A tale of two qawwalis

Qawwali is a form of devotional music that expresses the mystical Sufi practice of Islam in South Asia, mainly in areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The term qawwali comes from the Arabic word “qaul,” meaning “to speak” or “to say,” thus emphasizing the importance of words of these songs. Its main function is to make the listeners understand the words or message of the songs.

The modern qawwali owes its existance to the legendary Amir Khusro, who fused the Persian and Hindustani elements to give shape to the formal format of the qawwali. His guru Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who was a Sufi Saint, imparted great knowledge to Amir Khusro.

Amir Khusro and Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

The Roshan-Sahir combination has produced some immortal qawwalis, and I shall analyze two of them from Bahu Begum. These qawwalis have some great music, great playback and some wonderful free-flowing Urdu by Sahir, but somehow remain dwarfed by the towering ones of Barsat Ki Raat.

The two of them share the same tune, rendered by Mohammad Rafi and Manna Dey, but occur at different situations in the movie; one full of romance and the other the call of a distraught lover yearning to meet her beloved desperately. The rendezvous is the same, but holds a completely different meaning in the two cases.

Waqif Hoon Ishq Ke  – Manna Dey and Mohd Rafi

The situation is the meeting of Zeenat (Meena Kumari) and her beloved Pradeep Kumar at the Mazhaar on Jummerat, making up an ideal situation for a qawwali. In the previous scene, Zeenat’s marriage is fixed with Ashok Kumar without her knowledge on the next Jummerat, setting up the scene for the tragedy to unfold and the other version of the qawwali.

arz-e-shauq aankhon me hai, arz-e-vafaa aankho me hai

tere aage baat kehne kaa mazaa aankhon me hai

vaaqif hun khub ishq ke tarz-e-bayaan se main
kah dungaa dil ki baat nazar ki zubaan se main

[tarz-e-bayaan = mode of speech]

meri vafaa kaa shauq se tu imtahaan le
guzrunga tere ishq me har imtihaan se main

ai husn-e-aashanaa tere jalvon ki khair ho
be-gaana ho gayaa hun gam-e-do jahaan se main

The song starts with the lovers meeting at the panwala and then offering their respects in mazaar and settling down, Meena looks lovely.

There are some very interesting aspects in the picturization. First of all the setup of the troupe per se. A qawwali typically has one or two lead singers, with one or two harmoniums on the left and the right. Percussion is provided by the dholak and other instruments such as the sitar are usually a few rows behind. The picturization shown below adheres to all of this, the chorus indulge in rhythmic hand clapping, and there is a particular style to it, clearly demonstrated by the elder qawwal.

The lyrics suggest that the eyes are used as the instrument of love, and the picturization at “nazar ki zubaan” is apt.

Sahir’s lyrics also lay the platform for the tragedy, in “meri wafaa ka shauk se tu imtihaan le, guzrunga tere ishq me har imtihaan se main

Ab Jaan-balab Hoon  – Manna Dey and Mohd Rafi

Zeenat’s friend bears the bad news that Nawab Sikander Mirza (Ashok Kumar) is the bride and not Pradeep Kumar. A shocked Zeenat leaves the marriage behind and rushes to the Mazhaar at the panwala’s shop, but he is nowhere to be seen. The rendezvous point holds a different meaning to Zeenat’s life. Ek woh Jumeraat ki baat thi, aur ek yeh Jummeraat ki baat hai.

ab jaa-balab hun shiddat-e-dard-e-nihaan se main
aise me tujh ko dhundh kar laoon kahaan se main
[shiddat-e-dard-e-nihaan = intense hidden pain]

zameen hamdard hai meri na humdum asmaan mera
teraa dar chhut gayaa to phir thikaanaa hai kahaan mera
qasam hai tujh ko, tujh ko qasam hai,
jazbaa-e-dil na jaaye raay e zaan meraa
yahi hai imtihaan tera, yahi hai imtihaan mera
ek simt mohabbat hai ek simt zamana
ab aise me tujh ko dhundh kar laaun kahaan se mai


teraa khayaal teri tamannaa liye hue
dil bujh rahaa hai aas kaa sholaa liye hue
hairan khadi hui hai doraahe pe zindagi
naakaam hasraton kaa janaazaa liye hue
ab aise me tujh ko dhundh kar laaun kahaan se mai
[nakaam hasraton ka janaza = bier of unfulfilled desires]

I will try and present a rough translation of the lyrics. (I have tried to keep it literally the same as in Urdu, and hence the English suffers)

Where do you expect me to find you from, me, who is on the verge of death due to acute concealed pain (of love)? The skies  offer their sympathies nor does the earth, where shall be my abode having separated from you? I implore upon you to forsake the world (and come to me). This is an ordeal for both of us, sandwiched between love and the society. The flame of hope in my heart is about to extinguish, and life is at cross roads, perplexed and carrying the bier of unfulfilled desires. Where do you expect me to find you in such a situation?

Sahir’s lyrics portray the helplessness, the restlessness (seene me iztaraab), the urge (aye jaan-e-wafa kuch to de jawaab) . Meena Kumari’s acting is brilliant. The panwala’s shop, where she comes looking frantically for her lover.

I want to draw the attention of the reader to the two leading singers in the song, who have given a great account of themselves as professional qawwals. The elder qawwal’s body language is perfect and in keeping with Sahir’s vehement lyrics. I believe the two of them have infused a great amount of life into the qawwali through some great acting, the closeups were such a delight.

Zameeen Humdard meri na humdum aasamaan mera

One of the characteristics of the qawwali is the conspicuous use of the harmonium. The harmonium here is very colourful and artistic.

The music

As usual, Roshan does a great job of orchestrating the qawwali, he had supreme talent in weaving melodies of Sahir’s potent lyrics, they were indeed a pair made in heaven. Roshan himself must have had great understanding of Urdu. The sitar at the beginning of the first qawwali is extremely melodious.  It would be unfair to compare these qawwalis to the classic ones of Barsaat Ki Raat, but they deserve their share of glory too.



  1. dustedoff said,

    May 1, 2012 at 4:45 am

    One movie I haven’t seen yet, though I’ve told myself (again and again) that I must! Will remember to read your post once I have seen it. 🙂

    • May 1, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Wow DO, delighted to see a post from you after such a loooong time 🙂 It is a good movie, produced by Jan-Nisar Akhtar. Roshan has pulled off some great melodies.

  2. dustedoff said,

    May 2, 2012 at 3:55 am

    The only post you’ve posted recently on which I didn’t comment was your Brindabani Raag one, Karthik! And that was because even though you’d dumbed it down for novices like us, I was still totally lost. Maybe I’m just very stupid. 😦

    • May 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      I was only pulling your leg :). About your being stupid, to quote Shakespeare, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a foo l” Dont worry, himmat mat hariye, you will surely start identifying ragas.

  3. harveypam said,

    May 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    A wonderful post once again, Karthik!
    With two of my favourite qawaalis. I have to get down to make my list of fav qawaalis. the things is that Roshan’s qawaalis take up all the positions in the line!
    While watching the first song I was wondering if a man and woman are allowed to sit so close together at a dargah?While watching the second song, I was won
    dering why she didn’t take her burqah? Maybe it was in a different cupboard in the other part of haveli.
    But the beauty of both the qawaalis swept away any such misgivings by the idiotic mind!
    Was nice to listen to them one after the other.
    Thank you for this lovely post.

    • May 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      Frankly, I am not sure if a man and woman are allowed to sit close at a durgah.:).If you remember the story, woh sab kuch chod chaadke aayi thi frantically looking for her beloved. *Uski zindagi thi nakaam hasraton ka janaza liye hue*. Aise me burkha is the last thing she could have thought of. 😦

  4. Anu Warrier said,

    May 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Both wonderful qawwalis, Karthik. Roshan came up with such wonderful scores. I watched Bahu Begum recently; or rather, I re-watched it. Those were the days! Great performances, even though Meena Kumari’s downslide had begun, and wonderful songs. Thanks for reminding me of the songs again. 🙂

  5. Kritika said,

    June 22, 2012 at 8:56 am

    I know this is not a list, but just wanted to point out another great qawalli by Roshan saab – Nigahein milane ko jee chahta hai. In the video, Raj Kapoor is in disguise, so maybe it fits in into your post about Comedy songs too. Also, Nutan’s radiant smile makes it a joyous occasion anyway. A rare female solo qawalli..

  6. mumbaikar8 said,

    January 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    This is indeed a great qawwali, its like it was there but no one thought about it, thanks for reminding and thanks for enlightening with the meaning of qawwali.

  7. faiz said,

    February 24, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    wow…all these days I wanted to write about these but looking at your effort, I should drop the very idea.
    I just wanted to know, what is zaan. raay e zaan = verdict of zaan I guess, what is zaan?
    Wil be glad if you translate that. And I think you can really translate a few more words, urdu isnt a popuular language anymore.

    best regads for this wonderful effort.

    • February 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks Faiz ji for your kind words. I think you should write about your observations and experiences of music. Please don’t get discouraged by my efforts, I am a simple man.

      • faiz said,

        February 24, 2014 at 2:45 pm

        Please translate zaan. I didnt get only that word in these two qwwallis. And how I wish every “simple man” was as musically literate as you are. The world would have been a sweeter place.

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