October Issue 2015

By | Books | Music | Published 9 years ago

When I met Nusrat Fateh Ali, he was at the pinnacle of his fame. He was an international figure feted around the globe, yet when I walked up to him after a concert and asked him for an interview, his immediate response was, “Come over tomorrow.” Never has there been a superstar so humble, so generous and so devoid of ego.

French writer Pierre-Alain Baud pays tribute to the extraordinary phenomenon that was Nusrat Fateh Ali in a new book that follows the life and career of this gentle genius. Keenly interested and involved in music and the arts, the author was closely associated with Nusrat Fateh Ali and accompanied him on several tours. The book is not only well researched, touching all facets of the great qawwal’s life and art, but resonates with the love and devotion the artist inspired.

Baud starts the book with a brief but refreshingly empathetic and accurate introduction to Pakistan and the circumstances of the nation’s birth.  He then goes on to give readers some understanding of the unique genre of the qawwali. He traces its mystical and historical roots in the subcontinent, describes its form and rhythm and explains how its secular and more modern incarnations evolved.

Interestingly,  Baud points out that, post-Partition, the state chose to extend patronage to this form of music as it was seen as more ‘Muslim.’ Conversely, Indian classical music was neglected for having a more Hindu identity, as decided for us by the politicians and bureaucrats of the time.

Qawwali can be traced back to the most beloved of Sufi saints, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose dargah in Ajmer Sharif sees one of the world’s largest congregations. It was the Chishtia Sufi order which adopted music as a means of winning the hearts of the locals of the subcontinent and spreading the message of Divine love. The basic structure of the qawwali is mostly credited to Amir Khusrau, also of the same Sufi order, while most qawwals, Nusrat Fateh Ali among them, trace their lineage to the Qawwal Bachche Gharana, the order given the task of refining and promoting the art of the qawwali.  The Qawwal Bachche Gharana evolved new instruments and incorporated classical elements of singing, like the khayal and dhrupad, into the genre.

Nusrat Fateh Ali’s family traces its lineage to Balkh in Afghanistan, but they settled in Jalandhar when they came to the subcontinent. The family claims direct allegiance to  the Sufi saint Khwaja Muhammad Diwan, a spiritual descendant of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose dargah Nusrat is said to have seen in a dream before ever setting foot there. The book is, in fact, full of interesting anecdotes and stories associated with the saints and their miracles.

Nusrat Fateh Ali’s grandfather and later, his father and uncle were famous qawwals who enjoyed much popularity in the subcontinent. During the Pakistan movement, his father and uncle gave voice to Allama Iqbal’s poetry and became a rallying point for Muslims. After Partition, the family was invited by the government to come to Pakistan, where they settled in Faisalabad.  In an act of serendipity, the house they came to inhabit was on the same street as the dargah of the local Sufi saint, Lasoori Shah, who had links with the family’s own murshid.

It was in this unromantic, industrial town that Nusrat Fateh Ali’s love affair with music and the Divine blossomed.

From his birth, he was a corpulent and gentle soul, two qualities which characterised him throughout this life. Although his father did not intend for him to be a qawwal, his exceptional talent soon became apparent and after his father’s death, at a very early age he was given the mantle of leading the family group. But rigorous training under his uncle continued, sometimes for 10 hours at a stretch.


Soon after he started performing, the accolades started pouring in, first at the dargahs and then at music festivals. As his popularity at home grew, Nusrat attracted the attention of the Pakistani diaspora and he made his first trip abroad to England in 1980.  In keeping with Sufi tradition, Nusrat’s choice of poetry reflected multicultural influences.  He even lent his voice to esoteric Sikh texts, drawing a larger audience into his message of love. A series of successful concerts in different countries followed and his star rose across Europe.

The qawwal found some of his most ardent supporters at the Theatre de la Ville in France, where he was not only invited repeatedly to perform but which proved to be a launching pad for his international fame.  Another defining moment for his exceptional career was his performance at the World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD), a multicultural music festival in England, and his subsequent association with Peter Gabriel. Peter Gabriel and his label, Real World Records, went on to produce the Sufi-rock collaborations that took the world by storm.

As invitations began pouring in from Africa, South America, Japan and the United States, Nusrat Fateh Ali never ceased to innovate and experiment with his music in order to draw in these new audiences. It was this unique desire to embrace an ever-larger brotherhood and his willingness to accept the unfamiliar that was perhaps the key to his unprecedented poularity. Baud gives us a rare insight into his creative process, describing how he familiarised himself with local musical trends while preparing concerts for foreign audiences. In Japan, where he was accorded the status of a Buddha, for instance, he fused raags based on five notes into his repertoire since the Japanese musical scale consists of five notes.

As his career graph soared, Bollywood and Hollywood both beckoned. He had also found a new audience among the younger generation and the westernised elite of the subcontinent and he continued to adapt his performances, depending on who his audience was. This willingness to adapt and lend his prodigious talent to whoever wanted it also brought him considerable criticism. His core fan base was understandably horrified when Sufi poetry was set to videos of vapid models or when badly mixed electronic beats drowned out the purity of the basic classical genre.

But for Nusrat Fateh Ali, his life’s work was to spread the message of Divine love. Even as he ascended dizzying heights of worldly success, his reason for performing remained what it had been at the dargah. Generous to a fault, he couldn’t say no to the multitudes clamouring for a piece of his genius. It was this generosity of spirit that drove him so hard that he ignored his health, despite warning signs. His massive girth brought with it the subsequent medical conditions but Nusrat Fateh Ali kept up a punishing  schedule, often causing well-wishers to question the wisdom of his closest aides.

His untimely death cut short his meteoric career but the author discusses the legacy he left behind and the tremendous impact of his work on, not only qawwals, but on all musicians of the subcontinent.

The biography is highly readable and well structured and presented. Each chapter opens with a choice of Sufi verse, in the original and in translation, maintaining an esoteric link between the various phases of this remarkable life.  The book is also interspersed with boxes highlighting elements of the story that are important, but which may have interrupted the narrative.

As an ardent devotee of the great qawwal, Pierre-Alain Baud has done a valuable service by writing a book which will serve as an important text and an engaging read, not only for Nusrat Fateh Ali fans, but for future generations.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.