Criteria to identify a Bombay cinema qawwali

This study and archive is about popular culture and not so much about the classical or devotional qawwali. However, to feature in this archive, the movie 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.

  • The performers’ body language is highly dramatic with a lot of ada’en (emotional posturing) and hand gestures. While clapping, they often press their palms together and rotate both hands in opposite directions, an action that has curiously become famous as a qawwali gesture, though it doesn’t really enhance the clapping sound!

  • 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.

  • The language of the qawwali lyrics is almost always Urdu or Hindustani – often using ghazal in its form or content. Of course, there are qawwalis in Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali movies too.
  • 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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