Qawwali, a style of music solely based on Sufism, a sub section of Islam, derives from the word “Souf” which means purity. This purity refers to the purity of the soul; soul that believes in spirituality, relationship with the Almighty. Qawwali is a form that leads us towards that divine entity and the maestro who remains as the undisputed king of that form is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This article is a tribute to this great worshiper of music.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in a Punjabi Muslim family on October 13, 1948. His family migrated from the then East Punjab under British Raj (now in India).
Nusrat has been a part of a 600 years old legacy which started from Afghanistan. They were born Qawwals. The first decade of his life was not as glittering as it seems to be. He was just an ordinary kid. Those days Qawwals weren’t given much respect for which his father wanted him to become a doctor. But fate had in store something else for him. Who knew someday this kid would be the brightest one not only for their family but also for the whole Indian subcontinent!
Nusrat made his first appearance as a main Qawwal at the age of fifteen, forty days after the demise of his father Fateh Ali Khan.
After his father’s death, Nusrat had a dream. In his dream his father sitting next to him asked to sing and carry their 600 years old legacy. From that day, Nusrat lived this dream throughout his life.
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At the beginning Nusrat spent most of his hours listening to his father’s and uncle’s recordings just like in the film “Disciple”.
The protagonist used to listen to a late veteran artist whom everyone respected as Maa’ee (mother). Nusrat’s life somewhat seemed similar with that protagonist. He wasn’t confident, he was always nervous therefore he was always dedicated towards his art of Qawwali, the craft of touching the sky with magical words and powerful ragas (set of notes in the Indian classical music)
In 80s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had already established himself as one of the most gifted singers of the world. He then introduced his legacy of Qawwali not only to Pakistan but also to his early home, India.
Soon his shows started to become popular all over the world. His recorded albums started to hit the top charts in both the countries. He began to tour the United States, England, middle east and of course India.
A quiet, introverted, self-contained little boy Nusrat who started his spiritual journey through music all of a sudden in the 60s, started to be addressed as the Ustaad (master/teacher) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The decade of the 90s had been a blessing for Nusrat in terms of music. He reached new heights. He sang for a couple Indian films. One of those is the critically acclaimed film, Bandit Queen (1994) directed by the academy award winner Shekhar Kapoor.
His songs “Afreen” and “Kinna Sona Tenu” became instant hits. The songs had broken all the previous records and became chartbusters of the mid 90s, in India. While his songs were getting popular amongst the younger generation of both the countries, many music directors had copied and used his tunes in several Indian films. One of those music directors is Anu Malik, a prominent music director in the Indian film industry.
His ragas and music were also used in some Hollywood projects, such as the soundtracks of the film named “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and “Dead Man Walking” (1995).
With some of the renowned western musicians like Peter Gabriel, Eddie Vedder and Michael Brook, Nusrat did his collaboration. He had conquered from Hindustan to Englishtaan (England regarded in Urdu as Englistaan) with his sky-shattering higher notes.
In the late 90s Nusrat’s health was began to decline. Throughout his life he had to deal with his overweight issue. In his later life he couldn’t stand, so he had to rely on the wheel chair. Some of his concerts then were done do either sitting on a wheelchair or sitting on the stage-floor.
His spiritual journey came to an end on August 16 in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest. He went London for the treatment of liver and kidney disease. He faced a fatal heart attack at the airport and was rushed to Cromwell hospital. He never returned among us again.
Awards and recognition
He had sung numerous songs in his short-lived life. He recorded more than 125 Qawwali albums for which he holds the Guinness World Records. He was also nominated in Grammy Awards twice- for best traditional folk album and best world music album. His songs are still popular and used as a remix song in several Hindi films of the 21st century.
Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died at an early age of 48. But whenever there is a chapter written on Qawwali, there will be an era for sure, before Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He was an institution, a ‘Wizard of Qawwali’ as stated by Anu Malik and Pyarelal respectively.
Renowned film scriptwriter, poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar once said, “I have seen Nusrat Saab doing his routine rehearsal sitting on the floor in the morning, near the sea beach. The scenario was to me, as if I am watching an ocean next to an ocean”.
It’s been two decades since the maestro Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left us, however, we recall him in “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor”, when we fall in love with someone, we recall him in “Piya re, Piya re” when we urge to see our beloved and we recall him in “Allaho” when we get drenched in the spirituality through his music. He never left us; perhaps he is with us in the form of ragas that he used to sing, like casting spells, to lighten our souls.