"A number ofpeople havecriticised me andsaid that I havespoiled Sufi music,but at least theyoung now listen tothese traditionalsongs. That waspart of mymission."
Arts & Entertainment
MAGAZINE | JAN 24, 1996
The Divine Conqueror
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has transformed the mystic Sufi into a modern musical icon
In five-star durbar halls and in open air theatres, crowds jostled and clamoured for a seat. Long queues waitedfor tickets all day outside gate number 2 at Pragati Maidan, breathless callers telephoned newspaper offices fora pass. At the Hamsadhvani theatre in Pragati Maidan, the gates were breached as young andold swarmed in fora glimpse, maybe a touch, of the huge, fair-skinned man with thinning hair and the little boy smile. When thescream of "
" pierced the crowd, the crowd bellowed back: "Wah,Ustad!" As the strains of
rang out, men and women took up the refrain,dancing in the aisles under a festive sky.Outside the Durbar Hall of the Taj Palace hotel a noisy throng of gatecrashersagitated for entry. "You have to let us in," shouted an MTV-chic group. Inside, thehall was packed, the
crowded and the seats all taken. Under the heavychandeliers, famous surgeons, maverick politicians, busy businessmen and suavepolo players gathered to listen to the world's most renowned qawwal.At Hamsadhvani, admirers held up currency notes for the Ustad to sign. At theTaj, society hostesses armed with cellular phones introduced him to their sons.Suddenly the harmonium cried out like a royal trumpeter announcing the arrival ofthe king. "The Ustad is in a great mood tonight," exulted Pakistani HighCommissioner Riaz Khokhar. As the white-clad Buddha of song began hisperformance, the glimmerati waved their hands and swayed, as if intoxicated. Yet again, Ustad Nusrat Fateh AliKhan had conquered the mehfil.Khuda is his muse, Sufism is his doctrine and the beloved is his audience. The bearer of a centuries-old traditionsings of love in the time of politics and detachment and fratricidal strife. The descendant of several generations ofqawwals has brought qawwali to the contemporary experience and transformed the enigmatic Sufiinto a modernicon.He has been profiled by
and courted by Hollywood. He has collaborated with rock musician Peter Gabriel,given his music to Martin Scorsese's
The Last Temptation of Christ
and Shekhar Kapur's
, and ispreparing to work on another Hollywood film,
Dead Man Walking
. His pirated cassettes sell lakhs of copies. SaysAtul Churamani, executive vice-president of Magnasound: "What makes him remarkable is the way he has playedaround with the qawwali format."Qawwali was never so trendy. And the God Is Dead generation were never so captivated by the lyrics of theancient dervishes, composed as they whirled and prayed, seeking oneness with divinity.From the song
Mera Piya Ghar Aya,
his styles have been copied, and even bastardised, all overthe subcontinent, a practice of which he thoroughly disapproves: "We should not entirely lose out on our traditions.My songs are religious in inspiration, I sing for God. I feel very bad about this piracy and the way in which thewords are changed."But then here is a dilemma. Has Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan popularised but also commercialised a traditional art form,and thereby laid himself open to piracy? In the quest to make qawwali more popular, hashe packaged and "sold"the ascetic ethos of the Sufi? Khan does not think so: "My mission is to make qawwali popular among youngpeople. Earlier youngsters used to be afraid of qawwali. The combination of classical and folk tunes has attractedmany. A number of people have criticised me and said that I have spoiled Sufi music, but at least the young nowlisten to these traditional songs. That was part of my mission."He speaks a great deal about a "mission" to bring the message of love and purity to a world in which brother kills
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