Qawaali has its roots deeply entrenched in the Sufi tradition of addressing God through devotional music. Originally performed in Persia and Turkey, the form travelled to South Asia in the 12th century, and was brought to India by its foremost exponent, Amir Khusro, in the 13th century.
Qawaali has been hugely popular in Hindi films, especially the so-called Muslim socials, such as in Najma (1945), Zeenat (1945) and Mughal-E-Azam (1960). PL Santoshi’s Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) took the form one step further by introducing the familiar trope of the qawaali as a contest. Two teams, one male and the other female, challenge each over the 12-minute qawaali “Na Toh Karwan Ki Talash Hai”. The longest qawaali recorded for a film was written by Sahir Ludhianvi for music composer Roshan. Singers Asha Bhonsle, Shiv Dayal Batish, Manna Dey, Mohammed Rafi and Sudha Malhotra sang what appeared to be a tough act to follow.
The efforts of these singers, however laudable, barely compares with Pakistani qawaal artist Aziz Mian’s non-film performance of the qawaali “Hashar Ke Roz Poochhoon Ga”, which clocks an incredible 115 minutes.
The story behind the feat is as interesting as the performance itself. After the ban of alcohol in Pakistan in 1977, it became increasingly difficult for Aziz Mian to sing his most well-known qawaali “Main Sharaabi” at concerts as police would raid the premises to check on men for drunken behaviour.
“Main Sharaabi” was the piece de resistance Aziz Mian used to perform to conclude his concerts. In 1982, at a concert where there were policemen in the audience, Aziz Mian decided to tire them out by singing “Hashar Ke Roz Poochhoon Ga” instead. The performance went on for a good 115 minutes, making the qawaali the longest in history.
Aziz Mian was born as Abdul Aziz in 1942. He lived with his family in the city of Meerut until his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Hailing from a musical family, Aziz Mian took to music from in his childhood, and trained with Punjabi qawaals at the shrine of the Sufi saint Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore. In 1963, he received a master’s degree in Urdu literature from Punjab University and began performing at local shrines.
Aziz Mian found fame when he wrote and composed “Main Sharaabi” in 1973. He developed his signature style of interspersing performances with an argumentative dialogue with God. His guttural voice and clarion call to the Almighty to take mercy on the frailty of humans drove his fans to disruptive behaviour at his concerts. Drunk men would get into brawls and the frenzy would soar, with Mian stoking it further through his musical incantations.
He was instrumental in taking the qawaali out of shrines to concerts, and when he performed a truncated version of the qawaali in the movie Licence (1970), his popularity grew further. This particular rendition inspired musician Susheela Raman to include a hypnotic cover version in her 2014 album Queen Between.
Aziz Mian was honoured by the Pakistani government in 1989 for his contribution to the arts. His love for liquor began to take its toll on his health. He died of health complications during a concert tour in Tehran on December 6, 2000.