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The story behind ‘Damadam Mast Qalandar’



‘O Laal meri pat rakhiyo Bhalaa Jhulelaalan

Sindhri da Sehwan da Sakhi Shahbaaz Qalandar

Dam-Adam Mast Qalandar

Ali Dam Dam de andar’


O Red Robed One, keep me in your benign protection Noble Jhulelaal 

Of Sindh you are, of Sehwan you are, the generous Red Robed King of Falcons, Wanderer 

In being or non being, be a merry wanderer

Ali resides within each and every breath !


The irresistible strains of ‘Damadam Mast Qalandar’— the timeless Sufi classic— have long been a part of the South Asian cultural zeitgeist.

In my career as an interpreter and performer of Sufi-Bhakti compositions, I too must have sung this song at the very least a thousand times. This got me curious to search for the story behind the song. What is it that has made this song immortal? And that’s when I discovered that the composition — a veritable anthem to the Qalandari Sufis — is an expression of their free and ancient way of life.


The Origins Remain a Mystery

Despite popularly held notions that this song was written by the Indian poet laureate and 13th century Sufi Amir Khusrau or even Bulle Shah, the famous poet saint of 18th century Punjab; the actual poet’s identity remains an enigma to this day. In fact the song which is closer to Sarai ki Zuban or the Saraiki language imbued with elements of Sindhi and Multani, can hardly be described as purely Punjabi.

While the origins of ‘Mast Qalandar’ may lie buried in the history and folklore, the song’s current melodic structure and meter may be traced back to a certain Master Ashiq Hussain. Hussain composed this track along with a few other memorable numbers for the fledgling Pakistani Film industry more than five decades ago. The eminent ‘poet of pathos’ Saghar Siddiqui, had commissioned the composer to create a ‘Qalandari Dhamaal’ for a film back in the 1960s. Once a sought after music director, Hussain was eventually reduced to penury and was recently rediscovered, by now in his nineties living in a slum in old Lahore. His only son Asif Ali who although a talented musician had taken to frying pakoras for a living and died of heart failure soon after the media reportage.

Needless to say that unlike poor Ashiq Hussain’s fate, many of those who gave voice to his melody, starting with Runa Laila in the 1970s have gained massive fame and fortune due to it. An absence of copyright and intellectual property laws in the subcontinent has resulted in similar misfortunes  for many creative legends of their time.


Dama Dam: A Trinity of Diverse Holy Personages

The ethical arguments of artistic rights and their legal dimensions notwithstanding, what is the reason behind the enduring popularity of Dama Dam? In my opinion the context and conspectus in which the song posits itself, the imagination of a shared space it invites its listeners into is truly why it remains so popular across religious and cultural boundaries. A wonderful example of our syncretic and intangible spiritual heritage and traversing lilting lyrical soundscapes while riding upon its powerful and rousing musical structure, this world famous dhamaal (literally a song of ruckus and merriment) invokes a trinity of diverse holy personages.

First comes Jhulelal. Often in Sindhi households one comes across framed images of a crowned, bearded figure astride a fish and holding his hand out in a blessing. This is none other than the god Jhulelaal, an avatar of the Rig Vedic deity Varuna, protector of waters. Being a sea faring people, Jhulelal has historically held a place of high religious significance among the Sindhi community.  In fact, the verdant Jhulelal’s story is woven through the fabric of the evolution of humanity itself.

Next, we come to the Sufi saint Syed Usman Marvandi (also spelt Maywandi) popularly known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar or Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar. Named Lal after his ruby red attire and Shahbaaz or King of Falcons as a mark of his exalted spiritual station among the mystics. A contemporary of the famous mystic Mevlana Rumi, Syed Usman was an ardent preacher of tolerance and understanding between Hindus and Muslims. Over the years, the saint became Jhulelal reincarnated for the Hindus and Lal Shahbaz for the Muslims.

Lastly we come to the name of Hazrat Ali (ra) the son in law of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as well as his companion and spiritual successor. Almost every Sufi order traces their shajrah e nasab or lineage to Imam Ali. He is considered to be the patron and master of all the Sufi masters, the original ‘Wali’ (plural : ‘Auliya’) or Friend of God, a title given to those who choose to follow the inner path. Being called a beloved of Ali is indeed a high status for any Sufi.

To this day, the streets of Sehwan, echo with the song of the merry qalander, the free spirit, the breaker of chains, the transgressive, passionate seeker and lover of leaving who seemingly pays scant regards to the normative and canonical. Mostly mendicants, the Qalandari faqirs shun gender segregation and socio-familial rules. Never staying at one place for long, they marry among their own and often use intoxicants such as hashish in order to achieve a state of spiritual openness.


Qalandars: A Misunderstood Yet Vital Part of the South Asian Devotional Landscape

History, however, has not been kind to the Qalandars. They have been viewed as unruly, stubborn and wayward deviants who indulge in all manner of excesses and perverted behaviour. Often at odds with religious clergies, they have been punished and executed for their beliefs. Sometimes shunned even by other Sufi orders, the Qalandars are a much misunderstood and maligned lot.

Of late, thanks to efforts by both scholars and practitioners of Sufi tradition, new light has been shed on the Qalandars and their unique and syncretic culture and practices. South Asia and the Indian Subcontinent has always had been a land of seekers, and the journey of these mystic mendicants remains to this day a vital part of our devotional landscape.


This article has been written by acclaimed Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari.


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Author: Shashank Shah

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