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The guru of peace: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


As Indian and Pakistani artistes find themselves in the crossfire again due to rising tensions, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's lingering influence in Hindi cinema and its music feels all the more important. On his 88th birth anniversary today (13 October), we revisit the ustad's legacy.

Shriram Iyengar

In 1994, the Shiv Sena took objection to one of the greatest sufi singers of our time, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, performing in Mumbai. It was a tumultuous time as relations between India and Pakistan were on the healing road. The Samjhauta Express, a train route between Amritsar and Lahore, was in the pipeline. Being asked about the growing discontent among politicians regarding Pakistani artistes performing in India, the ustad said, "Artists and sports personalities have no business with politics." Thirty years later, on the 88th birth anniversary (13 October) of the great qawwal, the battle between the two factions of art and politics continues to divide the subcontinent. 

Even though he reached the peak of his fame in the 70s, it was not till the 90s that India sat up to notice him. The rise of pop culture, the arrival of television like MTv and a new generation of listeners willing to experiment in the musical language, laid the foundations for a crossborder exodus of artistes and musicians. The ustad was joined by several other bands from Pakistan, namely Fuzon, Strings, Junoon amongst others. Later, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali continued the tradition of musicians reaching across borders. 

From Martin Scorcese to Sean Penn and Peter Gabriel, world music came calling. Jeff Buckley, one of the most talented voices of the 80s, said about the ustad, "He’s my Elvis. I idolise Nusrat, he's a god, too." His collaborations with Gabriel found a new audience across the Atlantic. One of the most prominent work was on Scorcese's controversial, The Last Temptation of Christ. His soulful alaap renders a heartwrenching plea to the heavens.

He combined with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder for the background score of the Sean Penn starrer, Dead Man Walking (1995). 

The thawing of the ice between India and Pakistan in the late 90s only helped further the cause of the ustad's Indian sojourns. He composed for four films beginning with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's debut in Hindi cinema, Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (1990). This was followed by Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen (1994). The last two films, Kachche Dhaage (1999) and Kartoos (1999) carried his compositions posthumously. Of these, only Kachche Dhaage possesses the signature of Khan Sahab's Sufi style and technique. The song 'Tere bin nahi jeena' was a direct lift from his own famous qawwali, 'Tere bin nahi lagda dil mera'. Sample this: 

The attempt to bring a hallowed Sufism to popular cinema was not always well received. However, this experiment produced one of the most productive and influential collaborations between India and Pakistan. AR Rahman found sufism through the ustad. As he said in an interview , "I came into Sufi music because of Nusrat saab (late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan). I didn’t know anything about it. I heard ‘Duma dum mast qalandar’, and was taken aback by the magic of the genre. I was so inspired that I sang my own qawwali, ‘Piya haji Ali’ (Fiza, 2000). For me, Sufi music means Nusrat saab’s qawwalis — it starts and ends there." 

Rahman was not the only one to experiment with the ustad's music. The 90s saw a spate of classic qawwalis being remixed to suit new fashions and taste, much to their creator's distress. His contempt of the Sufi ethos in 'Afreen Afreen' being visualised by a fashionably clad Lisa Ray is well known. But it did not stop music directors like Anu Malik from lifting the composer's tunes and adapting them to cinematic equivalents. Malik would transform an ode to god, Allah Hoo, into a more commercial 'I love you' for the Salman Khan starrer, Auzaar. 

In many ways, Rahman is a spiritual disciple of the ustad. The spirituality infused in his music contains the pantheism and multi-lingual tonality that made Khan unique. One of the last albums the two collaborated on was 'Gurus of Peace'. In 1996, Rahman travelled all the way to Pakistan to convince an ailing ustad to participate with him on the album, titled patriotically, Vande Mataram. The collaborative song, however, was named Gurus of Peace. Filled with a sincere plea to build a world that emphasises on humanity, it was the first time and Indian and Pakistani artist had come together to work on a single album. The song went on to become a hallmark for the new 'pop' music of the 90s. Rahman describes it saying: "It was a co-incidence that khan saheb had a concert in Delhi city and we went to that concert. We wanted to do 3 songs for 3 colours, one for the saffron, one for the white, one for the green. Maa tujhe salaam was for saffron, vande mataram was for white and the third was the peace song. My friend Bharatbala said why don't you team up with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for this song and so we got kids from England and Nusratji from Pakistan and me singing. So it was like a South Asian peace song." 

Khan was not the first Pakistani singer to make it big in India. Talat Mahmood had already broken through with his magical voice and regenerated interest in the ghazal form from the 50s till the 70s. Noorjehan's move to Pakistan had opened the doors of the music industry for Lata Mangeshkar. But they were still classicists in an esoterical world of music. Where the ustad differed was in his ability to reach out and touch the mass audience. His command over the Punjabi language, the nuances, and an innate sense of secular spirituality ensured his connect from veterans like Gulzar to Anu Malik. His ability to transposition his raag based music into western formats added to his currency. The almost universal respect he enjoyed ensured that any political confrontation to his art was sidelined by the sheer genius of his work. His influence on Indian cinema can be perceived by the fact that since the late 90s, the number of albums and songs in Indian films with a Sufi lilt have increased exponentially. In doing so, the ustad gave Indian film music a new dialect. Singers like Sonu Nigam, Sukhwinder Singh, Udit Narayan, and more recently, Arijit Singh have found a new audience base with very similar songs. From Rahman's 'Khwaja mere khwaja' in Jodhaa Akbar (2005) to 'Tu jaane na' in Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009) by Pritam, and Amit Trivedi's brilliant 'Ha reham' in Aamir (2008) are examples of the lasting influence of his style. 

As for the Pakistani connection, Khan's calibre and reputation worked as both ambassador and pioneer for artists wanting to work in India. His charisma, spirituality, and charming ease with multiple genres of music changed the perception of Hindustani, and Sufi, music as a rigid, orthodox form. It is to the great ustad's credit that singers, and later actors, from Pakistan found a welcoming platform for expression in Indian cinema. As the two nations duke it out again in the political ring, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's musical legacy and heritage finds itself facing the same old demons. Except, their greatest champion is silent.