The Magic of Nusrat

October 24, 2010

It was a bitterly-cold winter evening in Delhi when I discovered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Fortified with some whiskey I was listening to, and watching Nusrat. This was in late 1990 at a senior colleague’s house. I remember the date because I had just been transferred from Bangalore to Delhi. Delhi was a city I was hardly familiar with. I knew very few people there. And the December winter of Delhi was bitingly cold! I was a bachelor and the invitation from my colleague for drinks and dinner at his place, close to the company guest house I was staying, was most welcome. He, a Sardar, was a generous host and he plied me with good whiskey. More significantly, during the course of the evening, he introduced me to Nusrat’s music.

You would expect that the music would be on LPs or cassettes, or even CDs (those were early days of CDs, and CDs, if available, were prohibitively expensive). No, I was listening to Nusrat on rather scratchy video cassettes. Video cassettes were the wildly popular entertainment medium of choice those days; remember the ubiquitous video parlours, the video libraries and the long-distance buses which offered a video movie through the night journey (they proudly called themselves “VDO coaches”). The technology prevailing at the time was not good enough to give a DVD feel to the images. Plus my host would have played the videos a few hundred times and the wear-and-tear was there for anyone to “see”.

That I was mesmerized would be an understatement. For a person in his late-20’s from Bihar, grown up listening to Kishore Kumar’s songs and watching Amitabh Bachchan’s movies, and no exalted musical tastes to speak about, this was rather strange. Plus I had no idea about Sufi music, I had never heard about Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah (expect in the Bobby song by Narendra Chanchal: “Beshaq mandir masjid todo, Bulleh Shah yeh kehta..”), my knowledge of the qawwali form of music was limited to Aziz Naazan and Shaqeela Bano Bhopali (remember “Jhoom barabar khoom sharabi” and “Bada lutf tha jab kunwarey the hum-tum”). I was actually hooked on to this incipient moustachoed, corpulent singer singing the Sufi stuff (I did not know then that it was Sufi). Singing in languages I could barely comprehend, Urdu and Panjabi. I was completely taken over by him.

Nusrat’s “screen presence”, his strong voice, those periods of him getting into a trance, the voices of the supporting singers and the rhythmic clapping from other group members seated at the back-row of the team on stage had me hooked!

Their was one more guest in that “party”- a friend of my host from his college days. As the evening turned into night we were still having our whiskeys and nodding and shaking our heads, clapping, tapping our feet; all to the music of Nusrat. Then, when a Bulleh Shah song came on, my host’s friend got emotional, he stood up shaking his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Aaj ka Punjab, wo, pehley waala Punjab nahin raha”. Remember, those were the difficult days in Punjab with the Khalistan movement in pretty good swing.

I am sure it was a combo of effects of the whiskey, the late night, the Sufi lyrics, and Nusrat. My host, with tears of his own, rushed to give his friend a bear-hug. And then they both started on some “bhangra” steps. And in a few minutes, I too had joined these two gentlemen!

Nothing to sooth two Panjabis better than a few more whiskeys, some vigorous dancing and lots of Nusrat. A Bihari was a new convert!!

Nusrat was barely known in India then, except for a few die-hard fans, my host being one of them. He had these videos of Nusrat sent over to him by his relatives in England where Nusrat’s shows had been held in rather seedy auditoria in the South Asian suburbs in Southall and Birmingham. Sample Nusrta’s typical shows from the mid-80’s:

A white cotton cloth banner with green lettering saying “Ustad Nusrat Ali Khan and Party” serves as a backdrop. Ustad-ji and his troop seated on a narrow stage. A rather messy bunch of patrons in the audience. A drunk sardar parks himself right in front of the stage, swaying on his haunches. A few in suit-and-tie making forays to the stage once in a while to give throw some currency notes at the Ustad. Women in saris eliciting catcalls as they dance in front of the stage, albeit briefly. The sardar, once in a while, would pick up all the currency notes given by the others and shower them over Nusrat.

Nusrat, unmoved by all this, already in a trance of his own, has closed his eyes and is singing to a celestial melody which only he can hear. Others can only try to follow.

I persuaded my colleague to host me for some more evenings. The attraction of listening to Nusrat was very, very strong. Over the following weeks I heard/saw most of the classics of Nusrat. Each song creating a deep impression on me.


Over time, I moved away from the guest house, but Nusrat’s music remained with me. It was very difficult to find his music in India those days. If you did not have a relative in England then the only source was the pirated cassettes of T Series from the shops of the cluttered Palika Bazaar. I bought as many as I could lay my hands on. These I would play on my new Sony Walkman, The Sony Walkman was a pretty nifty and a rather new concept then. I would have a blast playing Nusrat on maximum volume into my ears and breaking into a jig within the confines of my room.

Over time, I moved to CDs (as-and-when T-series would launch them). Over time Nusrat music got legit and Sony music launched some albums, both on cassettes and CDs. Their four volume set which they licensed from Nupur Music, London, is a collector’s item. There were no videos even after all this, at least none legal and watchable that I knew of.

And over time, Nusrat got his due recognition. And even world-wide popularity. From giving vocals to the Hollywood film “Dead Man Walking” to singing for A R Rahman, to composing music for Bollywood movies. Remember “Bandit Queen”? He even gave widely-attended concerts in India.

He remained as popular as ever in the UK with the South Asian diaspora. Substantially better auditoria, finely tailored dresses for the entire group, the stage set at a distance (and height) from the audience and the programs even getting sponsored by Citibank.

Just when Nusrat was savoring his new found success, he died in 1997 just a few weeks short of turning 49 years.


My big regret is that I was not able to see any of the live performances of Nusrat in India. And I make do with the 11-DVD set of Nusrat music released by Music Today. These remain a prized collection for me. I am ever-willing to loan the DVDs, and ever-eager to get them back.

Maybe in another post I will write about Sufism, qawwali and my favourite Nusrat songs.

My Favourite Music of 2009: Gulaal & Kaminey

December 30, 2009

This last post of the year is about two Hindi film albums released this year which I have enjoyed the most. “Gulaal” and “Kaminey”. The piece which follows is my take on these two albums and the reasons why I like them. If you read my blog you would know that I very rarely review music CDs or movies here. But I thought I must let you know about the music which has really excited me in 2009.


The contrasts could not have been starker.

One album is raw, unfinished, just like the movie. The other a gleaming, finished product complete with orchestral arrangements and great sound engineering. The former is rooted in the beats, tunes and silences of the Hindi heartland, the other revels (well, almost) in the pulsating beats of the metropolis of Mumbai.

A hitherto unknown music director versus someone who has unveiled the beauty of his craft in his earlier ventures too. A relatively unknown lyricist against an established doyen of Hindi film lyrics, and indeed, Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani poetry with published anthologies of his own.

The differences end here.

Both the albums break the stereotype of Hindi film music. Both have music which has not been heard before. The lyrics are a syncretic fusion of Hindi and Urdu (with some Sanskrit and Urdu/Arabic thrown in as well). Sheer poetry, nevertheless. Both use relatively lesser known singers And both these musicians create magic.



I knew of Piyush Mishra as a lyricist. The movie Black Friday is one example. But this effort of his straddles multiple facets; lyrics, music and voice. With verve, panache, a deep understanding of the “hinterland” psyche, and a supreme command over language. (And, as an aside, he has a fairly major on-screen role as well in this film.)

There is this famously famous mujra number “Ranaji” with references to global current affairs, seemingly flippant mentions of post-war Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11?

Or the soulful number “Aisi hawa” which speaks of unspeakable sadness and longing. Sample this:

Aisi sazaa deti hawaa, tanhaai bhi tanha nahi

Neendein bhi ab soney gayeen, raaton ko bhi parwaah nahi.

Just some disjointed strums of a guitar, and some thunder and lightning, that is what accompanies Shilpa Rao as she explores the depths of desolation.

Can you visualize the punishing breeze, the desertion of solitude and slumber and the unrelenting nights?

Or would you rather prefer the other mujra? “Beedo” which talks about iliicit love? “Beedo doojey thali ka, lagey bada majedaar…”. The distinctive voice of Rekha Bharadwaj who seems to be enjoying herself completely.

Or would rather immerse yourself in the sheer poetry of “Duniya”? Piyush Mishra strong vocals accompanied by table playing the basic dadra matra as he sings about the hopelessness of it all.

“O, ri Duniya!

Surmayi aankhon ke pyaalon ki duniya,
Satrangi rangon gulaalon ki duniya,..o duniya!”

Duniya” is unabashedly based on the classic “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai.” In fact it is a tribute to the shayars of yore.

Ghalib ke, Momin ke, khwaabon ki duniya
Majaazon ke un inqualaabon ki duniya
Faiz, Firaaq aur Saahir o Makhdoom
Mir ki, Zauk ki, Daagh ki duniya

The vigorous “Aarambh” is all vim and vigour with a supremely energetic- in fact warlike- feel to it while the doleful and brooding “Musafir” with just a guitar for accompaniment is sad, very sad.

Sheher”, a duet featuring Piyush Mishra and Swanand Kirkire is all about impending sense of danger, doom, and the utter futility. Sample some words:

“Kahin pe wo jooton ki khatkhat hai

Kahin pe alaavon ki chatpat hai
Kahin pe hai jhingoor ki aawaazein
Kahin pe wo nalke ki taptap hai
Kahin pe wo kaali si khidki hai
Kahin wo andheri si chimni hai
Kahin hilte pedon ka jattha hai
Kahin kuch munderon pe rakha hai”

A chill runs down your spine when the words “Kahin pe wo nalke ki taptap hai” come on. It is as if the tap is dripping ice-cold water on you naked back past midnight in the middle of the killer Rajasthan winter.

Thanks you Piyush Mishra for the lyrics, music and your singing. Thank you Rekha Bharadwaj for you two mujra pieces and thank you Anurag Kashyap to continue being the non-conformist you have always been. Ever since Black Friday and the quirky music of Dev D (“Emosanal Atyachar”) I have expected a lot from you movies and the music of your movies.

On a personal note, let me confess that I searched far-and-wide for a CD of Gulaal, but of no avail. And I was forced to, for the first time, to search the net for a download. This is what I listened to for months till the Gulaal CD was formally released which I bought with alacrity.



The polished and sophisticated track of Kaminey is a confluence of magicians.

The ever popular lyricist Gulzaar who weaves common Hindi words into a web of magic. Remember his earliest song: Bandini’s “Mora gora ang lai ley, mohe shyam rang dayi dey” to “Aa, ee, aa gayi chitthi” from the film Kitaab which he directed himself, to the soulful Asha Bhosle number “Mera kuchh saaman pada hai” to the recent “Beedi” from Omkaara. He does not let you down, one bit, in Kaminey. He transforms common day-to-day Hindi speak to sheer poetry, as only he can.

Vishal Bharadwaj began his Hindi cinema career as a composer with his big break in his mentor’s film, “Maachis”. Remember the hypnotic “Chappa, chappa, charkha chaley? He then went on to direct films which cut across several genres: His first film was “Makdi” for kids, then took a “U”-turn to do a couple of utterly Indian- and honest- adaptations of Shakespeare: Maqbool (based on Macbeth), Omkaara (Othello-based). Both were liked immensely by the average movie-goer and the critics. He also scored the music for these films. Soon after Omkaar followed a kid’s movie “The Blue Umbrella” based on a Ruskin Bond story. Kaminey is the latest offering from Vishal B., a complete departure from what he has done before. A film with the gritty and fast-paced feel of a Quentin Tarantino movie (Kill Bill I and II, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). Q.T., by the way, is a favourite director of mine.

The singer-duo of Kailash Kher and Sukhwinder Singh need no introduction. Kher’s dominating songs with a sufi feel to it, (remember “Allah ke Bande”?) while Sukhwinder had a big hand in spreading the popularity of the venerable A R Rahman in the Hindi heartland with his music in hits like “Taal”. Yes, he was the lead singer of the Oscar winner “Jai ho”.

The zingy “Dhan te Tan” was the first off the block on the popularity charts. The pre-release publicity of the movie even mentioned that this was one of the rare Hindi film songs to be played at the famed night club “Ministry of Sound” in London. I am not sure about that but I would not be surprised. The electrifying energy of the song would get any lay person to shake his leg or two. Never mind if he or she does not understand the magical lyrics of Gulzar:

“koyi chaal aisi chalo yaar ab ke,

samundar bhi pul pe chale.

phir tu chale uspey ya main chaloon,

shehar ho apane pairo tale.”

The only injustice to this number is the way it is written in English, “Dhan te tan”. Dhan-te-tan is essentially a sound which you use to preface your narration of a suspenseful piece of the story you are narrating. If you are an Indian you would know how you would actually pronounce it, that dhan-ta-dhan sound (impossible to write in English!). I wonder why this common sound was never employed in a song before!

Yes, and one more thing about this number. It is the way in which Vishal B. quirkily weaves in a completely unrelated string of words, probably in the Western UP dialect of Hindi (VB’s roots are in Meerut). I have been unable to catch the words clearly, but this little linguistic cameo adds to the charm of the song.

Talking about sounds, how about “Phataak”? That’s actually the name of another peppy number! Don’t you wonder again as why this very common sound-word has never been used before? The sharp, biting sound of phataak punctuating the voice of Sukhwinder Singh and Kailash Kher who sing about AIDS prevention, of all the things! And as only a Vishal B.+ Gulzar combo could do it, this song climaxes into a soulful, near saintly,

yeh ishq nahi aasaan, aji yeh isaka khatara hai

o patvaar pehan jaana, yeh aag ka dariya hai

ke naiyya dubey na, re bhawaraa kaate na

How about the utterly naughty “raat ke dhai baje”? The one which has gems like “ishq mein jaltey huye, saans tejaabi lage” and “ek hi latt suljhaaney mein, saari raat gujaari hai”. Coming back to the music director’s penchant for creating magic via mixing quirky, strange lyrics into a number,did you notice the western rap number inserted into this song?

And now for my favourite, the title song, “Kaminey”. Vishal Bhardawaj sings, that I knew. Gulzar writes well, we all know. But the confluence of these two gentlemen could create such magic out of the word “Kaminey”, I could never have guessed. To start with, Vishal B. was handed a set of words elegantly crafted by the maestro lyricist. Sample this:

kya kare, zindagi, isko hum jo mile,

iski jaan, kha gaye, raat din ke gile.

raat din gile.

meri aarzoo kamini, mere khwab bhi kaminey,

ik dil se dosti thi, ki hujur bhi kaminey.

The singer internalizes the angst inherent in the words and as the song progresses he carries it to the height of regret… and longing. A slow build-up leading to a heart-rending climax in the magical combination of words and voice:

“jiska bhi chehra chheela, andar se aur nikla.

Masoom saa kabootar, nacha toh mor nikla.

kabhi hum kaminey nikaley, kabhi doosarey kaminey.

kaminey, kaminey, kaminey, kaminey

meri dosti kamini, mere yaar bhi kaminey.

ik dil se dosti thi, ki hujur bhi kaminey.”

To my mind this one song alone is enough reason to possess this album.

By the way, I have not mentioned Mohit “Masakali” Chauhan’s “Pehli baar mohabbat ki hai”. It is good.

And the three remix versions of the numbers in the album, of which one is a sure winner. The pulsating “Go Charlie, go” which is a funky take on the word Kaminey. Furiously fast-paced, on-the-edge, it slows just for fractions of a second and then takes off again. A metaphor for life in Mumbai (the city in which the film is based)? Probably yes!