I have been meaning to write this post for a long time now—I love qawwalis—but I’ve kept putting it off, because I’ve always thought that it would be impossible to create a list of just ten filmi qawwalis that are my favourites. (Barsaat ki Raat itself features at least three qawwalis that completely bowl me over).
But. I’ve finally decided to take up the challenge, and do it. These are ten fabulous qawwalis from pre-70s films that I’ve seen (though I must confess that I like the qawwalis of some 70s films—especially Rishi Kapoor ones). To make this post a little more challenging, I decided not to include more than one qawwali per film.
Here we go, in no particular sequence:
1. Chaandi ka badan sone ki nazar (Taj Mahal, 1963): If a music director could be given the title of the ‘qawwali king’, it would have to be Roshan—and in this song from Taj Mahal, Roshan shows off his skill brilliantly. The primary sounds are the voices of the singers, tablas, and the synchronised, rhythmic clapping that is a hallmark of qawwalis. Simple? Yes, but also wonderfully complex, because Roshan brings in variations that never let the flow and tempo get repetitive.
And Sahir’s lyrics, ardently flirtatious for the men, teasingly derisive for the women—are a delight.
2. Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960): If I were asked to name my one favourite qawwali, this would be it. I was introduced to it in a roundabout way—when I was about 12 years old, our school annual function included a version of this qawwali. The lyrics were changed a bit to make it a patriotic song, but the music was that of Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai. I was part of the chorus.
Barsaat ki Raat had brilliant qawwalis (again, composed by Roshan): Nigaah-e-naaz ke maaron ka haal kya hoga, Yeh ishq ishq hai, Pehchaanta hoon khoob tumhaari nazar ko main—and this one. Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai is, for me, one of those awe-inspiring pieces of work: everything fits perfectly, even though it’s very complex. The music, the lyrics, the singing (I love the way the voices—Manna Dey, Asha Bhonsle, S D Batish and Sudha Malhotra—blend in), and the picturisation. There is nothing I don’t love about it.
3. Ae meri zohrajabeen tujhe maaloom nahin (Waqt, 1965): This one starts off deceptively unlike a qawwali: there is no troupe of singers sitting ready to clap and sway and add their voices to a chorus, and the tabla (actually a dholak) too is across the room from the singer. But the ‘audience’ joins in, clapping to accompany Balraj Sahni’s character as he sings in praise of his wife—who plays the dholak. A sweet love song, written by Sahir, composed by Ravi, and sung by the very versatile Manna Dey.
4. Teri mehfil mein kismat aazmaakar (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960): Like Na toh kaarvaan ki talaash hai, this one too is a qawwali competition: the dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) and her team face off against the ambitious Bahaar (Nigar Sultana) and her team, in an effort to impress Prince Salim. As far as music goes, this is a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated qawwali—yet an excellent one, elevated by the lyrics of Shakeel Badayuni.
5. Jaan-e-mann ek nazar dekh le (Mere Mehboob, 1963): From a film which had a superb score (courtesy Naushad), a qawwali which is also (like Teri mehfil mein kismat aazmaakar) about rivalry—but a rivalry between two close friends who love the same man. And, in the true spirit of filmi friendship, the odd girl out is the one who celebrates the engagement of her friend with a qawwali that boasts—teasingly—of her having given up the man for her friend. What large-heartedness! But even if the happy bride-to-be is oblivious, the man is not, and he sees the pain behind the smiles. Beautiful.
6. Meri duniya lut rahi thhi (Mr and Mrs 55, 1955): The infectious rhythm of the typical qawwali can sometimes hide great sorrow, as in the previous song. This one, too, is a sad qawwali, though the sadness of the lyrics is disguised a little by the music. For once, a qawwali in which the lead character does not participate: he is merely walking down a street, sunk in despair, when he comes upon a troupe of qawwals whose song is an uncanny reflection of his own feelings.
OP Nayyar gives Meri duniya lut rahi thhi a good folksy, street-song feel to it, with the harmonium, the loud clapping, and Rafi’s very versatile voice, here with a slightly cynical-but-smiling feel. This song tends to get overshadowed by Thandi hawa kaali ghata and Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji, but I like it just as much.
7. Mere banne ki baat no poochho (Gharana, 1961): Mere banne ki baat na poochho may not be as well-known as most of the other songs I’ve listed till now, but it’s a delightful one, nevertheless. The setting is a wedding (and, if you can celebrate birthdays and engagements with qawwalis, why not weddings—especially when a ladies‘ sangeet is the perfect setting for a qawwali?) Here, two teams of women—one from the groom’s family and friends, the other from the bride’s—compete against each other in praising their respective halves of the match. A lot of insults are traded (and not just confined to the bride and groom, but also to their families), but it’s all in fun.
8. Sharmaake yeh kyon sab pardahnasheen (Chaudhvin ka Chaand, 1960): What is it about a qawwali that makes it (or made it; one doesn’t come across many qawwalis in Hindi films these days) the preferred style of singing when wanting to pull someone’s leg, or hurl insults—veiled or otherwise? In this song, Shamshad Begum and Asha Bhonsle are the lead singers who (in turn) extol the adas of beautiful women, and the generosity of the men who, by appreciating this beauty, make it worth its while.
…all the while watched, with much joy, by a hidden admirer who’s deeply in love with the woman at the centre of it all.
9. Allah yeh ada kaisi hai (Mere Humdum Mere Dost, 1968): Another instance of a qawwali being used to tease someone: in this case, a reluctant and huffy fiancé who’s been duped into an engagement. Allah yeh ada kaisi hai in haseenon mein is an example of the later style of qawwalis (more obvious in the 70s)—a relatively jazzed-up song, fairly typical of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. What I like (besides the fact that it features one of my favourite actresses, the wonderful Mumtaz) is the way, towards the end of the song, the pace and tune alter somewhat and give the song a more interesting flavour.
10. Hum deewaanein tere dar se nahin (Nakli Nawab, 1962): Yet another qawwali in which troupes of singers sing a qawwali together. Here, though, it’s not merely two troupes, but four. The qawwali begins with professional singers—male and female—singing about not leaving the doorstep of their charitable patron without getting their due. The singing is then taken up by the daughter of the house and her fiancé, each of them with their set of friends, using the same lyrics in a different way: to court the other.
And somewhere towards the end, the switch happens again: the professional singers take over the song, and this time there’s a veiled hint of blackmail…
For Edwina admirers, a chance to see the lady dressed in peshwaaz and churidaar, and looking very pretty.
Which are your favourite qawwalis?