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How 'Dama Dam' outlasted its most popular singer, Runa Laila

In 1970, Runa Laila's 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar' began playing on radio stations. Since then, the song has taken on a life of its own, spawning a thousand covers. Yet, the song's beginnings are quite humble, and esoteric. On Runa Laila's birthday, we look at how far her most popular song has come.

Shriram Iyengar

Runa Laila is a name that remains unknown to many Indians of the millennial generation. Yet, her greatest contribution continues to be a popular hit among people. 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar' began its journey as a song in praise of the Sufi saint of Sindh, Shahbaz Qalandar, but has gone on to become everything from a rock anthem to a film qawwali. Runa Laila's career itself has meandered from a sensation to being a forgotten name in the bylines.

Born in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, Runa Laila took to the stage early. Trained in classical singing by Piya Rang and Ustad Habibulla Khan, she made her singing debut in the Pakistani film, Jugnu, in 1972. Her arrival in India took another decade. By then disco had taken centrestage. It was in these conditions that her two biggest hits in Pakistan made it through to the airwaves in India. 

Her voice and vibrant personality did get her some film offers. Other than Agneepath (1990), none stand out. More interested in stage shows, Runa Laila continued to earn her living as a stage performer. Unsurprisingly, the most popular request at most stage shows would be 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar'. 

Runa Laila's song, though not her own, has had a very interesting history. The song traces its origins back to the famed Mughal poet Amir Khusro, but its modern version was set to tune by Master Ashiq Hussain in Pakistan. The tune that would propel numerous artistes from Pakistan, including Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to fame got its composer nothing. The tune was also composed at the behest of Urdu poet Saghar Siddiqui. Known as the 'Poet of Pain', Siddiqui suffered constant disappointments in life, before plunging into depression and vagrancy. He was found dead on a street corner in Lahore in 1974. 

The ominous origins of the tune apart, 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar' remains one of the most popular tunes ever created. The rising crescendo of its rhythm, the catchy words, and the almost devotional undertone has made it a popular song across religious and political faultlines. From Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Mika Singh, the song has taken on different avatars each time a musician has approached it. Sample these versions yourself: 

1. Noorjehan 
One of the earliest versions of the song was sung and picturised on the legendary film star Noorjehan. The singer-actress, who was 'Queen of Melody' in undivided India before Lata Mangeshkar, moved to Pakistan after Partition, allowing Mangeshkar to reign unchallenged. Her talent, though, continued to shine. It was her version on the big screen that really catapulted the song to the big league. 

2. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan 
There is no other name as revered and worshipped in the world of Sufi music as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Among the legend's favourite songs to perform was 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar'. This version is a remarkable example of the energy and pace of the ustad's singing. Listen carefully, and you can hear the strain of a very young Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in the background. 

3. Abida Parveen
Another Sufi magician, another Pakistani singer with soul, Abida Parveen's deep timbre and almost mystic personality adds to the allure of the song's rhythms. 

4. Akhtar Chanal Zahri
The song remains a popular one among Pakistani singers. This brilliant fusion by the famous Coke Studio is worth listening to. Akhtar Chanal Zahri adds a mesmerising touch to the entire composition. 

5. Sabri Brothers 
The assassination of Amjad Sabri was testimony to the oppressive nature of the world in which a Sufi singer tries to survive. This version is a reminder of the possibilities of the healing powers of music. 

6. David (2013)
Hindi cinema has taken up the song in several films. Recent ones, in particular, have adapted it to suit storylines. Bejoy Nambiar's David had a slow, qawwali version sung beautifully by Rekha Bhardwaj.

7. D-Day (2013)
2013 was the year of reckoning for 'Dama Dam Mast Qalander' with the song coming back with a bang in two films. D-Day starring Arjun Rampal, Rishi Kapoor, and Irrfan Khan had the song playing a vital role during the climax. Incidentally, the film also had a Pakistani angle, as it revolved around RAW agents from India taking on the mobster Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan. 

8. Dhanak (2016)
Nagesh Kukunoor's Dhanak was a rainbow of a film. Joyous, positive, and brilliantly shot, it also had a wonderful version of 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar' going for it. Sung by Devu Khan Manganiyar, it is the most beautiful expression of freedom and positivity you will hear.