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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Seeking a Flying Carpet? Turn to a Good Ole Qawwali!

On those days when the feeling sets in that "the world is too much with us" - in the inimitable words of Shakespeare - when ennui or boredom or nameless melancholia threatens to drown a perfectly reasonable day, I have a fail-safe avenue that I turn to: qawwali. 

Qawwali, the song of the qawwal, qawwal who echos the qaul, qaul the word of god. And thus qawwali transports one to that magical realm which is the promise of all Sufi music. It is my very own flying carpet!

Growing up in the Indian subcontinent, on a steady diet of Bollywood and myriad musical traditions, it is difficult not to have some acquaintance with qawwali, the roots of which are Persian. Amir Khusrau, the versatile musical genius of 13th century, whose renditions are sung to this day - Chaap tilak sab cheeni re, anyone? - is credited with giving qawwali the form that it enjoys to this day.

In the 60s and 70s qawwali was so popular with Hindi filmgoers that every film invariably featured one. After the inevitable waning of the music it has seen a recent resurgence. Rockstar’s Kun faaya kun took me to some of my favourite Bollywood qawwalis. So, here goes...

Chaap tilak sab cheeni re

I have to begin with that queen of qawwalis: its 13th-century provenance, its singular popularity such that no singer worth their vocal chords in the subcontinent cannot not render it - Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers, Kailash Kher, even Lata Mangeshkar sang it for Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki - its de rigueur status at any Sufi concert or Mehfil-e-Sama, and its contemporary feel. 

My favourite rendition is by Abida and I shall stray from the Bollywood version for this one.

Teri mehfil mein kismet aazma kar

Who hasn't heard of Mughal-e-Azam, the epic 1960 film which was the most expensive film, by far, and the highest grosser until Sholay came along? One of the 3 songs to be shot in technicolour in an otherwise B&W movie, watch it for the appeal of a raised brow, a lopsided smile and a gorgeous Madhubala.

Aye meri zohra jabeen

A very handsome Balraj Sahni as Lala Kedarnath serenading his wife Achala Sachdev in Waqt, 1965. A beautiful ode to a beloved in an old-world Peshawari ambience!

Sharma ke yeh kyon sab 

An all-women's qawwali, amazing lyrics, and has Waheeda looked more radiant ever? From Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960

Tere dar pe aayan hoon

I have to admite, I am a Rishi fan but has there been a better Majnu? From Laila Majnu, 1979.

Yaari ha imaan mera yaar meri zindagi

It is different from the usual picturization of qawwali in Bollywood. Zanjeer, 1973, set Amitabh on the 'angry young man' path and in this qawwali the brooding friend is quizzed by Pran (who plays a reformed Pathan): teri hasi ki keemat kya hai ye bataa de tu?

Na to karvan ki talaash hai

Barsaat ki Raat, 1960. A qawwali competition between the sexes!

Hai agar dushman dushman zamana gham nahin

Ranbir might be the darlin' of today's generation but he has an illustrious legacy to live up to! Does anybody do romantic-feisty-aggrieved-dancing hero better than Rishi Kapoor. From the film Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, 1977.

Humein to loot liya 

Sometimes, old truly is gold. From the film Al Hilal, 1958, this charming qawwali has men dancing like real men did - unselfconsciously - in the era before pelvic thrusting heros. A classic.

Piya Haji Ali

This haunting qawwali from Fiza, 2000, composed by A R Rahman, rounds up my list. Beautifully sung, it magically transports you to that realm of peace, which is the Sufiyana promise.

There are many many more qawwalis, so don't forget to log in and share your favourites too! 

Also, I must hasten to mention that most qawwalis seem to have been sung by Manna Dey. Thank you Sir! 


  1. I think the qawwalli's have got a touch of Sufi element in them. That why they are universlly liked by all. In a way, they say it all. The inner emotions of a person rendering it come out.