July 27, 2020
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Song Of Transcendence

Breaking the cultural caste system, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gave qawwali a universal appeal

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Song Of Transcendence

I write to mourn the passing away of a great musician. Yes, I do know he was a qawwal, one of the most popular singers to have emerged from the Asian subcontinent, a composer, a star, and much more. But I would still prefer to address him first as a musician because today, when most musicians closet themselves in tight little compartments with labels that read Classical, Khayal, Thumri, Bhajan, Ghazal and so on, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan chose to sing, free and unfettered by any obligations to any one style, gharana, or form. Coming from a line of blue-blooded qawwali singers from Pakistan,

Nusrat soon became a household name with his unconventional foray into World Music. Synthesisers, drums, guitars and other western instruments joined the heady beat of the Ustad's qawwali, hitherto sung to the traditional accompaniment of the dholak, tabla, harmonium and sarangi. Why did he do it? For money? Or did he want more popularity? These and many other questions await any musician who dares to step out of the rigid boundaries of style and discipline. I have seen the number of eyebrows that shot up and disappeared into hairlines when I sang Ali More Angana, which catered to popular taste. One is almost expected to apologise and explain such seemingly wayward behaviour. And therefore, I salute the Ustad's truly post-modernist attitude that allowed him to compose and create, governed only by his creative needs and urges, made him join hands with other creators and artistes, without allowing himself to fall into the trap of a cultural caste system.

The singer who became a legend in his lifetime was born with a voice initially considered unmusical. He soon overcame this handicap and cultivated a voice that carried the message of the Sufis to regions far removed from his native land. Rajneesh explains the term 'Sufi' in his Talks on Sufism, associating it with the word 'sufa'—denoting cleanliness, purity and transcendence. A Sufi is therefore someone who transcends prejudice. Perhaps that's why Nusrat felt compelled to contemporise the Sufi message of love and transcendence over prejudice. His vast repertoire, which contained both the Sufi poetry of Punjab as well as the Braj and Avadhi texts of Sufimasters like Amir Khusrau, gave listeners a comprehensive view of the qawwali. At a time when most Indian qawwali singers prefer to restrict themselves to Braj and Avadhi texts, and the singers of Punjab's Maler Kotla and Tapaiyya regions are dwindling away, his was perhaps one of the only complete and comprehensive repertories. This vast stock gave unimaginable pleasure to his listeners and even allowed plagiarists to copy, and steal his compositions unabashedly. In an age where copyright is fast becoming a burning issue for composers and authors, this star composer reacted in the most amazing way to blatant plagiarising of his songs: he continued to compose and create more songs!

Stars are often surrounded by over-protective relatives and disciples who do not allow admirers to get a close backstage look at their favourite musicians. Fortunately, I broke through this protective cordon to meet the Ustad in person once, and I'd like to share the memory of that evening with all those who mourn the loss of this great artiste. The maestro was in the capital for a concert that was to be part of the wedding celebrations of one of Delhi's glitterati. If rumours were to be believed, he was charging a fee that fluctuated from one speculation to another as between Rs 12 to 25 lakh! Even as these figures rang warning bells in our ears, my friends at the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust decided to seek an audience with Khan Saheb and request him to perform in Delhi as part of the Sahmat series entitled Artists Against Communalism.

Disappointed with evasive replies to a number of phone calls, I was recruited for the job. I called the five-star hotel where he was staying, and soon found myself talking to his manager to whom I duly presented my credentials, and quickly adding that I was the younger sister of the great sarangi nawaz Ustad Sultan Khan, who indeed has been generous to me with his guidance and affection, and whom Nusratji held in great esteem and regard. I got the appointment instantly! No one hesitated or stopped to think how Shubha could possibly be Sultan Khan's sister, and I was asked to come over for a meeting in the next hour or so! Followed by a group of friends from Sahmat and armed with a pile of photo-albums full of pictures from past concerts, we found ourselves facing the Ustad. As he flipped through the albums, stopping now and again to ask a question, we talked to him about Sahmat's origins, the different projects it had been associated with, the concept of artistes coming together to make a statement against communalism and finally requesting him to perform for Sahmat whenever he could spare the time. We ended by confessing that all we could offer in return was "izzat aur pyaar"! When you offer an artiste who was probably Asia's highest-paid musician some love, respect, fresh air and water for a concert that could have brought him lakhs, it's only natural to be concerned about his taking offence. To our astonishment and utter delight, he replied, "did I ask for anything more?", and promised to sing for Sahmat. A suitable date was to be given by his manager, who politely announced that we would have to wait till he returned to Pakistan and sorted out a few things. We waited, perhaps too patiently, because now it's too late.

There'll be no more pushing and jostling amongst Nusrat fans and the police constables who guarded Siri Fort Auditorium earlier this year as he sang for the RPG-Rajiv Gandhi Foundation concerts. I was among those who were pushed and jostled and came away consoling myself that he would return and I'd get another chance to hear him. That's why I feel so cheated by Kabir's 'thugwaa'—Death. You never know when or where it'll strike, leaving you bereft and alone with a crowd of memories, and in this case, hundreds of songs that still ring in the ears of all those who heard and love Nusrat's music.

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