Nusrat sang for the soul
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s mesmerising voice brought mystical Sufi music to the international stage and captured the imagination of millions. He conquered manmade, international boundaries.
On October 13, 1948 Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was blessed with his fifth child, his first son, Pervez. The Khan family had moved to Faisalabad (Lyallpur) recently. They lived in Basti Sheikh, Jullundur before Partition. Quite big as a baby, plump Peji had cute little, chubby hands. He became the darling of the family. His four sisters, uncles, aunts almost never let him be in his cot.
His smiling face attracted even strangers. One day a Sufi saint saw him. “What is his name?” asked the faqir. “Pervez,” his father replied. “Don't you know who Pervez was? He was the king of Persia who tore up the letter sent to him by the Holy Prophet! This name doesn't augur well, change it immediately,” the saint asserted. “What shall we name him then?” After a thoughtful pause, the saint spoke, “You should call him Nusrat, Nusrat means victorious in Arabic.” Pervez became Nusrat and was destines to become Shehanshah-e-Qawwali Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
For more than 600 years, Nusrat's ancestors had been praising the beauty of the divine with a style of singing known as the qawwali. Nusrat's father was a well-respected qawwal, but he wanted Nusrat to train as a doctor. Despite the recognition that he had received for his talent, Nusrat's father was aware that professional musicians were often accorded a very low status in a traditional society. His father made sure that Nusrat was not the exposed to the musical milieu. Khan Sahib tried his best to keep him away from music but it was impossible to ignore the family legacy that ran in Nusrat's veins.
Little did Khan senior know that this little boy was destined to change the very way people looked at music. This boy was born to take music to a new level altogether. From an early age, Nusrat's love for music was evident. He would secretly follow the classes when his father was teaching some of his students. He tried to absorb all the knowledge he could. He would try and play the harmonium when his father was away. The first instrument he mastered was the tabla. The famous classical singer Munawar Ali Khan — the son of the famous vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Chacha-jaan of Ustad Jawaad Ali Khan (who very kindly narrated the whole incident to me recently) was visiting Pakistan.
He was staying with the Khans in Faisalabad. Munawar Ali became sad one day and said to Khan senior that it was futile coming to Pakistan. He really wanted to sing and mesmerise the people of Pakistan but no tabla player could keep up with his singing. He concluded on a sad note that he would have to go back to India without performing even once. The sad remarks by Munawar left Khan Sahib thinking. It was a matter of his honour, a question of his hospitality.
Fateh Ali Khan was well aware that the young Nusrat practised on the harmonium as well as the tabla hours on end, everyday. Khan Sahib was confident that with a bit of training and preparation, the young Nusrat would be competent enough to handle Munawar Ali's fast repertoire. A musical evening was arranged at the Khan haveli. Ustad Munawar Ali made himself comfortable and asked who would play the tabla? Khan Sahib pointed towards the young man. “Chubby Nusrat?” Munawar Ali laughed. This was Nusrat's chance to convince his father that he was born to be a musician. Bowing his head in sajda, Nusrat started playing. It was a crucial test of his prowess in his chosen art. His fingers skilfully danced on the tabla with lightening speed. Munawar was dazzled. He got up and embraced Nusrat. He said, “He might be fat but his mind is razor-sharp. I am defeated Fateh, your son is a very talented young man.”
Khan senior took Nusrat under his wings and transferred all his knowledge to him. Finally, he abandoned his plans to make him a healer of bodies and decided that he would rather apply “the balm of music to the wounded hearts of those who had suffered the pangs of separation from their loved ones.” Nusrat had a mesmerising voice, as if it was a divine inspiration. He brought the mystical music of the Sufis to the international stage, becoming one of the most celebrated stars of the music world. His spellbinding voice captured the imagination of millions and conquered manmade, international boundaries.
In the West, they called him: “the Voice from Heaven.” He performed at Albert Hall, the Mecca of musicians, in 1987. The most fitting tribute came six years later when he performed at the Symphony Hall to welcome Nelson Mandela.
A member of his troupe once narrated how in Japan, Nusrat Sahib tuned into the local radio obviously not understanding a word. Upon being asked, he revealed, “I am trying to understand the instinctive music of the people.” Such was his indulgence of music. After a performance in New York, the New York Times reported, “Ecstasy dealers from Pakistan arrive in New York!” Rumi once said, “I am not a voice, I am the fire singing.” It is most certainly true of Nusrat. Happy birthday Khan Sahib, you shall forever live in our hearts.
-- Sartaj Chaudhary