The Best Qawwalis of Bollywood Films

Rishi Kapoor Amar Akbar Anthony Bollywood Qawwali

Rishi Kapoor charms his audience singing the famous qawwali “Pardah Hai Pardah” from Amar Akbar Anthony (1979).

The qawwali from films has a hallowed place in the history of the Hindi music industry. A mystic tradition more than 700 hundred years old, the qawwali gained prominence in Bollywood initially through 1950s Muslim social dramas and grew so much in popularity that its influences became mainstream–even continuing to live on today. We present our list below of the best qawwalis of Bollywood films.

But let us first define what precisely is a qawwali? The great Indian poet Amir Khusrau (d. 1326) is considered the founding father of the qawwali genre, having composed songs for the first time in this style to celebrate the death of his spiritual guide Nizamuddin Aulia. The qawwali is the authentic Sufi spiritual song that transports the mystic toward union with God. For centuries, Sufi communities in the Indian subcontinent have sustained this musical tradition in the mahfil-e-sama, or assembly for listening. The qawwali was a religious experience for both listener and performer: as the listener hopes for a spiritual experience of intensity and immediacy to transcend his or her conscious striving, the trained performer seeks to present in song a vast treasure of poetry that articulate and evoke a mystical experience for the audience.

Madhubala impresses the Mughal prince in the classic qawwali “Teri Mehfil Mei.N Qismat” from Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

The qawwali performance usually begins after the evening and may last all night until the morning prayers. The word qawwali means “words” worthy of remembrance, and as such the qawwali traditionally has a devotional aspect in praise of God. Even most “secular” qawwalis found in popular Bollywood movement can be read in this way, although superficially the lyrics have another literal meaning. The harmonium has replaced what was traditionally a sitar as musical accompaniment, but equally important are the tabla and the signature qawwali cyclic hand clapping that increase in speed during the performance. The tarz or tune of the qawwali is normally identified by the first line of the text, which is often a part of the refrain couplet. Although the qawwal was traditionally male, both men and women have enjoyed and excelled at performing the modern qawwali.

Rishi Kapoor dazzles his audience as a popular qawwal in the 1979 blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony.

Unlike in Hindustani classical music, while taal and raagaa usage is the same, the qawwali places a greater emphasis on the poetic text and the delivery of its message than on musical ornamentation. In many of its vast incarnations within Bollywood, the qawwali became synonymous with a musical debate, a verbal battle (often between the sexes) to outwit the other side on topics that usually boil down to love or the pain of love. That kind of screen chemistry, as you can imagine, is prime Bollywood flirting territory just waiting to be sung.

Let’s take a look at how this genre evolved in mainstream Bollywood into one of the most beloved musical genres of the industry. Here are some highlights:

Humen To Loot LiyaAl Hilal (1958):

One of the first qawwalis to hit the silver screen, no list is complete without this retro low-budget gem. The music is really quite simple, but extremely catchy.

Yeh Ishq Ishq HaiBarsaat Ki Raat (1960):

This qawwali is an Urdu-lover’s paradise. Filled with complex words and allusions you’ll never use in real life, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” set the stage for classy performance duels between men and women that is still considered the greatest Bollywood qawwali for its poetry (see our post for a full English translation!)

Sharma Ke Yeh Kyo.NChaudhvin Ka Chand (1960):

A fun twist on the traditional qawwali, two women sing (Asha Bhonsle and Shamshad Begum) with the latter taking the masculine side and the former taking the feminine.

Teri Mehfil Mei.N QismatMughal-e-Azam (1960):

Oh, does it get any better than this? Every moment of Mughal-e-Azam is a poetic dream and this briliant qawwali is no less. Shamshad Begum battles Lata Mangeshkar for the Prince’s approval of their take on love, each lyric outwitting the last. See our translation with glossary for more!

Nigahe.N Milane KoDil Hi To Hai (1963):

Asha Bhonsle’s greatest contribution to this genre, this qawwali has some beautiful Urdu and probably the most thrilling sargams you’ll find in any of her songs. See our translation with glossary here!

Tumhe Husn Dekhe – Jab Se Tumhe Dekha Hai (1963):

OK, so sure, this qawwali is not particularly memorable for its musical ingenuity (you may or may not cringe the entire way), but how often are you going to behold Shammi and Shashi Kapoor on screen at the same time?! This fascinating qawwali is worth a watch if only for its star value! Kudos to Geeta Bali for holding her own!

Mehengai Maar GayiRoti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974):

This qawwali has a unique flavor–taken from one of Manoj Kumar’s popular Indian propoganda films, the lyrics carry an interesting social message outside the realms of romantic love.

Pardah Hai PardahAmar Akbar Anthony (1979):

A Mohammed Rafi gem, this qawwali ranks among the best of the best. After watching Rishi Kapoor’s enthusiastic performance, you’d believe he was born to be a qawwal. The song is a must-see for anyone interested in the genre.

And just to throw in the contemporary, here’s a picture of me performing the qawwali at last year’s Harvard Ghungroo!

At a Harvard Ghungroo performance of Asha Bhonsle’s “Nigaahe.N Milane Ko.”

-Mrs. 55

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20 thoughts on “The Best Qawwalis of Bollywood Films

  1. Very comprehensive description of the qawwali genre. I like how your blog has stories on all things bollywood, from film noire, to winks, to qawwalis!

  2. Guys- this is fabulous and perhaps your best blog ever. Apart from all the Bollywood paragons of this art, it was particularly delightful to read about the Sufi connection to Qawali. Perhaps your readers may not know that Sufi (Islamic mysticism) manifests in different forms across the world…in the Middle East for instance, it is best known for Dervish whirl dancing (Dervish is synonymous with Sufi in this part of the world)- another form of Sama but practised as “dhikr” (remembrance, typically by repeating the names of God). Although, Sufism is classically defined “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God”, in good old Bollywood style, this has been re-focused on affairs of the heart and turning to none other than who broke it in the first place…nahin to Akbar mera naam nahin!

    • Thank you! You’re right, sometimes we get so lost in the magic and romanticism of Bollywood qawwali that we forget its origins–the knowledge of which can add another layer of interpretation to the experience. Love the reference to Amar, Akbar, Anthony!

  3. Pingback: Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi « Mr. & Mrs. 55 – Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  4. Pingback: Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat Aazmaakar Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi « Mr. & Mrs. 55 – Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  5. Pingback: Nigahein Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi « Mr. & Mrs. 55 – Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  6. Pingback: Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi | Mr. & Mrs. 55 - Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  7. Good selection. You have to ad to this list Qawwali from Hum Kissise se kam nahin. This is one of the best sung qawwali and has to be on all the lists.

  8. Pingback: Wah wah… | Shrimati 420

  9. there seems to be a dearth of qawwalis in todays films..probably as a result of the absence of classic poets in the mould of SAHIR, SHAKEEL, HASRAT< RAJA MEHDI, KAIFI and MAJROOH…………………..

    however, the qawwalis of FIZA, JODHA AKBAR (A R Rahman classics) are memorable……………

  10. Very interesting topic!

    A piece of trivia; the qawwali Sharma ke kyon sab pardanasheen was originally written for Mughal-e-Azam but was rejected by Asifsaab. Thereafter, Shakeel penned Teri mehfil mein qismat. Thank heavens Asif was so picky, otherwise this and the song Jab pyar kiya may have not happened or the end result would have been entirely different. IMHO, just the visual spectacle of these two songs is enough to render this film a masterpiece of Indian cinema…

  11. list of memorable and one’s favourite qawwalis will be debatable and arguable, with single common feature – either you like qawwalis or don’t. i am somewhere in the middle. I love some of them and I find some… well leave it.
    But I would be most delighted if you can extend this blog with 1. Aahen na bhari shiqwe na kiye – Zeenat 1946 – sung by Zoharabai Ambalawali, Noorjehan and Kalyani – MD Hafeez Khan. 2. Aaj kyon humse parda hain – Sadhana 1958 – MD N Dutta – Rafi, S Balbeer and 3. Tum meri tasveeer lkar kya karoge – Kala Samundar 1962 – Asha Bhosle, Rafi, S Balbeer, Chorus – MD N Dutta and my all time fav, a very qawwali-ish 4. Phir aah dil se nikali tapka lahu jigar se – Mela 1948-49 – sung by Zoharabai Ambalawali (who else) – MD Naushad.
    There are two more the later one is almost a reflection of the former one 1 Kabhi ai haqeeqat-e-muntazir nazar aa libas-e-mazaaz mein – Dulhan Ek Raat Ki 1966 – sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Chorus – M Madan Mohan and 2. Allah yeh ada kaisi hain in haseenon mein – Mere Humdum Mere Dost – sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Chorus – MD LP.
    in fact if one starts thinking of it and one comes across many many songs which have that unmistakable flavour of qawwali.

  12. Once again a great work Mrs 55. I really appreciate the dearth of knowledge and imparting the same to the readers particularly about evolution of qawwali. Going by your age its very amazing you have tremendous command on the subject.
    It would be interesting to list down some classical songs and bhajans with their translations.

  13. Thank you Mr. Vinay for mentioning some important and unforgettable qawwalis. The one ‘Aahen na bhari shiqwe na kiye kuch bhi na zubaan se kaam liya’ is must in the list rather in the top five. Its very enlightening to read your knowledgeable comments I expect and hope to read your comments with regularity.
    Yes, favouritism differs from person to person. To me ‘yeh ishq ishq hai’ from Barsaat Ki Raat is the mother of all qawwalis.

  14. Pingback: One of my favorite song!! – FULL OF LIFE

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