Aug 08, 2013 06:20pm

Apart from some part of northern half of India, this practice is not that popular in the rest of India. Pakistani liberals tend to promote it because it is one of the few arts which can have a Pakistani stamp on it, which also means a Muslim stamp.

Curiously they never own up to Yoga, Classical Dance and Music of the Hindustani variety, which has its roots in Pakistan, as its not Muslim origin. Qawwali can be attributed to Muslim origins.

Since it doesn't have deep roots in India, it will eventually die out. In Pakistan it might hang around for a while.

Imran Aug 08, 2013 07:02pm


Shikwa beja bhi kere koi to laazim hai shaoor. Go and read about Amir Khusrao before making a comment... Some people just write for the sake of deriding without any knowledge.

Ali S Aug 08, 2013 08:58pm


You're right that qawwali is dying out (even in Pakistan), especially among urban audiences as Bollywood and Western-influenced pop/rock gain popularity, but I disagree that qawwali is popular just because of its "Pakistani / Muslim" stamp.

Modern qawwali is largely a Punjabi form of music (the author is a Punjabi, hence the bias). Even in Pakistan, Pashto, Sindhi and Seraiki folk music for example have very distinct identities - it's just that they haven't had the kind of global exposure that qawwali does (I'm not counting Coke Studio's watered-down interpretations of them here), much like Bollywood overshadows any credible classical Indian music that comes out of India.

mehreen Aug 08, 2013 09:54pm

Perhaps it will die down and perhaps it won't. My family and I have always loved listening to all forms of Qawwali.

Nope we don't love it because it has a Pakistan/Muslim stamp. We love it because its beautiful to listen to and soothes the soul.

@anoop go and comment in the Hindustan Times and Times of India. if you only have childish comments to post better not to post them at all. Would welcome comments from other Indians about how they feel about Qawwali and what they enjoy listening to.

raja Aug 08, 2013 10:26pm

Enjoyed Qawwli nights during shaadis at Kathor, Gujrat, India.

Mahendra Singh Aug 08, 2013 10:37pm

Beautiful article hope qawwali survives in sub continent..

Ramana Madhavpeddi Aug 09, 2013 01:52am

The argument with God and the dialogue with him is borrowed from the Hindu vedic style. The concept of a single uniform greater being to who all are part of is also a vedic concept. Just so that this does not deteriorate into and India/Pak dialogue, vedic thought and subsequent Hindu religion are supposed to have come from Central Asia from an Aryan race that descended into the sub-continent through the Khyber into the Punjab and into Iran. The one that came to the Punjab became the early vedic group and the one that went to Iran became the Zorastrians. The kind folks that entered the Punjab killed and decimated the local population that formed the Indus Valley civilization. Several centuries later the Afghans, Uzbeks (Babur) came through the same passes into now Vedic Punjab and the gangetic plains. Do we still have issues in the Hindu Kush? You bet, history repeats itself...

Sonal Aug 09, 2013 03:13am

I think NFP is a great writer, but why does he write such long blogs? Yawwwnnn He can really do with being a bit succinct. I hope you're reading, Jenaab Paracha!

Sahrish Aug 09, 2013 05:17am

Loved it,

  • Naqshbandi.
Magister Aug 09, 2013 06:01am

Fantastic. Wonderful. Now it would also be nice to read about another rivalry of Mirza Ghalib and Zauq. Well sort of rivalry since Ghalib is a supreme poet bordering on divine while Zauq is much more earthly.

ehsan khan Aug 09, 2013 06:14am

Great article and recap of Qawalli. I fell in love with Qawalli in 1970s when Aziz Mian was belting out Sherabi and Hai Kambakht, and I still listen to these on my daily commute to work. I love Sabri brothers' work too and they have some of the most beautiful Naats in their Qawalis, but Aziz Mian will always be the yardstick that I would measure other Qawals with. To me that was a golden time for the Qawali, which at least I will never forget.

Qaiser Bakhtiari Aug 09, 2013 08:29am

@Sonal: I think you need to get yourself checked for ADHD. Maybe its not his long columns, it is your inability to keep a sustained attention span.

Sonal Aug 09, 2013 11:53am

@Qaiser Bakhtiari:

You may be right :) but the fact remains that his blogs are longer than the average blog on Dawn, which is rarely more than two pages.

You must his spokesperson, or a doctor maybe?

Azam Aug 09, 2013 12:24pm

Wah Paracha Sahib Wah, maza aa gaya. Andaaz-e-bayaan very beautiful.

Anoop Aug 09, 2013 01:10pm


"We love it because its beautiful to listen to and soothes the soul."

When was the last time you practiced Yoga(forget practicing, even claim it as your own!) or attempted to listen to Hindustani Music, which was popular in Pakistan(then India) pre-1947.

Why is that? Face it Yoga is not part of your culture and Qawwali is because of its Hindu and Muslim origins, respectively. Wasn't Basant banned because of its Hindu/Sikh origins(the ostensible reason is security, but come on, not all are fooled..)?

I am not saying Qawwali is bad, in fact it has a certain unique quality which is only good.

All I am saying it its roots in India do not run deep and it'll evaporate, just like HIndustani Music has evaporated from the Pakistani consciousness.

Do you have a problem with my hypothesis, come out and state another one to prove mine wrong. Asking me to post in some other Indian website only shows you have no counter arguments and brushing up that fact by time-tested Internet comebacks.

Anoop Aug 09, 2013 01:13pm


"Some people just write for the sake of deriding without any knowledge."

I am wondering whose comment did you read. I am talking about origins and its future.

I am sure the person you talked of is a genius in his field and is much respected. I am sure Qawwali is awesome to listen to.

What I am saying is simple: Qawwali is Muslim origin and will eventually die out in India, just like Yoga, Basant, Hindustani music have evaporated from the Pakistani consciousness.

You had one look at my name and didn't even bother to read what I was saying. You assumed I was wrong and started ranting.

Anees Aug 09, 2013 01:15pm

@ Anoop - There is a saying which means a donkey knows nothing about saffron.

Shahryar Shirazi Aug 09, 2013 01:21pm

@Ramana Madhavpeddi: Ill be interested to read more about what you wrote. Can you please give me some reference pointers ? Shahryar.

Anoop Aug 09, 2013 01:31pm

@Ali S:

Let me thank you for responding to me in such a civilised way, than asking me to goto some Indian website, like others have done. Lets get on with the conversation..

"but I disagree that qawwali is popular just because of its "Pakistani / Muslim" stamp."

Is Yoga still practiced in Pakistan? How many people still practice the Hindustani music, which was in abundance in Pakistan before Partition, even among Muslims?

Not considering some exceptions, these art forms and spiritual exercises are long gone and it is pretty obvious why. Basant is still practiced in India, while in Pakistan it is banned(ostensibly for security reasons, but come on, we all know the real reason don't we..). Basant origins are non-Muslim and it had to go. Many liberals has resorted to the argument its a secular festival and should be celebrated. Its Hindu origins had to be masked for any promotion, even among the liberals.

Qawwali is similarly promoted by NFP because of its "Pakistani/Muslim stamp". I bet he will never ever write about Yoga, which also originated in Pakistan?

Also, Urdu was adopted, not Tamil, not Gujrati, not Bengali(60% of Pakistanis were already speaking it, as opposed to the 8% Urdu speakers), because Urdu had the Muslim stamp, Bengali did not.

"Bollywood overshadows any credible classical Indian music that comes out of India."

The view from outside might seem so, but a Shankar Mahadevan was a product of Carnatic Music popular in South India, before he went on to become part of Shankar-Ehsan-Loy of Bollywood.

Bollywood is a mix, rather a curry, of many art forms, it can rightly be called a separate art form. Hindustani Music, Carnatic Music have lived side by side for many millennia in India, another art form has joined the illustrious list, which is a welcome. It will not wipe the colours of India, but only add to it.

Kumsha Aug 09, 2013 02:17pm

@Ramana Madhavpeddi: It is good that you revise the history for us. As the "man" has been given the faculty of thinking, he has been trying to understand complexity of universe and life through abstract models like God (Allah). Different thinkers and races have come up with different concepts and models to represent their findings and knowledge. They have also expressed their knowledge through different types of poetry and music. Quwali is undoubtedly a very lively form of expression and we South Asians should rightly be proud of. Similarly we should be proud of Indus Valley civilization and Sufi poetry.

Rao Aug 09, 2013 04:41pm

It is interesting to note that different writers here make very good points. I agree with Anoop that Quawali style singing does not have deep roots in India cand certainly not in the South India where it is has no audience except among Muslims and Indians of N.Indian origin.

Music no doubt has powerful impact on all humanity all right, but certain forms such singing or musical forms /styles .do not have any inherent appeal to the listener without its background - historical, cultural, religious and spiritual associations.

Example: western classical music is one of the finest creations of western Civilization, but how many in Pakistan or India appreciate say the music of Telemann, Bach or Handel. None, None! The reasons are complex and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

kashif Aug 09, 2013 05:02pm

good article...Though all of these Qawwals were legends in their field but Aziz Mian's style was ultimate!

Usher Aug 09, 2013 05:23pm

Did wolf start eating grass after " befriending "

Usher Aug 09, 2013 05:23pm

Did wolf start eating grass after " befriending "

mehreen Aug 09, 2013 07:27pm

@Anoop: You presume to much. My nani, mother and I have practiced yoga for years (I also love pilates and spinning but won't go into that as this is all about India-Pakistan tit for tat), listened to classical Hindi music, classical Pakistani music and generally appreciated a wide array of subcontinental literature (Indian, Pakistani and Bengali). I just don't make it an India and Pakistan tit for tat thing on newspaper websites. I also hate it when people (from both India and Pakistan go to each other's websites and deride their neighbouring country).

nmkn Aug 09, 2013 09:16pm

@Ramana Madhavpeddi:

I am surprised that people still believe in the theory of aryan race. It is beyong doubt a false theory. The thoery was based on linguistic analysis but its conlusions have been rebutted with a much advanced gene thoery. One can see a recent judgement by Supreme court of India or consult any linguistic/history department of a good university.

To the point that the idea of conversation with God is (only) a Vedic idea is also not entirely correct. The idea has been part of all mystical traditions of all religions (Kabbalah in Judaism or Sufism in Islam are but the mystical traditions within the religious fold). But what can be said is that in other religions somehow the mystical traditions got divorced from the more orthodox nature of religion and it was in India (perhaps only place) that there was never such a seperation. Perhaps it is also the reason why the mystical thoughts of all religions could be accommodated in the Indian (hindu) religious thought and it is this mysticism which connects all religions and ancient indians could clearly see this.

Humaira Aug 09, 2013 09:17pm

It is more historically accurate to state that Qawalli is a variant of the Indian subcontinental music tradition. It is basically a local genre rooted in 4000 years of subcontinental musical evolution, starting with the Vedic chanting of 1500 BC, evolving it into raga-tala concepts of later day. The most closely related genres of Qawalli are other subcontinental devotional genres, including other devotional music such as bhajans.

Qawalli of course carries non-subcontinetal influences from Iran and Afghanistan, as does Indian classical music itself. But to state that Qawalli originated outside the subcontinent is trying to distort history, not dissimilar to the Arab origin of all our compatriots :-) NFP, you should know better.

-Linguist and Historian by profession

kamljit Singh Aug 09, 2013 11:16pm

@Anoop: Quawalli is popular in northern India not due that its Muslim, but the language , the meaning and the Sufi color.In north India people are liberal to accept variance of ways of prayer, the ways to thank God, the ways to accept the change, That may be Sufism or Bhakti Movement. The Sikh scriptures contain the writings of Sufi saints . and Sufism is linked to Quawalli.The Hindus listen to Quawallis on the Mazars of Sufi saints and seek the ultimate blessings.

kamljit Singh Aug 09, 2013 11:23pm

How about the ' Ishq Ishq hai Ishq' quawalli from Barsat ki Raat film,. Mohd Rafi saheb took the quawalii to a new 'arooz', new height, and who can forget MannaDey singing quwalli, They are not mentioned because they were not singing quawallis only! perhaps.

nmkn Aug 10, 2013 01:26am

nice article

Citoyen Aug 10, 2013 07:44am

Dear Nadeem, I enjoyed reading your very informed blog about the origins of Qawwali. I became interested after hearing Ustad NFA Khan and have remained a fan. The cultural legacy of Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey remains popular in India despite competition from the West and from Bollywood.

Please write about Ghazal as well. Many thanks.

Asad Ali Aug 10, 2013 09:54am

Outstanding NFP! Your writings revive hope. Keep fighting.

Sarfaraz Aug 10, 2013 11:16am

@ubed: You may be right Ubed and sure the Patiala Gharanas have played great part as far as Classical Music is concerned but don't try to encircle it. Comments have distracted. The topic is Qawwali and not music as a whole although music is nature like the voice of Koel. Papiha even Jhinger. So, let us talk spritual feelings attached and expressed in Qawwali.

mehreen Aug 10, 2013 02:53pm

Some of the other things which also have our Pakistani stamp on it but also come as a result of our shared heritage.

Pop / Rock music: We have brilliant singers (as does India) - Jal, Qiyaas, Junoon, Zeb and Haniya, Sanam Marvi, Noor Jehan, Reshma, Farida Khanum, Nusrat Sahib, Aziz Mian and the Sabri brothers (to name a few)

Literature / Poetry: To many to name but we have had a resurgence of Pakistanti literature and were always appreciated for our Urdu and regional poetry.

Art scene: Miniature paintings and beautiful carpets to name two things off the top of my mind. (Yes, yes this is shared heritage)

Clothes: We having a evolving and rocking fashion scene (many may disagree but we have grown leaps and bounds).

These are just some of the things with a Pakistani stamp on them but not necessarily a Muslim stamp.

I know that quite a few of us practice yoga as well ;)

Sonal Aug 10, 2013 03:41pm


Lovely post, Mehreen!

gul khan Aug 10, 2013 11:26pm

great article...thanks

SHAHID LATIF Aug 11, 2013 08:25am

NFP does justice to his claim of being a cultural critic. He is one of the very few who while writing in English have the complete grasp of Pakistani culture and nuances of Urdu language. I do not agree with his thought process but can not miss his blog.

dr vimal raina Aug 11, 2013 09:03am

Strangely sad. You dissected the nightingales's songs. Wished that 'oh sharabi chod de peena' which I always thought as a child, was meant for my drunkard uncle turns out was not so. Can't blame you sir for it but all truth need not be told.

Muhammad Farooq Aug 11, 2013 09:16am

Good piece of writing that traces the history of devotional singing (Qawwalis) in the context of Sufism. Some sufis have abandoned rituals and therefore justifiably attract criticism. Having said that, sufi saints have played an important role in the spread of Islam in India and in some other parts of the world. Most of the early conversions in India a few generations ago are owing to the message of love, equality and brotherhood by Sufis and not because of influence of Muslim emperors and kings. Who can deny in this regard the contributions of Hazrat Khawaja Mohiuddin Chisti Ajmeri and other saints who rose above religion and preached/practiced the message of humanism. I thank the Daily Dawn for publishing it.

Anoop Aug 11, 2013 10:49am


I listen to Western Classical music, many in my family do, but to say that means the entire nation of India listens to it, owns it and treats it as its own and is alive and kicking in India is being duplicitous.

Urdu was adopted for its Muslim stamp, Bengali spoken by the majority at partition did not have that stamp. Face it! Just like NFP, the nice man, with lovely intentions that he has, will write a long article about Qawwali, but never about Rabindranath Tagore and his nobel prize in literature.

You amateurishly saying I practice Yoga, my family members do Suryanamaskars to the Sun God every morning and hence you are wrong are arguments worthy of a 8th Standard Debate competition.

Now, coming to another post from you.

I NEVER said Pakistanis do not have their own cultural peculiarities. Its been 67 years, for God sakes, and its only natural that some divergence in culture between India and Pakistan would have gained traction. India and Pakistan are completely different countries now. It is well acknowledged and in own post you have agreed to the same.

My point is simple. There is something called a Muslim stamp and even the supposedly secular Jinnah recognised it when he made Urdu the official language, spoken by only 8% of the population at the time, over Bengali, which was spoken by well more than half of people of Pakistan.

Similarly, Yoga has a Hindu stamp(I am not saying do not practice Yoga, I am simply owning up the brand as Indian and restating its Hindu-origins. I will be ecstatic if all of Pakistan follows your footsteps. Its unlikely that will ever happen and we both know why, but you are not willing to admit the reasons). Basant was banned for its non-Muslim stamp.

Qawwali has a Muslim stamp, hence Kosher. Basant did not, hence not so Kosher.

If you tell me there is no such thing, tell me why on Earth was Urdu chosen over Bengali, by a man supposedly very secular?

mehreen Aug 11, 2013 01:02pm

@ Anoop: You think the way you do and I think the way I do. I guess that's the conclusion we come to.

I don't want this to become meaningless chatter so I will just say to all our viewers on both sides of the border Eid Mubarik and peace to all.

mehreen Aug 11, 2013 01:03pm

Why does everything have to become a India-Pakistan verbal war. Lets stick to the topic Qawwali music and one of the two greats Aziz Mian and Sabri brothers

Imran Aug 11, 2013 02:53pm

Good to see people across the border acknowledge that they don't have a secular culture by saying qawwali will die down because it has Muslim roots. That means only Hindu culture will survive. Well, India has more Muslims than Pakistan probably so I doubt that will happen until you carve out another separate country for them leaving India Muslim-free. Art is not for the masses in any case and as long as it serves its purpose there will be people willing to appreciate it both Hindu and Muslim or Jain or Christian. Besides this article was about Qawwali not yoga or its origins in Vedic. Our Indians friends should try to move away from their myopic view where the only light they see is shining in their backyard.