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.