A repository of melody: Yousuf Saeed's archive of cinema qawwalis : The Tribune India

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A repository of melody: Yousuf Saeed's archive of cinema qawwalis

Yousuf Saeed has built an archive of 800 film qawwalis from 1930s onwards

A repository of melody: Yousuf Saeed's archive of cinema qawwalis

Documentary filmmaker Yousuf Saeed says that unlike Sufi qawwalis, cine qawwalis are a fair field for men and women.



Sarika Sharma

IN a grainy video dated 1939, a man on harmonium is exhorting a gathering of men to give up alcohol and lauding the Congress’ movement for prohibition — all through a qawwali. Created by Dada Chandekar, ‘Bhari hai aag matwale teri botal ke paani mein’ from the film ‘Brandy Ki Botal’ is one of the earliest surviving qawwalis from Hindi cinema. Wiping the dust off this genre is filmmaker Yousuf Saeed, who has curated a collection of close to 800 songs in an online archive, cineqawwali.in.

 Madhubala in ‘Teri mehfil mein’ from ‘Mughal-E-Azam’.

A lifelong student of arts and culture, Saeed’s quest has taken him across India and South Asia to document classical and Sufi music, including qawwalis at holy shrines. All through, however, he felt fascinated by the use of qawwalis in Indian cinema and started compiling them in a list.

“Even though people have worked on cinema qawwali, they have just scraped the surface. Nobody has attempted a comprehensive listing and then analysed that list,” says Delhi-based Saeed.

When he started work on the project in 2010, the pace was very slow. VHS, VCDs and then DVDs had to be scanned. For the first few years, Saeed could trace only about 250 songs. It all changed with YouTube becoming a repository of videos. Offline sources — musicians and others from the film fraternity, besides music history books — were consulted. “The archiving process was easy for me because a lot was available on the Internet. If someone would have tried to make such a list about 20 years ago, it would have been very difficult because they would have had to go out to find these movies and watch each one of them,” says Saeed, who has directed documentaries such as ‘Khayal Darpan’ that explores the development of classical music in Pakistan post-1947, and ‘Khusrau Darya Prem Ka’ on Amir Khusrau in a dramatic storytelling style.

A still from ‘Bada qatil hai’ from ‘China Town’. Photos courtesy: Yousuf Saeed 

The history of cinema qawwali is almost as old as the history of talking movies in India. “In our traditional practices such as Parsi theatre and nautanki, stories were always interspersed with songs. Songs in films were a natural progression. Among the various genres, qawwali was and is a distinct category because of the kind of music and the way it uses the costumes,” feels Saeed.

The first music director to introduce qawwali in films in the 1930s is believed to be Jaddanbai, mother of actress Nargis. “Sadly, we don’t have any recording of that. But amongst one of the earliest recordings of cinema qawwali that I have found are by a Maharashtrian singer named Dada Chandekar. One of these is dated 1936.”

What was very clear to music directors was that the purpose of a traditional qawwali was to provide spiritual ecstasy to the Sufis. Therefore, the Sufi qawwalis follow their own style, standards of quality, etiquettes of listening and so on. “Sufi qawwali is meant to stimulate your intellect, but cinema qawwali caters to the senses,” he draws out the basic difference.

What goes to the credit of cine qawaalis is the fact that these charted a fair field for men and women. The 1960 film ‘Barsaat Ki Raat’, for instance, is entirely based on two sisters who want to become qawwals.

The archive lets one browse through qawwalis from 1940-50s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980-90s, and 2000-20s and is replete with statistics. A chart catapults the ’60s and ’70s to the top when it comes to the number of qawwalis per year, with 131 and 156 songs, respectively; Asha Bhosle and Mohd Rafi have sung the most songs. For Saeed, the ’50s and ’60s would be the golden period because of the quality of lyrics. His favourite qawwali is ‘Na to karwaan ki talash hai’ and Manna Dey his favourite singer.

As he looks forward to strengthening the repository further, he says that while cinema qawwali as a genre still has a place of glory in Hindi films, music is changing. “Modern-day qawwali bears a modern influence. AR Rahman, for example, uses Turkish whirling dervish kind of scenario.”

Saeed’s project has been supported by India Foundation for the Arts, which had earlier backed his research on Urdu language in popular culture.


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