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, February 21, 2015

...Of Sacred Soundtracks

I shall begin this post with a gigantic understatement. Music, and specifically film music is an integral part of subcontinental popular culture. Film music has not only entertained the masses for more than eighty years, it has provided a rich vein of music and lyrics that have been mined for everything from advertising slogans to political pitches, from vernacular idioms to the evolution of language itself. In what seems a natural process, the various musical forms of the subcontinent have borrowed freely from one another. The preponderance of Devotional music in film soundtracks is obvious to every lay listener, as is the frequent use of musical arrangements, imagery and lyrics borrowed from everything from Bhajan to Qawwali. On the flip-side, sacred devotional music also bears undeniable imprints of its temporal cousin, with the catchy melodies of famous (and certain not so famous) film songs being molded into everything from Na'ats to Bhajans to Qawwalis.

Subcontinental film music from the 'Golden Age' - the 1940's to the 1960's - is probably the earliest in my list of pop-culture affections. For as long as I can remember, I have been humming - and in the early, dark days of pre-pubescent debauchery, even dancing to - those wonderful melodies that seem to have achieved immortality the moment they were released. My love of early film music has been well documented before, as has my (slightly) recent love of Qawwali. I think its about time I did some amalgamatin' and brought both of my favorite forms of music together. There are dozens of Qawwali recordings by dozens of artists where film tunes have been used with slight (or extensive) lyrical modifications, but I'll restrict myself to some of my favorites. Here we go !

1. The Film song : Yeh Lo Main Haari Piya - Geeta Dutt. (OP Nayyar, Majrooh - Aar Paar - 1954)

Guru Dutt is one of my favorite filmmakers, OP Nayyar one of my favorite composers and Geeta Dutt had one of the most distinctive voices ever. This song from Aar Paar has Nayyar's trademark castanets and Majrooh's easygoing lyrics, and combined with Geeta Dutt's flirtatious delivery and Lahore born Shyama's twinkling eyes, the song manages to win not only Guru Dutt's heart, but of the listeners too.

The Qawwali - Bande Di Soorat Vicchon - Barre Karam Din Sabri Qawwal

this is the earliest evidence I could find of a film tune being used in a Qawwali, I'm sure there are ones from even earlier, and I'd love to see them mentioned in the comments. This recording, labelled only "1956" when i found it, is by a group of Punjabi Qawwals with a wonderful set of voices. It's a Naatiya kalaam - a kalaam in praise of the Prophet (SAW) released as a 78 RPM two years after the release of the film song that directly influences it. Karam Din Qawwal, one of the three major Qawwals of the Jalandhar region from the '30s - (along with Din Muhammad Qawwal and Arhooray Khan Qawwal) was the father of Mattay Khan-Nazeer Hussain Qawwals and the grandfather of Kashif Hussain-Zahid Hussain Qawwals.

2. The Song - Thandi Hawaien -Lata Mangeshkar ( SD Burman, Sahir - Naujawan - 1951)

What's not to love about this song ? Lata's voice is at its peak of youthful vitality, SD Burman provides a twinkling cascade of clarinets, xylophones, slide guitars and pianos, and Sahir Ludhianvi uses the word 'jhainp - جھینپ' in a song (a feat worth a Filmfare award at least). And its picturized on Nalini Jaiwant, the wonderful combination of Betty Boop and Bette Davis who I've had a crush on for as long as I can remember.

The Qawwali - Taeba Ko Jaayen, Bipta Sunaayen - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, accompanied by Abdul Majeed Fareedi and Inayat Ali Khan, with Ustad Naseeb Khan on the tabla turn the SD Burman composition into a wonderful supplicating Na'at. Beginning with a brilliant sazeena and doha, Fareedi Sb leads his able and willing party into what is a complicated musical arrangement to say the least. But Abdul Majeed Fareedi's effortlessly beautiful Taans and the party's trademark Takraars turn what could have been a trying endeavor into a brilliant musical journey. As the first of the takraars starts around the 12 minute mark, and the girahs and taans start following each other, the Na'at becomes almost a marching song, leading the party of travelers towards Taeba. The recording quality deteriorates towards the latter half of the performance, but this is one journey worth sticking with till the end.

3. The Song - Bahaaro Mera Jeewan Bhi Sanwaaro - Lata Mangeshkar (Khayyam, Kaifi Azmi - Akhri Khat - 1966)

Khayyam is one of my favorite composers, imbuing each of his melodies with a unique sense of calm and serenity. Here he uses Kaifi Azmi's lyrics and Lata's voice and colors the black and white cherry blossoms with fleeting notes from the Sitar and the Flute. Plus, an impossibly young Rajesh Khanna !!

The Qawwali - Pukaro, Shah-e-Jilaan Ko Pukaaro - Mubarak Ali Niaz Ali Qawwal

Mubarak Ali, Niaz Ali, Tufail Khan and Gulloo Khan; four of the most distinctive voices in Qawwali, all in one party ! This party adopted a 'take no prisoners' attitude towards each performance and injected a million kilowatts of energy into each recording, yet at the same time prevented themselves from straying down the path of screechy bombast. This popular manqabat has been sung by many artists, both Qawwals and otherwise, but Mubarak Ali-Niaz Ali's version is my favorite. Why ? Just listen to the voices man !

4. The Song - Chandni Raatein - Noor Jehan (Feroze Nizami - Dopatta - 1952)

Dupatta, one of the few early Pakistani films I'm really fond of, had a lot going for it. Noor Jehan, Ajay Kumar and a boyishly hnadsome Lala Sudhir as stars, with my favorite character actor Ghulam Mohammed in a meaty part; a wonderfully sensitive restraint and a lack of melodrama that distinguished it from most films of that period, and an interseting, twisty-turny plot. But above all, the music by Feroze Nizami is what sets this film apart. This song by Noor Jehan is one of the most recognizable songs in subcontinental film history, and needs no dissections on my part.

The Qawwali - Chandni Raatein - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Of the many, many versions of this Qawwali, this one is my favorite by far. Despite its wobbly recording, it is a fifty minute tour-de-force. I will not say anything about this recording other than presenting it as Exhibit A in favor of my argument that Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi and his party were the true successors of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal.

5. The Song - Mera Dildaar Na Milaya - Suraiyya (Husnlal-Bhagatram - 1954)

Shama Parwana is a case of a horrible movie redeemed by beautiful music. It would not have been a horrible movie otherwise, but it's end consists of *SPOILER ALERT* Shammi Kapoor being cooked alive in a giant cauldron !! Leaving that unpleasant image aside, the music by the talented but under-appreciated Punjabi brothers Husnlal-Bhagatram is beautiful. Suraiyya sings for herself and Shammi is playbacked by Mohammad Rafi. This song has both male and female versions, and despite the male version featuring Shammi and Rafi Sb - my most favorite combination ever - Suraiyya's version is the one I prefer.

The Qawwali - Taen Ta Mera Yaar Na Milaya - Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal

Everything Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali recorded seemed to bear traces of the 'music of Ainur' that Tolkein talks about. They seem to belong to a different time and place, in fact a different celestial plane altogether if you can indulge my hyperbole for a moment. This 'mehfil' recording made in 1960 in Faisalabad takes Husnlal-Bhagatram's tune and turns it into a mysterious living breathing entity. The tabla sounds like a Pakhawaj or a Mradingam, ringing out each note as the Ustads sing a Punjabi 'shikwa'.  The girahs begin at the 2:20 mark and are hair-raising to say the least. An unusual combination of Punjabi and Urdu, it is a recording that I have not heard the like of before or since.

6. The Song - Nigaahen Mila Kar Badal Jaane Waale - Noor Jehan (Rasheed Attre, Qateel Shifaai - Mehboob - 1962)

Rasheed Attre was another composer who knew how to effectively use Madam's voice, and along with Master Ghulam Haider, Feroze Nizami and Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, provided countless classics in her voice. This song from 1962, like most Pakistani film songs from the '60s, features spartan instrumentation, propelling itself on a simple dholak beat. But Madam's voice and the well constructed asthaais, along with Qateel Shifaai's simple yet evocative lyrics make this an undisputed classic of subcontinental film music history.

The Qawwali - Khuda Ki Qasam Hai Khuda Jalwagar Hai - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

The post will end on one of my most favorite Qawwali recordings ever. This kalaam is rarely sung, infact I've only heard it sung by Haji Sb and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, and they've both sung spectacular versions of this kalaam in a number of musical arrangements. Here Haji Sb uses the Rasheed Attre tune from the song above, and despite the film-derived tune, the kalaam does not lose an iota of its power. With the trademark taali-Sitar intro, and a selection from the Mathnavi - Haji Sb was the 'Andaleeb-e-Rumi' after all, this scholarly exposition of the Sufi concept of 'Wahdat-ul-Wujood' starts off. It is a kalaam with deep spiritual meanings, utilizing allegory, simile and references to verses from the Quran to delineate the One-ness of God with His creation, and each verse is pregnant with a wealth of meaning. Haji Sb doesn't use much girah-bandi here, letting the verses unfold their meanings unhindered.

I am sure I have left out a number of examples, some by design and many others because I might not have heard them yet. All the recordings above go to prove that a) subcontinental film music from the Golden Age is one of the most beautiful of all our cultural treasures, and b) intelligently using popular tunes in devotional music doesn't cause a decrease in their spiritual appeal but actually enhances it.


  1. This was fun! It's the same with bhajans here in India.
    I hear many specimens from congregations singing in mandirs. And at the monthly prayer meetings that elderly ladies have in many neighbourhoods

  2. We shall share your indulgences, loves and losses at

  3. The blogosphere of music has its own galaxies of stars.They illuminate the likes of us who have almost stumbled into such musical spheres with the gravitational pull of distant, forgotten, unknown and sometimes unheard melodies as it were. Blinking, blind, rubbing the eyes, pupils dilated you start hearing the familiar played by no stranger but someone we have met in our thoughts and dreams, through common hearts.Shared loves.
    Tune in, then and wait till I catch up...