Book Review: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – The Musical Alchemy


Nusrat Fateh ALi Khan Biography

We know musicians with their music and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is no exception to this basic rule. But when we read the biographies of such artists, it enriches our understanding with art and artists. Pierre Alain Baud’s paean to the legend of Qawwali is one such interesting read. The writer has travelled and spent a great deal of time with the legend Qawwal and it reflects in tiny details of NFAK’s life. It fosters my belief in the thought that creating music is like doing alchemy. You add lots of efforts to get a right tune out of your vocal chords and percussion instruments and only a few shot to fame the way NFAK has done. I still remember when I came across the soulful music of Nusrat. It was my exam’s day and Nusrat’s song was being played loud in the auto I was taking to college. On being distracted, I asked the auto driver to slow down or just stop the music and he did. But till then Nusrat’s music was all over my head. Exam went well but I was still humming the tone. It irritated me and pushed to listen the whole song. In those days, Google required a keyword to give any results so I tried hard to recall any word from the tone. But I got only Gorakh Dhandha and after 20 minutes of extensive research, I could find “Tum Ek Gorakh Dhandha Ho”. Since then I am in love with NFAKs music.

Pierre Alain Baud has painstakingly researched and soulfully written on the great Qawwal’s life. He has brought the details about the art form and resourceful information on the evolution of Qawwali. He has talked about the Qawwali in detail. As the date goes back to eight century when Sufi saints first came to south Asia as Muslim missionaries from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria to propagate Prophet Mohammad’s message. This was the group of secular wanderers, who took the esoteric path to reveal the batin; the thing behind the Zahir. They believed in worshipping god with their excellence of music and spread Prophet Mohammad’s message through humanitarian verses and poetries. It dots the time of famous poets Rumi, Sufi Saint Bulle Shah, Baba Faird and Nizamuddin Aulia etcetera. In Sufi culture, there is a tradition of music & Qawwali. The kids get their initiation from Pir then they go on learning and practising the art for years before going live.

Inclusion of instruments – specific to Qawwali is really appreciating. It fills the half empty glass. The book says that before 18th century, Qawwali sessions were adorned with indigenous percussion instruments like Sarangi, Dholak and Shahnai. These big sized instruments were a pain for musicians as they took time for readjustment to the changing pitches of vocalists. Right then a Bengali instrument maker Dwarkanath Ghosh transformed an English harmonium into a hand-held instrument. It set the stage for Qawwals like Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan brothers and later for Nusrat’s journey to planetary fame.

The first half of the book talks about art, Chistiya brotherhood, Nusrat’s lineages and some less known tombs like Alauddin Sabir Kaliyar in Rurkee, Uttarakhand (closely associated with Nusrat’s family). The narration covers nine generations of NFAKs genealogy. The close associations with Qawwal bachha Gharana, which was founded by Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia and political allegiances of Nusrat’s forefathers. It includes political allegiance of Fateh Ali Khan and Mubaraq Ali Khan brothers as they propagated two-nation theory with poet Iqbal’s verses. Unlike his guardians, NFAK adopted Bulle Shah, Baba Farid and Rumi’s verses, which talks about the god and his beloved. Such verses were beyond any communal allegiance and thus earned love from all corners of the divided India & Pakistan. Including this, Nusrat sang shabad of Punjabi tradition and Saanvre tore bin of Hindu tradition. It shows him a bit secular but the book doesn’t tell about Nusrat’s stand on Hindu-Muslim conflicts. It doesn’t say if he was secular or adjust himself with changing political tides of south East Asia.

Everyone expects some sort of miraculous stories from the biographies of legends. It holds many. The one is about a dream when NFAK still a child sees his late father who brought Nusrat to Ajmer Sharif and asked to sing. In real, Nusrat instantly recognized the place and set to sing when he first visited Ajmer Sharif. It also opens up thing that shows legends are normal human being. They just try little hard for what they believe in. Nusrat used to have a habit of listening TV shows and advertisements whenever he goes on his foreign tours. It lets him understand the music of foreign soil before his concerts. And when he applies the local music notes in his performances, it got him huge success in places like Japan and Sudan.
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Pierre Alain Baud’s work is in French and English Translation has done by Renuka Ghosh. Ghosh’s translation is not devoid of the personal touch that should be felt in Baud’s personal account. Though, I strongly believe that the verses, written in Urdu, English and roman hindi. The latter should be written in devnagri lipi to add the life to verses of Baba Bulleshah. These are beautifully embedded like a special notes of NFAK. Freancis Vernhet has carved the book cover out of gold sand and have scattered all over the book cover. On the jacket, there are prints of NFAK audio tapes. On the second cover, there are news clips that echoes with larger than life stature of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who has is living immortally with his soothing voice.

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