'Love is all there is': How the Sufi qawwali has influenced Hindi films

Farhana Farook
·8-min read

Celebrating the Sufi qawwalis that celebrate India’s rich culture and pluralism…

Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia dargah in Delhi
Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia dargah in Delhi

The qawwali as we know it is said to have originated in the courtyard of saint Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. His disciple and poet, Amir Khusrau (d. 1326), composed the devotional music to celebrate the death of his spiritual guide, viewed as a union with the Creator.

Since then, qawwalis have been performed as a tradition at dargahs of Sufi saints. Based on Hindustani raags and Urdu poetry, it’s a celebration of the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, India’s sacred heirloom.

Through time, the 700-year-old mystic tradition, in its diluted version, became a subgenre of film music as in Muslim social dramas. The harmonium replaced the sitar but the tabla and the rhythmic clapping continued to be the highlight. On screen, it largely remained a musical debate or a light-hearted duel between the sexes or rivals on themes of love and lament.

The earliest qawwalis include Hamein toh loot liya (Al Hilal 1943), Yesh ishq ishq hai (Barsaat Ki Raat 1960), Teri mehfil mein qismat and Jab raat hai aisi matwali (Mughal-E-Azam 1960) and Nigahe milane ko (Dil Hi To Hai 1963).

In the ’70s, there were populist innovations like the friendship extolling Yaari hai imaan mera (Zanjeer 1973), the suspense-filled Raaz ki baat keh doon toh (Dharma 1973), the teasing Pardah hai pardah hai and Shirdiwale Sai Baba (Amar Akbar Anthony 1977) and many more. Mention must be made of Maula Saleem Chisti (Garm Hava 1973), a compelling spiritual variant.

Coming closer, Raveena Tandon’s Tu cheez badi hai mast mast in Mohra (1994) was said to be inspired from the iconic chorus Dam mast Qalandar, while Kajra re, composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy for Bunty Aur Babli (2005), including Western beats, is dubbed as ‘techno-qawwali’.

In the millennium, we saw the revival of the Sufi qawwali, which now enjoys popularity across faiths. Here’s listing a few mystical renderings… that celebrate the cultural confluences and the ‘idea’ of India…


Music: Ustad Bahadur Khan

Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi

Singers: Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi and Warsi Brothers troupe

M. S. Sathyu’s film traced the aftermath of the Partition, where the Indian Muslim felt a sense of alienation. The qawwali is filmed in the brick-red precincts of the historic Fatehpur Sikri, which nestles the marble white shrine of Hazrat Maula Salim Chisti – the saint whom Emperor Akbar implored for a son.

The qawwali in the film voices Amina’s (Gita Siddharth) anguish. Once let down in love, she hesitatingly steps into another relationship with Shamshad Mian (Jalal Agha), only to be left heartbroken again. Like her previous lover, he too migrates to Pakistan.

As the lines, “Ghunghat ki laaj rakhan, iss sar pe taaj rakhna…” play in the background, Amina dressed in blood red bridal attire, slashes her wrists... Written by Kaifi Azmi, supposedly an atheist, the Sufi requiem proves that spirituality is independent of organised religion. Kaifi’s composition is rendered till date by qawwals in Hazrat Salim Chisti’s courtyard.


Music: A.R. RAHMAN


Singers: A.R. Rahman, Kadar Ghulam Mushtafa, Murtaza Ghulam Mushtafa and Srinivas

Khalid Mohammed’s Fiza was a heartrending narrative of young Amaan (Hrithik Roshan), who disappears during the 1993 Bombay riots. His sister Fiza (Karisma Kapoor) and her mother Nishatbi (Jaya Bachchan) fervently pray for his return.

The qawwali is shot in the precincts of the Haji Ali Dargah, a landmark on an islet off Worli in Mumbai. The qawwali focuses on Nishatbi, who visits the shrine to seek divine intervention.

The majesty of the tomb against the ebb and tide of a mother’s emotions makes for a subliminal frame. Also, the lines, “Yahan Hindi, Muslim, Sikh, Isaai faiz paate hain…” establishes the significance of the all-embracing dargah in a melting pot like Mumbai.

A.R.Rahman, known for his Sufi leanings, composed this solo track in an entire album by Anu Malik.


Music: Vishal Bhardwaj

Lyrics: Gulzar

Singers: Daler Mehndi, Rakesh Pandit, Sabir Khan and Dominique

Set against the backdrop of the Mumbai underworld, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The plot revolves around Maqbool (Irrfan) lusting after kingpin Jahangir Khan’s (Pankaj Kapur) throne and his mistress Nimmi (Tabu).

The qawwali performed at a shrine they visit is full of ironies. That of Jahangir Khan’s diabolic personality as he postures as a devout Muslim. Nimmi insisting on walking barefoot to the dargah to honour a ‘vow’ when all she wants is to steal some moments with Maqbool. And Maqbool offering to escort her when he too secretly enjoys her proximity.

Maqbool nursing Nimmi’s injured foot in the track has a masochistic sensuality. Pairon mein padi gardish aur sar mein junoon bhi hai… likens spiritual ecstasy to a consuming physical passion.


Music: A.R. Rahman

Lyrics: Kashif

Singer: A. R. Rahman

A.R. Rahman had composed Khwaja (Master) Mere Khwaja for saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer much before he signed Jodhaa Akbar. Director Ashutosh Gowariker loved the composition and used it in a sequence celebrating Emperor Akbar’s (Hrithik Roshan) triumph.

“Akbar’s married to a Rajput princess (Jodhaa played by Aishwarya Rai) and he’s made an important political alliance. But he also sees a spiritual light during the qawwali. It is accompanied with a Rumistic, Sufi kind of dance,” said Rahman about the whirling dervish kind of trance.

Hrithik was quoted saying, “I dance with one hand pointing towards heaven, which receives the divine gift. The other hand points to the ground, which meant I was connecting to people below. I was the medium, the recipient of divine communication,” he explained the spiritual allegory.

Reportedly, Amitabh Bachchan too praised the cinematic moment stating that ‘since Stanley Kubrick’s legendary sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 had there been such an apocalyptic moment in a film!’


Music: A.R. Rahman

Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi

Singers: Javed Ali & Kailash Kher

A. R. Rahman’s Arziyan (requests) is set to Hindustani raag and taal and includes Western instrumentation.

Shot in Jama Masjid, the image of a thousand Muslims bowing down in unison is an overwhelming moment. Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) is seen enjoying the qawwali, greeting with an aadaab and namaste in quick succession as he plays a half Hindu-half-Muslim in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film.

Along with the Muslim congregation, there are images of temple bells and lamps, establishing India’s revered plurality. The song appears at two key points where a sense of kinship is established – first following the recovery of Roshan’s grandmother (Waheeda Rehman) around her neighbours; and second, when the residents of Delhi-6 reunify after communal violence to save Roshan’s life.


Music: A.R. Rahman

Lyrics: Irshad Kamli

Singers: A. R. Rahman, Javed Ali and Mohit Chauhan

When Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) is thrown out of his house, he takes refuge at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah in Delhi, spends time with the qawwals and absorbs their music.

The Nizami Bandhus, Chand Nizami along with nephews Shadab and Sohrab, who sing qawwalis in dargahs, also feature in Kun faya kun ( means ‘Be and it is’, the phrase implying the Lord’s power of creation). The magnificence of the shrine is offset by the teeming seekers.

Ranbir's character Jordan blends with the ambience of the dargah and his ‘self-annihilation’ helps him unravel himself musically. The qawwali, Kun faya kun, is about his journey and the moment of epiphany - the darkness within illuminated by the spiritual light around him.


Music: Pritam

Lyrics: Kausir Munir

Singer: Adnan Sami

The classic qawwali, Bhar do jholi meri yaa Muhammad, originally composed and sung by the Sabri Brothers, was revamped in the Kabir Khan film. Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), a mute Pakistani girl loses her way in India only to bump into Pawan (Salman Khan), who makes it his mission to take her back home. Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Pakistani reporter, aids Pawan in this arduous task.

The qawwali was shot at the Ashmuqam Dargah, a 560-step climb, at a distance from Pahalgam. It features a devout Hindu being moved to tears by a qawwali sung by a Muslim reiterating the fact that both music and humanity have no borders, no religion.


Music: Anurag Saikia

Lyrics: Shakeel Azmi

Singers: Shafqat Amanat Ali and Arshad Hussain

Mulk revolves around Murad (Rishi Kapoor), a Muslim lawyer, in the religious city of Varanasi. Murad’s life takes a turn for the worse when his nephew inadvertently commits an act of terrorism. The adversity fosters a bond between Murad and his Hindu daughter-in-law Aarti (Taapsee Pannu), who helps clear the family from charges of radicalism.

Singers Shafqat Amanat Ali and Arshad Hussain address the divine as ‘Piya’ (Beloved) and claim that the Lord is etched in their souls in this stirring track. The composition includes the traditional tabla, dholak and clapping along with modern string instruments.

The shot of the ghats of Varanasi are juxtaposed with Murad praying at a mosque. Piya samaye is aptly placed at the denouement where Aarti exposes the religious bias against Murad.

Kashi bhi mujh mein, Kaaba bhi mujh mein… Ishq hai more… Piya ka mazhab… The lines celebrate the pluralism of India and is a reminder of the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb now a blurring reality.

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