INSTRUMENTAL music has one big advantage over vocal music, it has no linguistic barriers to surmount, which is why Pandit Ravi Shankar could popularise the ragas played on his sitar the world over and the tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain could familiarise the Western audience with the pulsating beat of his pair of drums. However, there is one vocalist, the Pakistani qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali, whose oeuvre not only crossed the geographical boundaries but also linguistic, cultural, social and even generational barriers.
Nusrat was not the first qawwal to perform in the West, there were quite a few: most notable among them was Ghulam Farid Sabri, but their audiences were primarily the subcontinental diaspora. With Nusrat, whether he performed in Europe, North America or Brazil, the men and women entranced by his exciting and spiritually stimulating numbers were locals in large numbers.
One European, who was swept off his feet one evening at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris by Nusrat and completely bowled over by his no-less-charming personality when they met coincidentally at the railway station the next morning, was Pierre-Alain Baud. Their friendship blossomed as he accompanied the ‘Singing Buddha’ on his invitation: initially to Italy, where he performed next, and later to stay with him in Lahore. Baud, who was destined to write a fine book, went on to pen Nusrat: The Voice of Faith. It didn’t take much time for the author to discover “the innumerable facets of his [Nusrat’s] personality: enigmatic and innocent, colossal and peaceful, inspired and ordinary, all parts of the same person who captivated audiences in Lahore, Paris, Florence, Tokyo or New York”.
Written in French and ably translated by Renuka George into English, Nusrat: The Voice of Faith reproduces the maestro’s family tree going back to nine generations. The text recalls how Nusrat was first trained by his father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, who wanted his son to enter the medical profession but changed his mind when the boy, still in his teens, accompanied Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s son Munawar Ali Khan on the tabla in a concert. The exponent of classical music, on a visit from India, was all praise for the virtuosity of the teenager.
When Fateh Ali passed away, his elder brother Mubarak Ali Khan took young Nusrat under his wing and continued with his training. When he too died the family’s qawwali mantle was jointly donned by Nusrat and Mubarak’s son Mujahid. For some time the two performed jointly and the team was christened ‘Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & party’. They separated after some time and Nusrat and his group took an unassailable lead over their former partners, who soon fell into relative oblivion.
Baud, writing for fellow Frenchmen, painstakingly delves on the evolution of qawwali and Sufism — the source of inspiration for qawwals. He goes on to introduce the Chishti Brotherhood and how it was brought to the subcontinent by the saint Moinuddin Chishti, whose mausoleum in Ajmer, Rajasthan has continued to attract people belonging to different religions — from commoners to the mighty such as Mughal emperor Akbar and Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, to mention just two.
Bringing out Nusrat’s ability to absorb the best from different sources, his biographer says that while the qawwal was steeped in the tradition of Sufism, the ‘Singing Bhudda’ also infused the tradition of North Indian classical music, common to Pakistan and Bangladesh, in his qawwali.
The writer goes into details of Nusrat’s highly successful forays into films not just in the subcontinent but also in the Western world. He also throws light on hundreds of cassettes and CDs of his renditions that were released in his lifetime and many more after his untimely death — at one time, his albums were featured in Guinness World Records. The author, however, doesn’t take into account the thousands of pirated albums, which were remixes and rehashes.
Plagued by obesity, diabetes and hectic schedules, Nusrat, who enjoyed the title of Shehenshah-i-Qawwali, died before he could celebrate his 49th birthday leaving behind many unfinished musical projects.
Nusrat: The Voice of Faith
By Pierre-Alain Baud
Translated by Renuka George