Criteria to identify a Bombay cinema qawwali

To feature in this archive, the songs should have some of the following elements of dramatics, visual symbols and sound/music etc.

  • While it does not have to follow the norms of a Sufi shrine performance, most cinema qawwalis are designed as songs sung by a group of clapping men or women (or both) wearing Islamicate clothing, especially decorated crooked caps, while sitting down on a stage or public platform.
  • A harmonium (often slung on the lead vocalist’s shoulders) and tabla or dholak are essential part of the performance. Most songs begin with the sound of harmonium riffs, played on a specific tabla beat or time cycle known as Keherwa taal and Qawwali theka (style).
  • Cinema qawwalis are high-energy songs in medium-to-fast tempo, using happy, naughty, celebratory, romantic, devotional, and sometimes, reflective poetry. A lot of qawwali verses are directly linked to the storyline of the movie, often challenging or provoking a person or group in the audience.
  • Cinema qawwalis are never slow, sad or brooding, although they may often reflect the dilemmas of the protagonists, such as hardships of poor devotees visiting a Sufi dargah.

A few exceptional songs included here (that may not fully follow the above criteria) are group songs that are meant for mujra-like dances, wedding celebrations, a walking faqir’s solo song or devotional na’ts in praise of the Prophet or a Sufi saint. Some songs included in the archive have qawwali-like lyrics or singing style but visualized on totally secular, non-Sufi or non-Islamicate scenarios. These have been included to show how the film industry loves to include a ‘Sufi’ song or its symbolism just for the effect.

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