Shanker Shambhu Qawwal, The Epitome of Indian Plurality


Shanker Shambhu Qawwal

Two snapshots of visual communication haunt me all the time. One is of the lynch mobs calling themselves as neo patriots and other the You Tube Videos of two Brahmin saints who were sunk deep into Islamic music and epitomised the syncretic cultural tradition of India.

The first need no explanation as they are staple diet in the Indian media discourse, but the second needs a detailed description as this story is much louder than the words.

In these times of highly charged communal atmosphere such stories need greater attention because that’s the only way to save our country from sure destruction.

Well I am talking about “Shanker Shambhu Qawwal,” the two real brothers and the only Hindu “Qawwal” in the entire subcontinent. These two Hindu singers with their Sufi songs have mesmerized an entire generation were seen as the torch bearers of peace and brotherhood in the country.

I wonder how the Hindu vultures preying on Mohammed Ikhlaq, in  Dadri in 2015 or Junaid in Haryana,  may have reacted after seeing the You tube videos of these Hindu Sufi singers. The custodians of the hate factories from where these hate mongers are being produced too need to be shown such videos in order to slap them to sanity.

The pictures on TV screen from Kasganj, UP where the recent Hindu –Muslim riot broke out on January 26, too were disturbing. The hoodlums were seen stopping the Muslims to unfurl the national flag and intimidating them for no real reasons.

I think there could be some Shanker and Shambhu among that crowd but none resembled the Sufi singers that I am talking about, whose birth place was very near to the Kasganj where those thugs were having a field’s day.

Shankar-Shambhu Qawal sprung up when the country was emerging from the pangs of Partition of India. The duo epitomized the Indian syncretic culture and gave hope to the Indian Muslims that the people like them will protect the community from any Hindu assault, the ones witnessed at Kasganj in UP.

Shanker and Shanbu’s command over Urdu language, its diction was a matter of awe and admiration to the Urdu speaking audience. They had memorized thousands of Urdu couplets with heavy Islamic content. This amused Muslims as how these two Hindus can narrate them Islamic history with such ease through their musical composition.


As a matter of fact it is recorded that when Shanker and Shanbu went to give live performance at the Urs Sharief of Kawaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer, they could not get a chance to perform in the Mehfil Khana of the main shrine. This is not because they were Hindus but because there were many waiting for a chance to sing there and Shanker- Shanbu were just newcomers.

This made the elder brother Shankar to sit on fast in front of Dargah of Kawja Graib Nawaz.  He literally fasted for 3 days at the steps of the highly respected Muslim saint’s shrine that too even without water. He declared that he may prefer to die rather than leave the premises without singing.

Sensing the gravity of the situation the management of the Dargah gave the duo the permission to perform on the 4th day at the Mehfil Khana, which happened to be the last day of the Urs Sharif.

When the brothers sang the ‘Salaam’; “Mehboobe Kibriya se Mera Salaam Kehna” everyone in the audience was mesmerized with the rendering of the Islamic composition.

Many were seen weeping at the soulful melody of the two Hindu Qawwals that had pierced their hearts.

Since that day they got the title of “Qawwal” and they become famous as “Shanker Shambhu Qawwal”.

One among those seen crying at the Mehfil Khana of Ajmer Dargah was the legendary film director Mehboob Khan, the maker of Mother India.  Mehboob Khan invited these highly talented brothers to Mumbai and asked them to sing at the inaugural ceremony of his Mehboob studio.

The who’s who of Bollywood was present in that function and they all welcomed Shanker Sahambu with open arms. Soon these two singers from Uttar Pradesh established themselves as Sufi Qawwal and playback singer in Hindi film industry.

Shanker Sahambu did playback singing in movies like “Alaam Aara”, “Teesri Kasam”, “Barsaat Ki Raat”, “Professor and Jadugar”, “Shaan-e-Khuda”, “Mere Daata Gharib Nawaz”, “Teesra Patthar”, “Begunah Qaidi”, “Laila Majnu”, “Badal”, “Tumhara Kalloo”, ” Mandir Masjid” etc.

Shanker Sahambu were dominating the music scene in the good old days of radio that carried the golden voice  into the living rooms, courtyards and roof tops of the Indian homes and soon these Sufi singers became a house hold name in the country.

These two brothers were really a sensation to the Urdu speaking Muslim audience. Many wondered how they had mastered the art of Qawwali that usually remains the forte of Muslim singers. It was their effort to live with plural cultural tradition of India that won them all round admiration and adulation.

They were appreciated by some great Indian personalities like Dr Zakir Hussaibn and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and were felicitated with titles like “Khwaja Pasand”, “Fanafil Moin”, “Qaumi Ekta Ke Pratik” “Shenshahe- e-Qawal” and many more.

Shanker died in 1984 in a road accident and his younger brother Shambu died due heart attack in 1989. Now Shanker’s son Ram Shanker and Shambu’s son Rakesh Shambhu are carrying forward their father’s legacies.

The progenies too are well versed in Urdu language and have rendered many soulful compositions of Sufi Qawwali music.


However, people like Ram Shanker and Rakesh Shambhu are the fading hope of Indian unity in diversity. They are the chips of the old block and are nowhere near the popularity index that their father enjoyed once.

It’s unfortunate that the soulful songs of Shanker-Shambhu that gave the message of plural tradition of India are now a forgotten lore.  The high politics of India is systematically destroying these composite cultural traditions of this country.

The religious polarization done to garner votes is an assault on Indian diversity and the consequences of such diabolic politics on the diverse mosaic of cultural traditions are unimaginable.

If India has to be saved from the saffron vultures, then remembering Shanker Shambhu contribution to communal amity is essential for universal peace and brotherhood in the country.

More examples of Shanker Shambhu and Ram Shanker and Rakesh Shambhu needs to cited to uphold the plural values and these examples has to be lauded in forceful words.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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