Qawwalis, which are originally a form of Sufi music, were popular in Hindi films up to the 1970s, although the lyrics were often far removed from religion or spirituality. For instance, “Jhoom barabar jhoom sharabi” from 5 Rifles (1974), was an ode to liquor (angoor ki beti) and “Parda hai parda” from Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) was a call to the beloved to come forth and reveal herself.
After a lull over the next two decades, we now see a new- found interest among Hindi film audiences for Sufi songs and Qawwalis. However, purists rightly complain that anything with a refrain of “Maula” or “Ali” is sold to the audiences as Sufi music. Sufi songs in our films are today addressed to a mortal beloved.
If a song contains the words “Qawwali” or “Sufiyana”, as in “Mera Ishq sufiyana” from The Dirty Picture (2011), does that make the song a Sufi song or Qawwali? I would call “Mera Ishq Sufiyana” a ‘Sufism-inspired’ song at best, for the lyricist is at least kind enough to spare us inanities. Similarly, there is a popular song sung by Arijit Singh, resident “Sufi” singer of Bollywood, from the film Dilwale (2015) which pretends to be a Sufi song, like “Mera Ishq Sufiana”. The lyrics go like this-
In other inglorious cases, the insertion of so-called “Sufi” songs in Hindi films jars the senses, rather than adding to the appeal of the film. If the setting in a discotheque, of the Mika Singh and Yo Yo Honey Singh’s disco version of “Mast Kalandar” for Welcome Back (2015) was not undignified enough, the lyrics of the Hey Baby (2007) version are a travesty of the original Sufi song, which I will come to a little later -
To appreciate why I refer to the above songs as faux Sufi songs, one needs to take a step back and try to understand what is Sufism and what is a Qawwali.
Sufism, the mystical, spiritual strain in Islam, built a syncretic culture in our subcontinent in tandem with the Bhakti movement (a Hindu revival movement between the 7th to 10th centuries).One of the manifests of this syncretic culture is the ‘mili-juli tehzeeb’, or ‘ganga-jamuni tehzeeb’(culture with elements of Hinduism and Islam),examples of which are seen in the ‘Sohar’ songs sung on the occasion of child birth in the Hindi belt, and ‘Sufiana Kalaam’ (folk music) of Kashmir, which is performed on ceremonial occasions such as weddings.
The Qawwali, a form of Sufi music which usually builds up in tempo, and is characterized by some rhythmic repetition of a key phrase, has been the dominant form of Sufi music in and around India. A unique characteristic of Sufi songs and Qawwalis is that the devotee is engaged in an intimate dialogue with his maker, or with a Sufi saint. Amir Khusro, the Sufi poet, musician, and scholar of Urdu and Hindavi, is recognized as the “father of Qawwali”. It follows that some of the noteworthy Sufi songs and Qawwalis in films through the decades, have been based on his songs and poems. Those familiar with Khusro’s work would know how the enfant terrible of Sufism could be playful one minute, and devout, the next.
When director J P Dutta was looking for some unique lyrics to be picturized on a band of gypsies, in his 1985 desert saga Ghulami, he turned to Gulzar. Gulzar took Amir Khusro’s famous couplet composed in Persian and Brij bhasha-
Another famous qawwali by Amir Khusro, “Chhap tilak sab chheeni” was brought to the screen by Gulzar in the 1978 film Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki. Gulzar added a dialogue between “sakhis”(friends),but the majority of the lyrics, and the import, remained intact-
Amir Khusro’s “Aaj rang hai, hey maa”, has been used by several film makers, such as Vishal Bhardwaj in his 2003 film Maqbool, where it forms part of the song “Jhin min jhini” .The song is also the opening song of the 2015 blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Khusro tells his mother that he has finally found his spiritual guru , Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, and how Khusro exults in his divine light.
Sahir Ludhianvi gives us a glimpse of ‘ganga-jamuni tehzeeb’ , incorporating some of ‘dohas’(4-line couplets) of Khusro(Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki) into the most famous of all filmi qawwalis (actually two qawwalis, segued into one another), i.e. Na Toh Caravan Ki Talash Hai/Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960).
The Qawwali climaxes with a powerful reference to love and divinity -
Baba Bulle Shah is another revered sufi saint whose verses have enriched our films.The original lyrics for the song “Dama-dam mast Kalandar”, an ode to Hazrat Shahbaaz Kalandar, a Sufi saint, were written by Amir Khusro. Bulle Shah is said to have added the reference to Jhule Lal (some say this is the patron saint of the Sindhi community), and also the reference to Sehwan, where the shrine of Shahbaaz Kalandar is located. Dama Dam Mast Kalandar has been performed by renowned artists from India (Wadali Brothers), Pakistan (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Reshma, Abida Parveen and others) and Bangladesh (Runa Laila), to great acclaim. Rekha Bhardwaj has sung the song for the film David (2013).
A R Rehman adapted the Punjabi devotional (Sufi) song by Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah “Tere ishq nachaya kar thaiyya thaiyya” ( my devotion to you-the divine beloved- has made me dance like I am possessed) for Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film Dil Se. While the original song “Tere ishq ” was retained in the album, what became immensely popular on screen was Gulzar’s version, “Chhaiya Chhaiya”. Gulzar brought his own touch of spirituality to the song, making it an ode to divine, intangible love, picturized rather imaginatively on the rooftop of the Nilgiri Mountain Railways’ locomotive.
The international audience is receptive to our Sufi songs, as was seen from the success of the music album of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), a film in Urdu and English directed by Mira Nair, based on Mohsin Hamid’s book.The film used Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Mori Arj Suno Dastgeer” written in Brij bhasha, Urdu and Punjabi ,a plea to renowned spiritual leader Dastgeer Peer.
Among the newer lot in the industry, Prasoon Joshi, Irshad Kamil ,Kausar Munir and their ilk have brought back some sense into the so called “Sufi “songs in films.AR Rehman set the hymn “Kun Faya Kun” written by Irshad Kamil to music for Imtiaz Ali’s 2011 film, Rockstar; picturised in and around the precincts of the famous shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi.
As can be seen from the above positive examples, the passion of the Sufi song and the crescendo of the qawwali are a perfect fit for our mainstream Hindi films. One can only hope that audiences reject faux Sufi songs and encourage the true form of Sufi music, with appropriate lyrics in Urdu/Hindi/other Indian languages. Fans of popular, talented artists like Arijit Singh and Mika Singh should get the opportunity to hear their favourite singers sing more meaningful lyrics. And as in the case of “Ya Ali” from Gangster (2006), directors should at least attempt to be a little more sensitive in picturising a dialogue with the maker, even if violence on screen is unavoidable.
One also wishes to see quality lyrics in Urdu’s sister language Hindi, i.e. more of “Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai” (Masaan, 2015) and less of “Fevicol say” (Dabangg 2, 2012), please.
But that is another battle altogether, to be taken up another day.
(Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. Views are her own)
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