Amir Khusro, the 13th century musician, poet and Sufi saint, whose father was a Persian and mother an Indian, couldn’t have imagined that qawwali, a genre in music believed to have been innovated by him, would in a few hundred years become the rage as it has been in the last century or so, thanks to film music. Also, he couldn’t have thought that the theme of the qawwalis would ‘stoop to conquer’. In other words, the lyrical content would reference plain earthly romance more than saintly love.
Qawwali has over the centuries branched out from shrines to public places and more recently replenished film music. The eminent musicologist Kumar Prasad Mukherjee maintains that it was qawwali that gave birth to the singing of khayal gayeki. The viewpoint stands to reason for most qawwalis are based on ragas.
Another point worth remembering is that in qawwalis rhythm has an edge over melody because percussion instruments such as dholak and tabla support the voices, and in most cases vigorous clapping by the qawwals sitting with the main singers, provide rhythmic support. Another instrument that plays a key role in live performances or life-like performance in movies is the harmonium. Sometimes there are more than one.
In the final feature on film music for Icon, Asif Noorani discusses the genre of film qawwali, which invigorated movies even as the form untethered itself from being a purely saintly form of devotional music
Until seven decades ago, qawwali was an all-male affair but in the world of movies the first qawwali to hit the jackpot was actually an all-female affair. Composed by Hafeez Khan and written by Nakhshab for Zeenat (1945) ‘Aahen na bhari, shikwe na kiye, kuchh bhi na zubaan se kaam liya’ was sung by Noor Jahan, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Kalyani and chorus girls.
Though no patch on the Zeenat number, another qawwali to catch the listeners’ attention was from Bazaar (1949) ‘Zara sun lo hum apne pyar ka afsana kehte hain’. Written by Qamar Jalalabadi and composed by the duo Husnlal-Bhagatram, the song was recorded in the voices of an established singer, Raj Kumari, and the emerging numero uno Lata Mangeshkar. They were supported by female qawwals.
Qawwalis in earlier films quite often feature a muqabla (contest) between groups, often placing men and women on each side, but there are also all-female contestants. The most subtly presented competition was from Mughal-i-Azam (1960), ‘Teri mehfil mein qismet aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge’ between an innocent beauty Anarkali (Madhubala) and a makeup-aided charmer Bahar (Nigar Sultana), aided by Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum. The lone audience is Prince Saleem (Dilip Kumar), whose attention the two young ladies are vying for. Mooseeqar Azam Naushad set the highly meaningful lyrics of Shakeel Badayuni to music in the strains of Raga Jaijaywanti, thereby achieving an enchanting result.
A Pakistani all-female qawwali, vocalised by Naseem Begum and Mala — ‘Kya ada-i-dilbari hai ya nigah-i-naz hai/ Teer mere dil mein hai aur pardey mein teer-andaz hai’ for Mehtab (1962) is unfortunately not available on YouTube, nor do music shops have any trace of the scintillating number. It was penned by Shabab Kiranvi and set to music by Manzoor-Ashraf. Ironically, the movie is now remembered only for the Ahmed Rushdi ditty for kids ‘Gol gappey wala aaya’.
One of the most popular qawwalis to grace the Pakistani screen in the ’60s was from Tauba (1964) — ‘Meri tauba tauba’. Written by veteran Fayyaz Hashmi and composed by A. Hameed, it was picturised on a repentant ageing actor called Kumar, who had earlier portrayed a sculptor in Mughal-i-Azam before he shifted to Pakistan. It is unfortunately not to be seen on YouTube and if, by a stroke of bad luck, you type ‘Meri tauba tauba’, a badly plagiarised number with poor filming from a movie called ‘Badmash Thug’ will appear on your computer screen. You will be reminded of the famous Urdu saying ‘Naqal ke liye bhi aqal chahiye’ (You need common sense even for copying something).
Another devotional qawwali which merits a mention, ‘Bhar do jholi meri ya Mohammad’ was recorded for Bin Badal Barsaat (1975). Written by Tasleem Fazli and composed by Shamim Nazli, it was recorded in the voices of the Sabri Brothers, who later included the number in their public performances. Years later, much to the chagrin of the surviving original singers and their heirs, the qawwali with the opening lines was included in the Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015). It was recorded in the voice of Adnan Sami Khan, who was also seen on the screen as the leading performer.
While on Sabri Brothers, one may like to recall the qawwali which brought them into the limelight — ‘Mera koi naheen hai tere siwa’ — from Ishq-i-Habib (1965), written by Masroor Anwar and tuned by Zafar Khursheed. All efforts to find the original number on YouTube didn’t bear fruit, though its cover versions are very much there.
A strange number is ‘Pyar ki yaad nigahon mein sajaye rakhna’ from Talash (1972). It has three versions, all of which can be viewed on YouTube. The first is a poignant solo by Mehnaz, the second is a qawwali-cum-mujra led by Naheed Akhtar, and the third, also the most insipid, has singer Saleem Shahzad sitting on a chair and facing a microphone. Shahzad happens to be the son of the famous qawwali singer Azim Premragi, who ruled the roost in the first half of the preceding century.
A purely entertaining qawwali, if one may call it so, is from the Pakistani film Aag (1967), ‘Liye aankhon mein ghuroor’ and shows Mohammad Ali and Lehri trying to attract the attention of Zeba. The versatile Ahmed Rushdi, who unluckily passed away in his prime, lent his voice to both.
In the context of entertaining qawwalis, ‘Parda hai parda’ from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) takes the cake. Sung with his usual verve by Mohammed Rafi, it features on the screen Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, the comedian par excellence Mukri and, in bits, Amitabh Bachchan. The song is an audio-visual delight.
Back to Pakistan: qawwalis do appear in our films though with lesser frequency. The latest is a two-minute version from 7 Din Muhabbat In (2018). It was recorded in the voices of the Karachi-based Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad, possibly the leading exponents of qawwali at the moment.
By the way, across the border, Allama Iqbal’s popular poem ‘Kabhi aye haqeeqat-i-muntazir nazaar aa libas-i-majaz mein’, was set to music by maestro Madan Mohan for Dulhan Eik Raat Ki (1966), the movie based on Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Madan Mohan’s trump card was melody and who could have been the singer highly steeped in melody to lend her voice? Lata Mangeshkar, of course.
In India you have seen qawwalis appearing from time to time. They claimed their rightful place after a not-so-brief interval when item numbers usurped the front seat. Gulzar wrote two qawwalis for Vishal Bharadwaj, one for Maqbool (2004) and another for Dedh Ishqia (2014). What makes them notable when watching the two numbers is that, unlike in the case of traditional qawwalis, the action here is not interrupted. In the latter, in particular, you can also hear the dialogue and witness some violence during the qawwali.
An adaptation of Macbeth, Maqbool has the qawwali ‘Tu mere rubaru hai’, which was soulfully rendered by Daler Mehndi, Rakesh Pundit and Sabir Khan. It was filmed in a shrine and also showed devotees walking towards the mazaar.
Dedh Ishqia’s qawwali ‘Dil ka diya shab bhar jala’ is a treat to watch and its refrain ‘Loot liya bhai loot liya’ makes it easy on the lips.
In recent years, the leading tunesmith A.R. Rahman composed some memorable qawwalis, starting with ‘Piya Haji Ali’ from Fiza (2000) to ‘Khwaja mere Khwaja’ from Jodhaa Akbar (2002) and, more recently, ‘Kun faya kun’ from Rockstar (2011). He also lent his voice to all these three numbers. Being a follower of Sufism, his dedication is evident in all these numbers.
No discussion on qawwalis can be complete without referring to the movie Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) which had a superb musical score by Roshan, arguably the high watermark of his career. Providing him excellent support was the high-ranking poet Sahir Ludhianvi. The film’s title song got the highest ratings, but the four qawwalis, all accessible on YouTube, ‘Nigah-i-naaz ke maron ka haal kya hoga’, ‘Na tau karwaan ki talaash hai’, ‘Ye ishq ishq hai ishq ishq’ and ‘Ji chahta hai choom loon teri nazar ko mein’ were played almost incessantly in the request programmes of the Commerical Services of Radio Ceylon and Radio Pakistan (the latter stopped playing Indian songs after 1965). The All India Radio or its entertainment wing Vivdh Bharati never played our songs.
How sad! Music and other performing arts, not to speak of literature, should be above narrow nationalism.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 14th, 2018