The Human Voiceby Khalid Mohamed March 18 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 42 secs
Khalid Mohamed, who was commissioned to write the official autobiography of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997), replays an insightful conversation with the legendary qawwali and Sufi singer.
For me, it was a yahoo moment. After interviewing the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali for magazines and newspapers, he had asked ever so shyly if I would consider writing his official autobiography.
Reams had already been written on the grand Pakistani qawwals, and Sufi singers. Perhaps he felt I could pen down a perspective from the Indian point of view.
Alas, to my lasting regret he went away too soon. In 1997, he died of multiple organ failure at the age of 48 in a London hospital. Rumours had been circulating that he hadn’t been keeping well. He had called to say to ignore such scares, and restart the work on the autobiography.
Less than a year ago, there had been a terrible incident: His troupe and he were to perform at the Filmfare Award show. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the police, one conjecture is that they were miffed on not being allocated front row seats, had the power switched off, plunging the venue into darkness. The show was over.
Nusrat bhai, as he would encourage me to call him, was stoic, murmuring, “I was so looking forward to the event. Allah chaahe phir kabhi sahi.”
Today, there may be no anniversary or occasion to celebrate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Yet whenever I listen to his compact discs (every day), I long to share this conversation. Without more ado, then over to the excerpts:
Could we start by tracing your origins?
I received music as a legacy from my family, which has been singing since 600 years. My ancestors moved from Ghazni in Afghanistan to Jullundur, to a village called Basti Shaikhu. My forefathers were practitioners of classical music and qawwalis.
My father, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan was renowned, especially for the qawwali Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Ishq Ishq. It was used in P.L Santoshi’s Barsaat ki Raat (1960), with Bharat Bhushan and Madhubala, after securing his permission. Mercifully, it wasn’t copied without so much as a by-your-leave. I have followed my khandaan’s tradition of qawwalis, which is quite different from the andaz of others.
When did you first discover your instinct for music?
Aah, that seems so long ago. I was born on October 13,1948. I studied at the Sacred Hearts’ School there for some years and passed my matric exams from a high school close to the India-Pakistan border. I was pretty good in Urdu and English but not so good in science and mathematics. I didn’t study further, there was no need to, though my father wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. He didn’t want me to become his disciple.
I was the laadla of the household. After four daughters, I was the first son born to my parents. My father felt I wouldn’t be able to cope with music. It was quite arduous to sing at mehfils those days, most of the concerts would be in far-flung villages… my father and his musicians would have to walk for miles… they couldn’t afford to travel by trains or cars. However, I was drawn to music as a lover is drawn to his beloved. I would insist on singing devotional numbers, and the elders in the house would say fondly, “Yeh to pandat hai, Sufi ladka hai.”
It was thought my younger brother, Farukh Ali, would become a better musician. He is with me, he’s superb on the harmonium.
I wouldn’t budge from my dream of following the family profession. While walking to my school, two or three furlongs away, I would sing the songs of Noor Jehan, K.L.Saigal and Talat Mehmood. At home, I would quietly listen to my father and imitate him when no one was listening.
Did the Partition affect you in any way?
Not in a direct way since I was born after the Partition. But throughout my childhood, I could sense that it had affected my family deeply. The elders would often talk about how they had lived in Punjab… in Jullundur. My father did visit our house in Basti Shaikhu. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return to my roots so far.
How did you convince your family that you were cut out for music?
By sheer persistence. Once my father realised that there was no point in convincing me to continue with my studies, I was taught to play the tabla. Whoever can grasp the various beats… the leh of the tabla… can become a perfect musician.
Yet my father felt awkward about training me to play the tabla in front of my mother and uncles… they kept arguing I was cut out to do something else. So he would take me secretly to a park to teach me the basics of the tabla. Father passed away in 1964.
For a long time, it seemed as if music had gone out of my life. To return to normal, as it were, I started singing. Then during a religious festival near Lahore, people surrounded me to sing for them. They said singing was my destiny, that even if I had studied for years and became the Prime Minister, it would be of no use. The affection showered on me, moved me to tears. After that music became my very being.
In 1965, I sang for Radio Lahore. Such luminaries as Roshanara Begum, Chhote Ghulam Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum were also performing for the programme. Strangely enough, I wasn’t nervous at all. On hearing me, they were very kind and encouraged me tremendously.
I honed my skills under Salamat Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan. By the grace of God, I was offered many assignments, live performances for Radio Pakistan, concerts for Pakistan TV and several recordings of qawwalis for the EMI label. By now, I must have recorded over 150 discs. And I also sang for Pakistani films as well as for Yash Chopra’s Nakhuda (1981) and K.Sharif’s Bismillah ki Barkat (1983), which were produced in India.
When did you first make contact with India?
When I was invited by Raj Kapoor to sing for the wedding of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh in 1980. I was received with warmth by the Indian film industry, especially by Yash Chopra.
You became quite a rage in Europe during the 1980s.
I cannot pat myself on the back. How can I say that I became a rage? All I can say is that I sang before packed houses, made up essentially of Asian immigrants in England, Denmark and Norway.
The famous British singer and producer Peter Gabriel heard me sing at a concert outside London, a place called Colchester I think, and he asked me to sing for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Peter arranged the music, violinist L. Shankar played with me and I was appreciated. Then there were a couple of tracks for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).
After that I performed in France and Japan. Uncannily, the audiences there seemed to truly understand the nuances of qawwalis and poetry. It was almost as if they could understand every word written by Amir Khusrau, Bulleh Shah and Rumi.
Would you allow your children to sing?
I would if I had a son. I have a daughter, Nida Fatma. According to our family tradition, only males can sing. My daughter is adept at studies, so she will study, not sing.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali were extremely popular in India. How come you didn’t make waves at that point?
Whichever the form of music, if it comes straight from the heart, it’s bound to make an impact. Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali made such a deep impression that there was a strong wave of ghazals all over the sub-continent. Indian ghazal singers like Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas also came into prominence around then. Perhaps after a point, listeners started craving a change.
My music has the sort of beat that listeners can connect to even if they don’t necessarily understand accompanying lyrics. It’s enough to catch the essence of a qawwali. On the other hand, the words are of paramount importance in ghazals and geets.
What drew you towards India?
I came to Delhi to perform for a SAARC conference. Then I returned to sing and compose music for Hindi films. I composed the background score of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994).
Now, I’m doing the entire music score for Rahul Rawail’s Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya, earlier I think it was called Champion. I’m singing for a Sunny Deol film with music by Anand-Milind, and for producer Firoz Nadiadwala’s film directed by Kundan Shah. I haven’t made too many commitments although there have been quite a few offers.
Why haven’t you performed ‘live’ in Mumbai. Have you sensed any hostility in the city?
I haven’t been booked for any concert here. No one, as far as I know, has made any attempts to stop my concerts. I still can’t fathom what happened at the Filmfare Award show.
There have been a few casual discussions over the phone with my company, Oriental Star, based in Birmingham. But nothing came of them. Artistes from any corner of the world are respected here. I haven’t encountered any visible hostility or tension in your city.
Why do Pakistan’s authorities ban Indian artistes like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle from the airwaves?
Certain individuals are responsible for such bans, the public, however, loves Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Every household knows them and listens to them all the time. In fact, video cassettes of a new Hindi film release are available in Pakistan the very next day through Dubai.
Major Indian artists like Bismillah Khan, Zakir Hussain and Amjad Ali Khan have performed at concerts in Pakistan. Artists are not shackled by politics and boundaries. An artist is innocent, his art is his only religion. It was Jigar Muradabadi who had once said, “Let those who know the language of politics, indulge in their games for I know only the language of the heart.”
Love is the emotion that binds all of us. That’s the theme of the song I’ve recorded for the American film Dead Man Walking (1995). The lyrics are very simple, “Iss Duniya Mein Aaye Ho Toh Ek Duuje Se Pyaar Karo.”
Have you kept track of the number of your compositions, which have been plagiarised by Hindi film music directors?
At least 20 of my tracks have been plagiarised. Only yesterday Sunny Deol informed me that a Punjabi qawwali of mine, Rabba Kadi Bhi Na Vicchade, has been pinched for a film called Itihaas by Dilip Sen-Sameer Sen. I’ve also heard stolen versions of my Jhoole Jhoole Lal Dam Mast Kalandar, Mera Piya Ghar Aaya, Loye Loye, Mast Nazron Se Allah Bachaye, Kisida Yaar Na Bicchade and Kitha Sona Tujhe Rab Ne Banaya. And I’m naming only a few.
The copies are blatantly transparent without any variations. It’s wrong of music directors to claim that they’ve just been ‘inspired’. A theft is a theft. My numbers like Jhoole Jhoole Lal and Mera Piya Ghar Aaya, which are Sufi songs have been made into romantic numbers, zabardasti se.
I’m hurt because no effort has been made to secure my permission or even mention my name in the credit lines. So much effort and labor goes into each of my numbers and they’re stolen before I can bat an eyelid. Now it seems my Yaar Yaar Kehna has been lifted for as many as four films under production.
Worse, I’m told T-series have released some of my albums here. Tell me, what can I do about this? I’m seriously thinking of initiating legal action through the labels, which have the rights to my albums.
Have you met any of the composers who have lifted your tunes?
I have met all of them from Anand-Milind and Viju Shah to Nadeem-Shravan and others. I was shocked when a composer said, “We copy you because we admire you a lot.” What kind of logic is that? They should admit that they are trespassing on music, which has come from my very soul. How can they pass off my creations as theirs? This amounts to hoodwinking the public. At least give the me the credit, which is due to me.
What do you think of today’s Hindi film music?
It is nothing compared to yesteryear’s music. Once, thought and reflection went into the melodies. Once, there was sensitivity. There was also an innocent, playful kind of masti. Now, film music has become excessively commercialised. The rights of a film’s music score can command a price of Rs. 1 crore to Rs. 2 crores! Sorry to say but one doesn’t feel like listening to the music. The quality and splendour are missing. Often, the lyrics are so vulgar that one cannot listen to the songs at home with the family.
Have you met A.R.Rahman?
Yes, he had dropped by with his mother to meet me. He has a terrific style, he works hard on the creative element of his compositions. Best of all, he doesn’t run after anyone. He doesn’t believe in jee-huzoori or saying, “Sir,sir” to those who have pots of money.
Self-pride is a must for every composer. The day you start selling music like a shopkeeper, it can be the end for a musician. Rahman has a flair for using the synthesiser and electronic instruments. I predict he will go very far.
Bally Sagoo has remixed your songs and made them extremely danceable. Are you okay about the glitter pop that’s so evident in the album Magic Touch?
Chalo, woh Magic Touch theekh hai. Despite the remix, the classical and folk base do come through. The album has sold very well, it’s a craze with young listeners. The idea was to reach out to a section, which wants a fast tempo and an upbeat rhythm. I’m working on another album with Bally Sagoo, it will not depart from the core of my style. The back-up instruments can be used in a western idiom. Javed Akhtar is writing the lyrics. It should be an interesting experiment.
As long as I can get my music across on my own terms, I can’t ask the lord above for anything more. Once I used to perform in villages, today I perform in Europe and America, but there’s no difference. After all, it’s music that makes the world go round.
Right. Can I ask you about your most memorable Hindi film songs?
I’m very clear about them: Dharti Ko Aakash Pukare (Mela, 1948), Aaja Re Ab Mera Dil Pukare (Awaara, 1951), O Sajna (Parakh,1960), Chhoo Lene Do Nazooq Honthon Ko (Kaajal, 1965), Dil Ke Jharakon Se (Brahmachari, 1968), Khilte Hain Gul Yahan (Sharmilee, 1971), Bada Natkhat Hai (Amar Prem, 1971), Raina Beeti Jaaye (Amar Prem, 1971) and Bhor Bhaye Panghat Pe (Satyam Shivam Sundaram, 1978).
Your most cherished vocalists?
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, K.L.Saigal, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Talat Mehmood, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hassan, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel and Whitney Houston.
Ravi Shankar, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Ustad Allarakha, Zakir Hussain, Vilayat Khan and Akbar Ali Khan.
And the wordsmiths?
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nadeem Qasmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Habib Jalib, Qateel Shifai, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bau, Khwaja Farid.
What would your one-line definition of music be?
That definition is what all true musicians believe in - that music knows no politics, no boundary lines.