Magazine issue September 3, 2007
A decade after his death, the qawwal's fame is conquering continents
"Ishq dawa hai har ek dard ki, Zanjeer ishq hai har ek rishte ki"(Love is the medicine for all pain/Love is the chain that links all relationships)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang these lines for A.R. Rahman’s album, Vande Mataram, dedicated to India in its 50th year of Independence. But all the outpourings of love from millions of fans worldwide couldn’t heal the legendary qawwal’s own terminally ill body.
Ten years ago, as India celebrated its golden jubilee, 48-year-old Nusrat battled for his life in a London hospital. He lost the battle on August 16, one day after India’s Independence day, and two days after his native Pakistan’s.
However, death has only strengthened the intoxicating power of Nusrat’s music. A decade after he passed away, he is the subcontinent’s most internationally famous singer, with a huge fan following and a long chain of imitators.
He is in the Guinness Book of Records for having recorded a staggering 125 albums. And, according to the US National Public Radio website, he has sold more albums than Elvis Presley.
The singer’s legacy lives on through his nephews Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Rizwan and Muazzam (following in Nusrat’s footsteps, the latter two have collaborated with British musician Peter Gabriel), and his students Salman Ahmad and Naeem Abbas Rufi.
Salman went on to found the popular Pakistani rock group, Junoon. Indian Sufi singers Kailash Kher, Hans Raj Hans and Rabbi Shergill all claim Nusrat as their inspiration. Kailash, who is sometimes dubbed Chhota Nusrat [Little Nusrat], has been approached to sing with Eddie Vedder at a tribute concert for Nusrat.
The currency of Sufi music—partly a felt thing, and partly fashion—and Bollywood’s recent fondness for qawwalis, seen in Maqbool, Haasil, Corporate and Pyar Ke Side Effects, can also be traced back to Nusrat’s magic.
Indeed, improvisation was one of Nusrat’s greatest strengths, and one of the reasons why his music lives on. He was rooted in tradition but always ready to extend its boundaries. As Junoon’s Salman Ahmed told Outlook, "He inspired me to see with the heart and think beyond borders...."
Nusrat’s first innovation was to dramatically reinforce the Hindustani classical element in the often rough-and-ready aesthetics of qawwali. During his concerts, audiences would join in as he and his group began the customary chanting. But then, the singer would first baffle them and later send them into a trance by breaking off into a sargam interlude at a breathtakingly fast tempo.
Nusrat sang the poetry of Khusro, Bulle Shah and Iqbal, but always added his own touches. He would sing in Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and Awadhi in the same song. His voice would rise to a crescendo, the movements of his hands matching the beats.
He was like a man possessed when singing. Dildar Hussain, who played the tabla in his group, remembers Nusrat’s total immersion in his music by describing his performance at Rishi Kapoor’s wedding in 1979. "We started at ten in the night," he recalls, "and finished at seven in the morning. He sang Halka Halka Suroor for two-and-a-half hours at a stretch."
In his ’98 film, Nusrat Has Left The Building...But When? (the title echoes the phrase "Elvis has left the building", always announced after an Elvis show), Pakistani filmmaker Farjad Nabi implies Nusrat’s talent had got diluted towards the end.
Says Farjad: "Nusrat had been singing for decades before Peter Gabriel discovered him. The sudden recognition and money must have affected him. I felt deeply disappointed at the change."
It isn’t hard to see why the purists prefer the simple arrangement of harmoniums and tablas dominated by Nusrat’s indomitable lung power over his singing along with the techno instruments of the West.
Yet, when you hear the jazz musicians, Senegalese jembe and the dub beats jamming with his voice, you also know he wasn’t just a musician but a veritable ambassador of love and music.
Nusrat has not yet left the building.
[Photo by Prashant Panjiar].