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 .

Monday, September 4, 2017

...Of The Two Streams - Part 2

This is the second part of a rather long post featuring recordings of Ghazals by mainstream ghazal-singers and Qawwals, offering a contrasting view of the pre-eminent Urdu poetic and musical form of the last two to three centuries. Here we go!

Poet: Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob/Majzoob Dakkani?
Ghazal: Saari Duniya Mujhe Kehti Tera Saudayi Hai
Gayaki Angg: Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami
Qawwali Angg: Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

The first ghazal in this second half is by a truly enigmatic poet. I was initially unaware of the poet of this ghazal. I contacted Subhan Ahmad Nizami, the grandson of Ustad Iftekhar Ahmad Nizami (and one of my favorite Qawwals) and he told me that the poet was one Majzoob Dakkani. I mentioned the name to a few gentlemen who are interested in some of the more obscure poets but they had not heard of such a poet before. The only Majzoob they’d heard of was one Sheikh Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob. Again, very little biographical information was available about him but I’ve been able to piece together a few facts. Majzoob passed away sometime in 1944. He had served in the colonial bureaucracy at several important positions in District Saharanpur, UP and had been conferred the title of Khan Bahadur by the Colonial government. In addition to being a government servant and a poet, he was of a mystical bent and used to sing his verses and occasionally break out in dance. A few of his ghazals that I’ve read are very good, but there are precious few available.

The first recording in this post is a bit of a cheat in that it is sung by someone who was primarily a Qawwal. Ustad Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami was, along with his cousins Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Bahauddin Khan and Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, part of the original pre-1969 Manzoor Ahmad Niazi Qawwal party (The Barri Party). He possessed a unique, rough-hewn and weather-beaten voice that possessed a virile, earthy beauty. In the Barri Party recordings, his voice is distinct and immediately grabs the listener’s attention. He passed away at a relatively young age, leaving behind precious few recordings. The few solo performances of his that remain were recorded at Mr. Zaheer Alam Kidvai’s wedding ceremony. Here he sings some lovely ghazals and a couple of really sweet dadras. The audio quality is iffy at best, however his unique style shines through splendidly. It really is a lovely ghazal, and sung by Iftekhar Sb, it literally sparkles!

The Qawwali rendition of this ghazal is by Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi. My deep appreciation and admiration of Fareedi Sb is not a secret. I consider him one of the greatest Qawwals of the 20th century and arguably the finest shagird of Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali. In this recording, the party sings the kalam in a lovely arrangement based on a Raag that sounds really familiar but one I can’t for the life of me seem to recognize (Bhairvi?). The tarz is perfectly suited to Rasheed’s hefty voice, allowing Majeed Ahmad Fareedi to weave his magical taans at will. Even though the tempo picks up as the performance proceeds, the Qawwals are in no hurry whatsoever, lingering on each verse, repeating it for good measure, building takraar upon takraar. There is no girahbandi here, not even an opening preamble. What it lacks in text, it makes up for in the quality of the taans; there’s mellow taans, ghamak taans, and lovely Pahari style taans. It’s a 20-minute express train-ride through the ghazal, with an expert engine driver at the helm.

Poet: Anwar Mirzapuri
Ghazal: Main Nazar Se Pi Raha Hoon
Gayaki Angg: Iqbal Bano
Qawwali Angg: Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhter Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal

One enigmatic poet follows another. I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Anwar Mirzapuri. The only description I’ve found for him is “A poet very popular in Mushairas in India in the 50s and 60s.” Let’s leave it at that I guess.

Iqbal Bano was one of the queens of Pakistani music, lending her distinctive voice to innumerable ghazals and film songs that have become standards. In addition, she was an excellent light classical singer; her thumris in Tilak Kamod are especially lovely. Like her great contemporary Farida Khanum, her ghazals are marked by immaculate ‘talaffuz’, an understanding of the nuanced meanings of the kalam, and selection of arrangements that did not overshadow the text. This ghazal is no exception. She sings each verse almost lovingly, interspersed with short but excellent taans. One can almost imagine sitting in front of her, listening as she waves her left hand, plucking at invisible notes around her, entrancing the audience. It’s a short piece but a really lovely one.

The Qawwals performing this piece are those wonderful, exquisitely unpolished gems from Faisalabad, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan, his phenomenally talented son Maulvi Akhter Hassan (a voice if ever there was one), accompanied by Muhammad Mohsin and Zahid Hassan Bheranwale, with the voices of Maulvi Haider Hassan and Zameer-ul-Hassan somewhere in the mix. I’ve always had a grudge with whoever recorded this party (the otherwise brilliant Haji Hidayatulah I’m guessing) in that they usually didn’t adequately mic anyone except Maulvi Akhter Hassan. The result is that the rest of the voices lose their power a bit. But all that does is put Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s lovely voice front and center. This performance is one of my very favorite ones. The opening minute-and-a-half of the doha alone is worth the price of admission, as are the lovely short taans where Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s voice cracks so beautifully. You won’t find proper Urdu ‘talaffuz’ here, nor will you find sweet, classically trained voices. Instead, there are voices straight from the earth, striking, rough-hewn, powerful and absolutely beautiful.

Poet: Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Ghazal: Dil Main Ab Yun
Gayaki Angg: Mashooq Ali Khan
Qawwali Angg: Muhammad Ahmad Warsi Rampuri Qawwal

Faiz is arguably the greatest and most popular Urdu poet of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, and one of the great poetic voices of the world. The beauty of his ghazals and the stark magnificence and tenderness of his nazms is known and loved wherever Urdu is spoken and understood. I don’t think I can do justice in one paragraph to the importance of Faiz’s poetry in my life. For as long as I can recall, there has been a copy of “Nuskha-haaye Wafa” at the side table and another in the bookshelf. There have always been half a dozen cassettes of Faiz in the car; his own recitations of his poetry, Abida Parveen’s renditions, Iqbal Bano’s renditions, Farida Khanum’s renditions and so forth. Some of the most important memories (and an extremely embarrassing one) of my life are associated with Faiz’s poetry. This lovely ghazal is an example of Faiz’s utter mastery over the classical aspects of this poetic form and his ability to imbue it with modern sentiment without violating its romantic core. Also, what a mat’la!

Mashooq Ali Khan sings the ghazal here. He was a Radio Pakistan artist from Karachi who performed from the 50s to the end of the 70s. His specialty seems to be ghazals and light classical pieces, although I have a qawwali recording of his which is rather lovely. His voice is somewhat similar to Nasir Jahan, the famous Na’at-khwan and Soz-khwan, it’s obviously aged and past its prime, but its flexibility and mild tremulousness is very endearing. In this recording the sarangi creates a lovely, wistful atmosphere and the simple Keherva taal by the tabla gives Mashooq Ali Khan’s voice a firm foundation to weave his magic, which he certainly does.

When I began taking a keener interest in Qawwali around ten years ago (Jeez! It’s been ten years!!) I was a tad nonplussed to find that Faiz’s poetry wasn’t represented at all in the Qawwali canon. This, despite the fact that Faiz had written a couple of pieces specifically as Qawwalis. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had sung a lovely version of his Punjabi geet “Kidray Na Paindiyan Dassaan” but not as a Qawwali. There is an appreciable difficulty in translating Faiz’s more political and revolutionary verses to Qawwali but that still leaves a large body of work that has been left largely unexplored by Qawwals. The performance I’ve included in this selection was actually part of an active attempt to correct this long-standing oversight.

A few years ago, a rather interesting Qawwali mehfil was held in Delhi. The chief guest was the renowned Urdu scholar, Prof Gopi Chand Narang, with a number of luminaries in attendance. The aim was to recite a number of pieces by famous Farsi and Urdu poets. They couldn’t have chosen a better Qawwal than Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi for such a mehfil. Warsi Sb is an acquired taste. His style is relaxed, languid, a tad dishevelled and loose, which might put off anyone who prefers Qawwals who stick to the taal and laye and don’t wander into digressions. But I love him. His performance of this ghazal is the perfect example of his unique style. He strays behind the beat one moment, catches up and races past it the next. The performance is slow, methodical and measured, and his style of girah-bandi is like no other Qawwal I’ve ever heard. If there can’t be more Faiz kalams in the Qawwali canon, at least the ones that are present are being sung by Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi, and that’s fine by me.

Poet: Qateel Shifai
Ghazal: Garmiye Hasrate Nakaam
Gayaki Angg: Zahida Parveen
Qawwali Angg: Agha Bashir Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Qateel Shifai is rightly acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in the history of Pakistani film. However, recognizing him only as a lyricist is a great disservice to his career as one of the pre-eminent Urdu ghazal poets of the 20th century. This was a burden borne by a number of great lyricist poets, including Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi; the burden of their film career overshadowing their serious poetic aspirations. Qateel however was recognized early on as an important modern Urdu poet. His ghazals are modern and were popular amongst the masses despite being molded in the framework of classical Urdu poetry. He started reciting and publishing his poetry before partition and remained an important figure of the Urdu literary landscape until his death in 2001. Two of his ghazals are included here.

If I were to name the single greatest voice I have ever heard, it would have to be Zahida Parveen. She is rightly acclaimed as the Empress of the Kafi. No one has sung the kalam of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) with deeper understanding and more emotion. She was also a highly accomplished classical singer who had trained first under Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala and later under Ustad Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan of the Kasur/Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana. Her khayal performances are hair-raisingly good, though very hard to come by. Her ghazals, recorded in the late ‘50s and the ‘60s, are singular, incomparable to any other singer before or since her. There are flights across three octaves, there are taans of exquisite beauty and staggering dexterity, the bol-baant is perfect and there is an uncanny awareness of the taal and the laye. Despite all that, the text of the ghazal is never neglected, never overburdened with vocal calisthenics. Zahida Parveen’s power shines through in everything she ever recorded, be it Kafi, Khayal or the ghazal shared here.

The Qawwal performing this ghazal is the great Agha Bashir Ahmad Qawwal. Agha Bashir was the elder brother of Agha rasheed Ahmad and Abdul Majeed Fareedi and was an excellent Qawwal. After Partition, he was employed at Radio Pakistan Lahore and eventually became Station Director, becoming known in the process as Agha Bahsir Ahmad Lahore-walay. His style is characterized by a powerful, rough voice and his astounding ghamak taans. He performed regularly for more than half a century and recorded a number of excellent performances for Radio Pakistan as well as EMI. This ghazal is also taken from one of his 1960s Radio Pakistan recordings. He is accompanied by a rather lovely and striking voice that I’d love to be able to put a name to. He doesn’t resort to girahbandi or too many takraars, giving the ghazal a run-through from start to finish without too many distractions. His trademark taans arrive after the four-minute mark.

Ghazal: Tumhari Anjuman Se Utth Ke
Gayaki Angg: Fareeda Khanum
Qawwali Angg: Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

I’ve been listening to a lot of Fareeda Khanum lately, searching out deep cuts from the early decades of her career and every time I hear something new by her, I am stuck by the immensity of her talent. The sweetness of her voice, the perfection of her talaffuz and her mastery over ghazal singing are universally acknowledged, the result of her own innate talent coupled by years of rigorous training under her sister, the legendary Mukhtar Begum as well as Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala. Since her arrival at the musical scene shortly after Partition, she has been at the very top of the Pakistani musical hierarchy, and one doesn’t need to wonder why. As just one example of her many talents, notice her exquisite and effortless sense of rhythm and tempo in this recording. When she sings, she seems almost oblivious of the tabla, but never does she lose the thread of the ‘taal’, landing each note perfectly on the rhythmic cycle. It’s a lovely performance by a superlative artist

Few Qawwals have had a longer or more impactful career than Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi. From the early 1930s till the late 1970s, he led a brilliant qawwal party that included his son Abdur Rahim among others. His influence is obvious on the generations of Pakpattan based Qawwals that share his surname, a nod to their devotion to and service at the shrine of Hz Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (RA). From his earliest 78 RPM recordings to the mehfil recordings he made near the end of his life, Muhammad Ali Fareedi’s distinct voice and charming talaffuz remained distinct from any other Qawwal. His recording of Qateel Shifai’s ghazal is taken from a 78 RPM disc released in the early 1950s. The voice isn’t as sharp as it used to be two decades ago and there aren’t any taans or takraars, but the Ustads meandering vowels and short tremolos lend the ghazal a lovely color. 

Poet: Qamar Jalalabadi
Ghazal: Kabhi Kaha Na Kisi Se
Gayaki Angg: Mehdi Hassan
Qawwali Angg: The Sabri Brothers Ensemble

A contemporary and friend of Qateel Shifai, Qamar Jalalabadi was also predominantly known as a lyricist. He started his career around five years earlier than Qateel, and scored an early hit with the wonderful songs of 1942’s big hit Khandaan. (One of my favorite film soundtracks btw). He was one of the leading lyricists of the 1940s and early fifties, but was later overshadowed by the next generation of lyricists including Sahir, Majrooh, Bedi, Rajinder Krishen etc. He was a regular presence at Urdu mushairas in India and abroad till the start of the 21st century. Unlie Qateel though, he is primarily known as a lyricist, with his poetical career overshadowed by his popular songs.

It is fitting that the final ghazal in this post should be by the King of Ghazals Mehdi Hassan. I needn’t go into any detailed analyses of Mehdi Hassan’s voice, his style or his career. Suffice to say that he does full justice to this ghazal, just like he did full justice to whatever he sang. The recording is from the early 80s when his voice had started mellowing and descending into the lower registers. The composition perfectly suits the sombre and resigned mood of the ghazal, and Khansaheb sings it wonderfully.

The commercially released Qawwali records of the late 60s and 70s are an odd proposition. On one hand, some of the greatest qawwals of the last century were being recorded using state of the art recording equipment in a studio setting, allowing them to record the ‘type’ specimens of their repertoire for posterity. On the other hand, these recordings were made using arrangements that were a tad too “filmi” and more often than not, overshadowed the kalam being recorded. This was the case with a number of recordings made in the 1970s by Bahauddin Khan as well as the Manzoor Niazi party. No one did this type of recording better (if that’s what you can call it) than the Sabri Brothers, who were the pre-eminent Pakistani Qawwals in the 1970s. Just take a listen to the opening ninety seconds of this recording. Once the opening salvo is over though, Les Freres Sabri jump into the kalam like nobody’s business. The opening doha is brilliant, the girahs are brilliant, the takraars are brilliant. The brothers sing the ghazal straight through until they get to the ‘hasil-e-ghazal- verse, which is then embellished with three or four really interesting girahs. It’s a perfect example of a Qawwali that is populist as well as respectful to the kalam being performed. In short, the perfect bookend to this post about the ghazal, an art-form that has strived for centuries to achieve the perfect balance between artistic excellence and popular appeal.


  1. Upload more qawwalies of Mohammad Ahmad Warsi Rampur sahab...

  2. Hi.....

    I am a first-time poster to your website, but long-time listener. I wanted to say how amazing your website is and just how much I enjoy not only the content, but the love and time you put into sharing your recordings with such detailed and informative notes. I do have two questions I hope that you could answer for me:

    (1) Could you possible give us more details about Maulavi Ahmed Hassan Behranwale? I am a bit confused by who I am watching on You Tube and the much elderly individual whose photo I keep seeing on the front of the recordings from the Oriental Star label?

    (2) We all know about the famours Sabri Bros from Pakistan, but what if any is there in terms of relationship (musically or otherrise) to the so-called first Indian Sabri Brothers (Iqbal-Afzal Sabri) who have also had a long and very close association with the Bollywood Film indstry

    (3) Is Ashiq Ali Qawwal the same Ashiq Ali who is the brother of the famous ghazal singer, Ghulam Ali Khan?

    Thanks again...your blog is truly amazing.


    1. Thanks a lot for your continuous readership and your comment. Regarding your questions,

      1. This caused me a lot of confusion as well until I asked the Qawwals themselves (or at least their surviving descendants). The elderly gentleman on the OSA labels is Maulvi Ahmed Hassan. The gent with the wonderfully raspy voice and the pencil thin mustache we see leading the party in the YouTube videos was his son Maulvi Akhter Hassan. The current leader of the party is Maulvi Haider Hassan, Maulvi Ahmed's son and Maulvi Akhter's younger brother.

      2. The famous Sabri Brothers from Pakistan are not related to the Sabri Brothers from India musically or otherwise. The only relationship is both parties' shared devotion to the saint Hazrat Ali Ahmad Alauddin Sabir (RA) whose shrine is in Kalyar, hence their common "Sabri" name.

      3. Ashiq Ali Qawwal wasn't related to the famous ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. Ashiq Ali's brother was a different Ghulam Ali, who was part of his qawwal party.

      I hope I've been able to answer your questions to your satisfaction.

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