The stilled voice

Print edition : September 06, 1997

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the shahenshah of qawwali, is dead. His legend, however, will live on.

AMIT BARUAH in Islamabad R. PADMANABHAN in Mumbai

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN returned the qawwali to the world. He made it popular again not just in Pakistan and India, the home of the traditional qawwali, but in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries. He performed in over 40 countries and recorded more than 150 albums and sold millions of copies worldwide.

He took the qawwali - the devotional music of the Sufis - out of the South Asian milieu, added pep and verve, and placed it on the world's music map. The qawwali shahenshah's (emperor) death on August 16 in a London hospital following a cardiac arrest triggered by kidney and liver failure was an occasion of grief for millions.

NUSRAT was born in a family of qawwals, as the practitioners of the art form are known, in Faisalabad on October 13, 1948. Father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a famous qawwal, wanted his son to become a doctor or an engineer. But the young Nusrat was keen on a career in music and persisted in listening to his father's lessons to his pupils. After his father's death in 1964, Nusrat learnt the art of qawwali from his uncles - Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Nawazish Ali Khan.

Nusrat joined his father's qawwali party in 1964. In 1971 he became the leader of the party after his uncle, Mubarak Ali Khan, took ill. His brother, Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, who accompanied him for the last 25 years, played the harmonium. His four sisters were not encouraged to become part of the family tradition.

Forced to give up education after matriculating from the Model High School in Faisalabad, Nusrat gave his first public performance on Radio Pakistan on March 23, 1965. Roshan Ara Begum, who performed at the concert, congratulated Mubarak Ali Khan and told him that his nephew showed great talent.

Faisalabad's Rehmat Gramophone Company released Nusrat's first audio cassette recording in 1973, in which one particular song, "Talkhi-e-halaat se ghabra ke pee gaya" became a hit. Another song, "Shah-e-mardan-Ali", also became popular.

Performing at numerous mehfils (musical gatherings) over the years, Nusrat grew in confidence. His first tour abroad, appropriately enough, was to India in 1979. He went to the United Kingdom in 1983 and an encounter with a sharp promoter of the Oriental Star Agency in Birmingham soon resulted in Nusrat travelling to France, Germany and Japan. The qawwali , with pop packaging, had arrived in the West.

In 1985, the maestro performed at an international music festival in Colchester, England. At the four-night festival, he was slotted to perform from 11-30 p.m. until midnight. "When it was midnight," Nusrat once told an interviewer, "we tried to leave - you see, we were tired and it was freezing. But Mr. Ayub (the promoter) told us (to continue)... we stayed and performed till five in the morning." Ayub is the chief of the Oriental Star Agency in the United Kingdom, which has brought out 61 compact discs, 100 audio tapes and 22 concert videos of Nusrat's qawwalis.

Soon, Nusrat's albums were being promoted by WOMAD, an organisation promoting different forms of music. His "Mast, Mast" and "Sanoo ek pal chain na aaye" became hits in the West and at home.

Peter Gabriel approached him with a proposal. Nusrat agreed and provided what was to become the background voice during the scene of Christ's crucifixion in the film The Last Temptation of Christ. He also provided the music for two other films, Dead Man Walking and Natural Born Killers, and did the soundtrack for Bandit Queen.

The Ustad collaborated with Michael Brook in an album called Mast, Mast released in 1990. Here East met West, although Nusrat was not quite happy with some of the results.

The jacket of Mast, Mast says as introduction to the album: "Instruments from different continents were used, like the big Brazilian drum - the surdu, the Senegalese djembe, alongside the Indian tabla and the harmonium, plus bass, keyboards... the project also mixed musicians from different cultures."

Michael Brook has been quoted as saying that "although it wasn't painless, it worked. I'd really hoped that we could show a more delicate side of Nusrat's singing. I love all the fireworks and the heavy metal solos that he does, but I thought it would be nice to bring out a slower, more introspective component."

In 1993, Nusrat was a resident professor at the University of Washington's School of Ethnomusicology.

IN India, Nusrat's greatest triumph was the effortless ease with which he spanned the world of the disco-going teenager and the traditional qawwali connoisseur. Ironically, his first great hit in India was "smuggled" across the border - the plagiarised version of his smash hit "Dam mast kalandar mast, mast" in the Hindi potboiler Mohra. The original became the chartbuster "Tu cheez badi hai mast, mast".

That was the first of many instances of plagiarism by music directors in the Mumbai film world. In some cases, even the words were copied. Two cases were: "Mera piya ghar aya" and "Sanoo ek pal chain na aaye" (used in Judaai).

An exasperated Nusrat was quoted as having said that the instances of plagiarism were indicative of a lack of talent among Indian music directors. A few months back, another statement attributed to him, in which he reportedly said that Indian film and music personalities should not be invited to Pakistan, whipped up a controversy. Citing this, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackerary ordered a "ban" on Nusrat. Nusrat later conveyed to Thackeray that it was not he but a person with a name similar to his who had made the statement. The Sena chief acknowledged that there had been a misunderstanding.

But Nusrat's contribution went deeper. He collaborated with lyricist Javed Akhtar in an album appropriately titled Sangam. Most recently, he teamed up with music director A.R. Rahman for the album Vande Mataram to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Independence. The prolific maestro composed and sang for several television serials, including Chattan on Zee Television. The film Aur Pyar Ho Gaya features his work.

Even before he became popular on account of Hindi film songs, there were groups of music enthusiasts for whom Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a cult figure. The ease with which he fused a Western beat with Eastern tradition won him many fans much before his plagiarised versions hit the Indian market.

Nusrat once told an interviewer: "Our young generation which was brought up abroad is totally ignorant of our culture. They listen to Western music, adopt Western fashions. With my awaaz (voice) I wanted to appeal to them - in our own language in their form..." .

NUSRAT'S concerts were a celebration of life, and the atmosphere always bordered on the ecstatic. The weighty Khan sat cross-legged with his harmonium beside him and his musical accompanists and chorus singers around him. Each song began with a slow, quiet introductory alaap; from there, a rhythmic pulse began on the tabla. Nusrat gradually wove a web of devotional lyrics and vocal acrobatics, bringing the music to a fever pitch of ecstatically repeated phrases, each slightly different from the others, and then lowered the intensity before taking it to an even higher peak. Almost every note, every beat was emphasised by a hand movement.

Nusrat frequently injected a sense of humour and play into the faster, lighter songs. He repeated slow improvised phrases over and over, as if encouraging the audience to join in. Some would. He would then let loose an unexpected rapid volley and trip them up. After leading up to a "false ending", he would suddenly roar into the song again. Improvising as he went along, he engaged the audience with lively interaction.

And what of the audience? His music has been known to send spectators into trances and enthuse them into tireless fits of dancing, regardless of ushers' attempts to steer them back to their seats. Some would leap out of their seats, dance down the aisle and shower money, watches, jewellery on Nusrat.

Nusrat was once asked what he did with the money thus collected; he said he gave it to charity or to singers who once performed with his father.

NUSRAT once told an interviewer that he had decided to become a qawwal after a dream in which he saw himself singing at the shrine of Muinuddin Chisthi in Ajmer. Initially, he said, he dismissed the dream as absurd: no qawwal had ever been allowed to sing inside the Muslim shrine. But when the dream kept recurring, he felt that the sign was too important to ignore. And sure enough, in 1979, he became the first qawwal to be invited to sing at the Ajmer shrine.

In an interview conducted on the Internet, Nusrat said that Sufism and Islam "are the basis and subject of my singing. The love of Allah and the praise of his Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) are my sources of passion."

At times he found it difficult to reconcile his religious beliefs with Western pop culture. He said he was displeased by the fact that his singing had been used as the backdrop for a prison riot in Natural Born Killers. "When someone uses something that is religious in that way, it reflects badly on my reputation, " he said.

NUSRAT's younger brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan told Frontline from his Faisalabad residence that Nusrat's family would continue the maestro's tradition. "Nusrat had been grooming his nephew and my son, Rahat Ali Khan (24), as his successor since 1985. We are preparing him to take over the qawwali party. He will take over at Nusrat's chehlum (40th-day ceremony) on September 18."

The massive increase in the sale of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's recordings in Pakistan in the past weeks is being replicated elsewhere in the world. His voice will continue to enchant millions of people, not just in Pakistan and India but the world over.

MUSICIANS, music composers, lyricists and executives in the music audio business in Mumbai who had worked with Nusrat Khan recall with fondness their association with the artist who successfully fused traditional qawwali music with modern tunes.

Poet and Hindi film lyricist Javed Akhtar said: "You feel there is something very organic about the tunes composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. You don't feel they are built. You feel, rather, that they have grown. Such simplicity in art is very difficult to achieve. Nusrat used to work hard to achieve it."

Javed got to know Nusrat at close quarters during the course of two musical collaborations between the two - one for Sangam, an offbeat album produced under the aegis of the Gramophone Company of India (HMV) which turned out to be a best-seller, and the other for the music of the Hindi film Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, directed by Rahul Rawail. A second Nusrat-Javed album, also under the HMV banner, was in the works, and Nusrat, who had composed a few tunes, was to come to India in that connection in October.

Santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma considers Nusrat to be one of the most talented artists to have emerged in the subcontinent since Independence. Asked what he as a classical musician thought of the Pakistani artist's music, he said: "Nusrat was a well-groomed musician in the Indian classical tradition. He was a hard-working, traditional exponent of qawwali ."

Sharma and Nusrat met each other several times, mostly abroad, since the latter was brought along by tabla master Allah Rakha to a concert of the former in Mumbai in 1985 or thereabouts. At that first meeting, said Sharma, each discovered that the other had been following his music with appreciative interest for quite some time.

The collaboration between Nusrat and Javed had its origins in a meeting between the former and Rawail a couple of years ago. When Rawail requested the Pakistani artist to create the music for Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, says Javed, the latter agreed to - provided Javed was prevailed upon to provide the lyrics and Lata Mangeshkar to lend her voice. That was easily arranged, and soon the composer and the lyricist got together in Mumbai and started working on the music for the film. Even while they were thus engaged, HMV persuaded them to work on Sangam. The two found themselves working for the album and the film at the same time.

The two stayed together at HMV's guest house at Madh Island in north-eastern Mumbai in March-April last year. HMV executive Shweta Agnihotri told Frontline that Nusrat was very receptive to the idea of a non-film album under the company's aegis when it was put to him. Recalling the Madh Island experience, Javed said that Nusrat's relationship with his music was a strange one. "Music was a kind of meditation for him," he said. He recalled that Nusrat used to sit on the guest house lawn for hours and experiment with tunes, with shades and nuances of musical phrases, with the help of a harmonium or a synthesiser. "He was meditative, and at the same time like a child playing with a toy."

Javed Akhtar called attention to a "paradox" that made Nusrat's creativity interesting. "On the one hand, he was rooted deeply in tradition," he said. "On the other, he had a completely modern approach."

Not everybody is enthusiastic about the Ustad's eclecticism. Naushad, a traditionalist giant of Hindi film music, was all praise for Nusrat the qawwal . He added, however, that it saddened him to find that so gifted an artist had allowed popular Western music to be blended with qawwali - which had sanctity because it was rendered at the dargahs (tombs) of great souls. The sight that Naushad saw in Los Angeles a couple of years ago of young people gyrating to the accompaniment of this blend distressed him.

Nusrat must have got used to such comments. Undaunted, he was eagerly looking forward to a proposed collaboration with renowned operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, according to Agnihotri. It was not to be.

WHAT of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan the man? In Javed's experience the Pakistani musician, "despite being so famous - across cultures, across continents" - never uttered a word of self-praise or made any mention of his achievements. "Nusrat was an extremely quiet person, at peace with himself. There was sthhirta (deep stillness) in his personality. He was an intelligent man, with a sense of humour." Nusrat was very responsible in speech, Javed went on. "He chose his words with care and never spoke out of turn. He would always speak of other senior musicians with great respect."

Like Javed, Shiv Kumar Sharma too found Nusrat's humility remarkable. In January last, when the qawwal dropped in at Sharma's residence in Mumbai to pay him a social call, he found a musical get-together in progress there. When Sharma's wife requested Nusrat to sing, he obliged at once and sang for well over an hour, according to the santoor maestro.

Sangam was launched with live performances in Mumbai, Delhi and London in July last year. Javed recalled Nusrat's speech on the occasion of the Delhi launch with emotion. In the presence of Pakistan High Commission officials he said that nowhere else did he get the love and happiness that he got in India - a country of great artists. Nusrat went on to say: "While I and other Pakistani artists meet with such warm appreciation in India, I am ashamed that Indian artists are not being invited to visit Pakistan."

Nusrat apparently followed up on the theme of that speech. When he and Javed met in Bangalore a few months ago for the last time, Nusrat told Javed that he had spoken to the Pakistani Prime Minister on the need for cultural unity between India and Pakistan.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×