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The Stilled Voice

The Stilled Voice

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Published by: AvnishIT on Jan 28, 2012
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India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU 
Vol. 14 :: No. 18 :: Sept. 6-19, 1997
The stilled voice
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the
shahenshah
of 
qawwali
, is dead. His legend, however, willlive on.AMIT BARUAH
in Islamabad 
R. PADMANABHAN
in Mumbai
NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN returned the
qawwali
to the world. He made it popular againnot just in Pakistan and India, the home of the traditional
qawwali
, but in the United States,the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries. He performed in over 40 countries andrecorded more than 150 albums and sold millions of copies worldwide.He took the
qawwali
- the devotional music of the Sufis - out of the South Asian milieu,added pep and verve, and placed it on the world's music map. The
qawwali
 
shahenshah
's(emperor) death on August 16 in a London hospital following a cardiac arrest triggered bykidney and liver failure was an occasion of grief for millions.
SANDEEP SAXENA
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performing in New Delhi earlierthis year. He came from a family of 
qawwal
s who havemade music for 600 years.
NUSRAT was born in a family of 
qawwal
s, as thepractitioners of the art form are known, in Faisalabad onOctober 13, 1948. Father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a famous
qawwal
, wanted his son to become a doctor or an engineer.But the young Nusrat was keen on a career in music andpersisted in listening to his father's lessons to his pupils. After his father's death in 1964,Nusrat learnt the art of 
qawwali
from his uncles - Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Ustad SalamatAli Khan and Ustad Nawazish Ali Khan.Nusrat joined his father's
qawwali
party in 1964. In 1971 he became the leader of the partyafter his uncle, Mubarak Ali Khan, took ill. His brother, Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, whoaccompanied him for the last 25 years, played the harmonium. His four sisters were notencouraged to become part of the family tradition.
K.M. CHOUDARY/ AP
Nusrat's relatives mourn at the coffin in Lahore on
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August 17.
Forced to give up education after matriculating from theModel High School in Faisalabad, Nusrat gave his firstpublic performance on Radio Pakistan on March 23, 1965.Roshan Ara Begum, who performed at the concert,congratulated Mubarak Ali Khan and told him that hisnephew showed great talent.Faisalabad's Rehmat Gramophone Company released Nusrat's first audio cassette recordingin 1973, in which one particular song, "
Talkhi-e-halaat se ghabra ke pee gaya
" became ahit. Another song, "
Shah-e-mardan-Ali
", also became popular.Performing at numerous mehfils (musical gatherings) over the years, Nusrat grew inconfidence. His first tour abroad, appropriately enough, was to India in 1979. He went tothe United Kingdom in 1983 and an encounter with a sharp promoter of the Oriental StarAgency in Birmingham soon resulted in Nusrat travelling to France, Germany and Japan.The
qawwali
, with pop packaging, had arrived in the West.In 1985, the maestro performed at an international music festival in Colchester, England. Atthe four-night festival, he was slotted to perform from 11-30 p.m. until midnight. "When itwas midnight," Nusrat once told an interviewer, "we tried to leave - you see, we were tiredand it was freezing. But Mr. Ayub (the promoter) told us (to continue)... we stayed andperformed till five in the morning." Ayub is the chief of the Oriental Star Agency in theUnited Kingdom, which has brought out 61 compact discs, 100 audio tapes and 22 concertvideos of Nusrat's
qawwali
s.Soon, Nusrat's albums were being promoted by WOMAD, an organisation promotingdifferent forms of music. His "
 Mast, Mast 
" and "
Sanoo ek pal chain na aaye
" became hitsin the West and at home.Peter Gabriel approached him with a proposal. Nusrat agreed and provided what was tobecome the background voice during the scene of Christ's crucifixion in the film
The Last Temptation of Christ 
. He also provided the music for two other films,
 Dead Man Walking
and
 Natural Born Killers
, and did the soundtrack for
 Bandit Queen
.The Ustad collaborated with Michael Brook in an album called
 Mast, Mast 
released in 1990.Here East met West, although Nusrat was not quite happy with some of the results.The jacket of 
 Mast, Mast 
says as introduction to the album: "Instruments from differentcontinents were used, like the big Brazilian drum - the surdu, the Senegalese djembe,alongside the Indian tabla and the harmonium, plus bass, keyboards... the project also mixedmusicians from different cultures."Michael Brook has been quoted as saying that "although it wasn't painless, it worked. I'dreally hoped that we could show a more delicate side of Nusrat's singing. I love all thefireworks and the heavy metal solos that he does, but I thought it would be nice to bring outa slower, more introspective component."In 1993, Nusrat was a resident professor at the University of Washington's School of Ethnomusicology.
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IN India, Nusrat's greatest triumph was the effortless ease with which he spanned the worldof the disco-going teenager and the traditional
qawwali
connoisseur. Ironically, his firstgreat hit in India was "smuggled" across the border - the plagiarised version of his smash hit"
 Dam mast kalandar mast, mast 
" in the Hindi potboiler
 Mohra
. The original became thechartbuster "
Tu cheez badi hai mast, mast 
".That was the first of many instances of plagiarism by music directors in the Mumbai filmworld. In some cases, even the words were copied. Two cases were: "
 Mera piya ghar aya
"and "
Sanoo ek pal chain na aaye
" (used in
 Judaai
).An exasperated Nusrat was quoted as having said that the instances of plagiarism wereindicative of a lack of talent among Indian music directors. A few months back, anotherstatement attributed to him, in which he reportedly said that Indian film and musicpersonalities should not be invited to Pakistan, whipped up a controversy. Citing this, ShivSena chief Bal Thackerary ordered a "ban" on Nusrat. Nusrat later conveyed to Thackeraythat it was not he but a person with a name similar to his who had made the statement. TheSena chief acknowledged that there had been a misunderstanding.But Nusrat's contribution went deeper. He collaborated with lyricist Javed Akhtar in analbum appropriately titled
Sangam
. Most recently, he teamed up with music director A.R.Rahman for the album
Vande Mataram
to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Independence. The prolific maestro composed and sang for several television serials,including
Chattan
on Zee Television. The film
 Aur Pyar Ho Gaya
features his work.Even before he became popular on account of Hindi film songs, there were groups of musicenthusiasts for whom Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a cult figure. The ease with which hefused a Western beat with Eastern tradition won him many fans much before his plagiarisedversions hit the Indian market.
JOHN POMFRET/ AP
Nusrat performing in Islamabad on April 2, 1990. At Nusrat'sconcerts it was not unusual for members of the audience toshower money, wristwatches and jewellery onto the dias. Thesinger said he made over such donations to charity.
Nusrat once told an interviewer: "Our young generation which wasbrought up abroad is totally ignorant of our culture. They listen toWestern music, adopt Western fashions. With my
awaaz
(voice) Iwanted to appeal to them - in our own language in their form..." .NUSRAT'S concerts were a celebration of life, and the atmospherealways bordered on the ecstatic. The weighty Khan sat cross-leggedwith his harmonium beside him and his musical accompanists and chorus singers aroundhim. Each song began with a slow, quiet introductory
alaap
; from there, a rhythmic pulsebegan on the tabla. Nusrat gradually wove a web of devotional lyrics and vocal acrobatics,bringing the music to a fever pitch of ecstatically repeated phrases, each slightly differentfrom the others, and then lowered the intensity before taking it to an even higher peak.Almost every note, every beat was emphasised by a hand movement.Nusrat frequently injected a sense of humour and play into the faster, lighter songs. Herepeated slow improvised phrases over and over, as if encouraging the audience to join in.
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