I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Saturday, June 11, 2011

....Of Faded Voices And Silenced Chants

A week ago, a friend from 'Qawwali Central' in Islamabad was over for a few days. One of the subjects that we got talking about -in between the customary tape exchanges - was the fact that we only have recordings of up to two generations of Qawwals. Apart from one or two recent instances where the third generation of Qawwals has started carrying forward a gharana's name (Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the young Qawwal Bacchay for example), most of the recordings are from either one or at the most two generations of Qawwals. The earliest available recorded material dates back to the late fifties or early sixties, with the bulk of the recordings from the preceding era either lost or in the collections of some rather miserly collectors (a fact Farid Ayaz sb complained about when I inquired about some older recordings).

This is a pity, because there are a lot of names from the not too distant past that have legendary status in the world of Qawwali, yet the only record we have of them is through recollections of those who have heard them, or passing mentions in books or articles. We have for example, no recordings of the two great Qawwals Farooq Ahmed Nizami and Raees Ahmed Nizami. The earliest available recordings of the original Manzoor Niazi troupe are from the fifties. We know nothing of Meraj Ahmed Nizami's father except that he was called 'Pyaray Khan Sahib'. There are countless other examples of illustrious Qawwals whose music is lost to the ears of the world, drowned out by the ravages of time.

The preservation and dissemination of music from that bygone era is important for many reasons.First, as a window to the culture of the pre-partition era, the few surviving recordings are a brilliant time capsule of the musical styles, instrumentation, language and performance idiom of that time. Second, they represent, if not an ideal then a model from whence modern Qawwali in specific and modern folk music in general, has evolved. And third, as a sociological-anthropological study, the early Qawwali recordings provide an insight into the the arrival of modern recording techniques with all their benefits (wider listener-ship) and handicaps (the three minute time limitation) and their effects on a centuries old art form. What follows is a brief introduction to some of the Qawwals of the pre-partition era whose recordings have somehow survived. Some of them carried on in the tradition of the Khanqahi Qawwali, some made bold new innovations and some successfully achieved the rare distinction of fusing both modern and traditional Qawwali.

The Earliest Years 

The earliest Qawwali recordings were made at the time of arrival of recorded sound in India in 1902. Three artists were recorded at that time,Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and Fakhre Alam Qawwal. Contemporary records state that they 'achieved lasting fame and performed widely for audiences in the tens of thousands'. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

During the British period the record industry settled for solo songs of a popular devotional type with little evidence of the authentic sound character of Sufi music. Of course, the three-minute duration of these recordings could hardly permit the freedom to repeat and amplify musical portions which is so essential to that idiom. In fact, the early recordings share stylistic traits with contemporary urban entertainment music like charbaiat and nautanki as well as with the music that accompanied silent
films and was later incorporated into film songs . But ultimately the industry did not invent this idiom: it only promoted and projected it, thereby giving preference to what were essentially freelance urban entertainers over the tradition-bearing hereditary qawwali performers who were, and still are, affiliated with Sufi shrines in a quasi-feudal arrangement. Through this preference Pearu, Kaloo, and Fakhr-e-Alam became 'stars' who also performed widely before huge live audiences, both Muslim and non-Muslim
, and in settings ranging from open-air grounds to recital halls . They were often dressed in Western clothes and sitting on chairs; Kaloo is remembered for always appearing in an impressively neat Western suit . His photograph embodies a Western-Islamic image with tie, shirt and jacket he wears a Fez, the formidable Pan-Islamic head-dress favoured by elite Muslims at the time.

The recordings of Kaloo Qawwal, Pearu Qawwal and their contemporary Iboo Qawwal are interesting in that most of them are devoid of the takraar or even the handclap accompaniment that is associated with Qawwali. The texts are devotional (hamd or naat) and the singers sing solo, accompanied only by a harmonium (an occasional bulbultarang) and a tabla.

Kaloo Qawwal - Dua Me-kash Ne Di Hai (1920s)                                               

Pearu Qawwal - Mujhe Aap Ki Ik Nazar Chahiye Hai (1920s)

Iboo Qawwal - Jamal un Ka Noorani (1920s)

The Thirties

The success of the earliest Qawwali recordings paved the way for more Qawwals to try their hand at the new medium. The more commercial sound of the early Qawwals influenced the style of Qawwali being performed at the Dargaahs and a new style emerged. Again, Prof. Regula Qureshi,

 By the 1930s two recording artists emerged, Azim Prem Ragi and Waiz Qawwal, who also impressed Sufi audiences. While in proper Sufi settings they did not use studio instruments as was done for recordings, Waiz Qawwal used to intone a simple melodic accompaniment on the sitar. The recognition of these performers in Sufi circles is reflected in their names and special titles - Waiz( 'Religious Commentator'), Prem Ragi('Minstrel of Love') - which were bestowed upon them by Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a great Sufi and literary figure attached to Delhi's Nizamuddin Auliya shrine . This fame in turn influenced the diversification of qawwali recordings towards including some genuine Sufi classics, like Azim Prem Ragi's recording of the famous Persian poem Nami danam che manzil bud by the thirteenth century poet Amir Khusrau.

 The two Qawwals mentioned in the above excerpt are in my opinion, the two seminal artists in Qawwali history. They were the first to successfully fuse the classical Sufi repertoire and the traditional Qawwali performance style with modern studio instrumentation and the requirements of the gramophone age. Azim Prem Ragi was known for writing most of his own material and mingling it with the classical sufi kalaam. He was considered one of the favorite Qawwals at the Ajmer Dargah and it is said that the Fakirs and Saadhus would come down from the hills surrounding the shrine to listen whenever he performed.

Azim Prem Ragi Qawwal - Daras Bhikaran Hoon Teri Ajmeri Khwaja (1930s)

Ali Buksh Qawwal, also known as 'Waiz' Qawwal was the other important Qawwal of this era. He was a shagird of Tanras Khan (according to Frid Ayaz Sb) and included many of the kalaams preferred by the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana into his repertoire. He performed extensively at various dargahs as well as recorded in Bombay and Calcutta. Two of his greatest legacies are the popularization of 'Girah' - the inserted verse - and the use of Sitar in Qawwali. He held the distinction of being the first Qawwal to perform Pir Mehr Ali Shah's legendary na'at 'Ajj Sik Mitran Di', and Pir Sahab (R.A) was so taken with his performance that he gave Waiz the title of 'Sufi'. Later, Pir sahab's son , Hazrat Ghulam Mohyeddin (R.A) sent the young Mehboob Qawwal to Delhi to learn at the feet of Waiz Qawwal. Although Haji Mehboob spent very little time with Waiz, he picked up his two most important qualities - the beautiful Sitar acompaniment and the expert use of the Girah - from Waiz Qawwal.

Meri Nas Nas Haq Haq Bole - Ali Buksh 'Waiz' Qawwal (1930s)

The other great Qawwal to emerge in the thirties was Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal. He is considered the Jadd-e-Amjad of the modern Fareedi Qawwals - darbari Qawwals at the Baba Fareed shrine at Pakpattan, including luminaries like Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal, Mehr Ali- Sher Ali Qawwal, Miandad Hafiz Dad Qawwals and Sher Miandad- Badar Miandad Qawwals. He was one of the earliest popularizers of the 'Punjabi' Qawwali style. Another of his great innovations was the rearrangement of the Qawwali Party. As Adam Nayyar writes,

Traditionally, the master singer was placed in the centre and given the title of mohri, meaning "leading chess figure". The tabla-player was directly behind him, while the prompter (with the books and manuscripts for the words of the mystic singing) sat behind him at his left shoulder. The mohri was flanked to his right and feft by two singers with harmoniums (avazia), while the rest of the chorus was aligned on both sides in two rows, the better singers up front. Important changes were undertaken by (among others) Ustad Mohammad Ali Faridi. During this period, the mohri or lead singer was placed to the right of the stage. The avazia was to his left and another good siriger to the left of the avazia. The task of this singer was to support the lead singer, have sufficient knowledge of musical theory and to take the place of the lead singer in emergencies. The tabla remained in the central position and was now behind this "backup" singer. The other positions remained the same. This change in placement is generally followed to this day by all qawwal in the Punjab. The creation of the "backup" singer was prompted by the fact that qawwal groups were often named after a leading pair of brothers or a father-and-son pair.

Thall Wich Khari Sassi Haakaan Maardi - Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal (1930s)

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Qawwals are probably the most important Qawwals to have emerged in the thirties. They were revolutionaries in the world of Qawwali. Members of a gharana that stretched back many centuries, they were the first of the Khandaani Qawwals to be successful recording artists. Performing pure sufi kalaam, infusing it with stylings from the classical 'khayal' style of gayaki as well as the traditional Punjabi
style, they played a huge part in popularizing Qawwali among the more high-brow listening audience. They were the first to perform Iqbal's kalaam in the Qawwali idiom, a fact that garnered praise and gratitude from Iqbal himself. Their recordings of Shikwa-Jawabe Shikwa are legendary and remained the template for all future recordings of the kalaam. The two brothers continuously performed till the mid-sixties when Fateh Ali Khan passed away and the mantle passed to a young Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sadly, I know of no recordings of theirs from before partition.

Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals - Nasima (1952)

The final Qawwal from the thirties that I have recordings of is someone I admit having no information about. If anyone can enlighten me, I shall be exceedingly grateful. Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal seems to have recorded exclusively in Punjabi in the late thirties and early forties. The style is forceful, with simple but effective instrumental accompaniment. Two or three of his recordings are in the form of conversations, eg between Sohni and Mahiwal and Laila and Majnun etc, while the rest are hamds and na'ats.

Din Muhammad Jallundhri Qawwal - Laila Te Majnu (1937)

The Forties

The final pre-partition decade saw a further change in recorded Qawwali with the arrival of the 'Bombay' or 'Narrative' style of Qawwali. Instead of the standard practice of melodic recitation of a selection of verses, artists like Ismail Azad Qawwal and Habib Painter Qawwal popularized the 'Narrative' or 'Storytelling' style of Qawwali. This style involved extended girah-bandi without musical accompaniment, in a narrative or storytelling style. Music was used only during the bridge and the chorus, while the lead singer weaved two or three narratives around them, accompanying himself on the harmonium. According to Prof. Regula Qureshi,

Musically, this narrative style is outstanding for its lack of melodic movement,except for melodic markers at structural turning points in the song. Most conspicuousamong these is the impending conclusion of the inserted girah recitative;it is marked by a conspicuously high register and a quick descent into the refrain. The verses contain a repetitive, even playful, oratory typical of other Indian oral narratives. Indeed, this style of qawwali became highly popular as a non-religious genre, especially in contests (muqabila) between two qawwal parties who, in live performances,outdid each other in improvised verses. In Bombay, such contests were favorite live entertainment in the 1940s, sponsored by Muslim neighbourhood associations. Essentially, the 'story-telling' qawwali represented an expanded influence of popular entertainment on record production; but its lower-class character evoked disapproval from the Muslim elite, begining with elite performers themselves.
Long-time HMV producer of classical recordings G. N. Joshi reports a telling incident from 1952 when the great classical ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar, was almost irreparably lost to the Gramophone Company because an unlettered official made the offensive suggestion that she model her natt recording on the qawwali style of Ismail Azad

Habib Painter Qawwal - Qadam Laghzeeda Laghzeeda (1940s)

The major departure from this narrative Qawwali style was presented by the last major Qawwal to emerge in the pre-partition era. Kallan Khan Qawwal was one of the darbaari Qawwals at the Kalyar Shareef shrine. He performed Qawwali the traditional way, with handclap accompaniement and based on mostly Sufi texts or na'ats. Incorporating all the innovations made in the preceding decades, he used girahs, takraars and alaaps, fusing the modern and traditional into something that closely resembled the Qawwali we are all familiar with today. He was accomapanied in some of his recordings by his nephew, a young and rather talented Qawwal who would later achieve legendary status as Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri Qawwal.

Kallan Khan Qawwal And Party - Madina Na Dekha To Kuch Bhi Na Dekha (1940s)


The purpose of sharing these recordings from some of the pre-eminent Qawwals of the pre-independence era was threefold. First, to trace the evolution of recorded Qawwali over the last century and understand the various changes it underwent before assuming it's current form. Second, to provide whatever information I possess about the various artistes that were once superstars but have now been all but forgotten. And finally, to give readers a chance to listen to some beautiful music that despite it's age, still has the power to move and entrance.

In the beginning of this piece I mentioned some 'miserly collectors' who can't stand sharing the enormous treasures of music they possess. I have accumulated a modest collection of 'my' kind of music and despite the protestations of some of my friends - and the dwindling readership of my blog, I can't seem to make myself part of that group.


  1. Wonderful! I'm still in the middle of listening & especially like the Punjabi ones

  2. Magnificent Musab.
    From your friend in TO!

  3. kya bataayen ke kitna maza aya. loved reading your blog and then once i started listening i was smiling all the way.

    each one of the older ones in accompanied by different instruments and is charming. the words too are beautiful...for example..."naao purani..dur kinara..bayyan pakard mori etc part of "daras bikharan hun tori ajmeri khwaja".

    i was surprised by the recording quality of peeru and iboo qawwals. they are pretty good and i suspect took some serious tinckering from you.

    thank you for not being part of the 'miserly collectors' who doesn't share. you have enriched all our lives. bohat hi zabardast!!!

    ps. many of our qawwal friends would love to listen to these old recordings.

    also please send an email to Prof. Regula Qureshi in Canada. She and her husband will enjoy reading this and listening to the treasure.

  4. Musab, what a great post. I owe my relatively recent appreciation of Qawwali entirely to your posts. Yes, some Nusrat and Sabri Brothers got through to me before but I was unaware of the wonderful of world of Munshi Raziuddin, Haji Mehboob, Manzoor Niazi, Naseeruddin Saami, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Mohammad etc. BTW, not sure that you are familiar with the CD album "Vintage Music from India" which has two very early 3-min tracks by Kaloo Qawwal (Dubaya Mai Kush) and Pearu Qawwal (Duri-e-Taiba).

  5. Found your blog through Moments of Tranquility. Must i add that how great it is. Best wishes and success and hope that you keep posting.

  6. Great Blog , i want to share one information with all of you the Mr. Kaloo qawwal was my Grandfather and i was searching his songs and here i got it thank you very much for this........

  7. Many of the recordings of Kallan Khan (Secunderabadi) were released in mid 30s. Therefore, it is wrong to say that he was a qawwal of 40s. Secondly, most of his recordings were non-religious.