Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was Singing Buddha in Japan, Pavarotti in Paris, Islam spirit in London

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was Singing Buddha in Japan, Pavarotti in Paris, Islam spirit in London

In just 48 years of his life, he left an indelible mark in South Asia and even 25 years after his demise, his music continues to keep enthralling generations of listeners.
13 Oct, 2022

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice reached every nook and cranny in the world. In Tokyo, he was hailed as the singing Buddha. In Los Angeles, he was the voice of paradise. In Paris, he was recognised as the Pavarotti of the East, and in London, he embodied the spirit of Islam. In Tunis, he was considered the quintessence of the human voice. And in Lahore he was Shahenshah-e-Qawwal.

His biographer, Dr Pierre-Alain Baud, who spent several years in the Qawwali maestro’s company, lists the accolades and honours awarded to Nusarat in his book, Nusrat—The Voice of Faith.

Khan’s name is synonymous with the ancient and divine art of Qawwali singing, which is a form of Sufi Ibadat (worship). He took the traditional art form beyond South Asia’s borders. There are instances of people getting up from their seats in awe and offering donations on stage so that he could keep singing.

From ‘Afreen Afreen’ to ‘Mai Ni Jana Jogi De Naal’, from ‘Nit Khair Manga’ to ‘Allah Ho’, there are numerous Qawwalis, Ghazals sung by the exceptionally talented man, each more famous than the other.

But Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s fate would have been very different if he had followed his father’s advice.

The ‘Singing Buddha’

Born in 1948 in Faisalabad to Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana, a Qawwali group of 12 children said to have been assembled by Sufi poet Amir Khusro in the 13th century, Nusrat was not expected to walk in the footsteps of his forefathers. His father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan wanted him to study and become a doctor or engineer. Fortunately for the world, the legend remained true to his calling.

Originally hailing from Afghanistan’s Ghazni, Nusrat’s forefathers migrated to India with a saint called Sheikh Darvesh and settled in Jullundhar (now Jalandhar). Music was their profession, and way of life. Young Nusrat insisted and joined his father’s Qawwali party as a tabla player and learnt the intricacies of singing alongside.

After his father’s death, Nusrat gave his first performance at his one-year death anniversary in 1965 at the age of 17. That year was special for the young singer. That same year, he performed in the Jashn-e-Baharan (Festival of Spring) arranged by Radio Pakistan Lahore in front of legends such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Umid Ali Khan, Roshan Ara Begum, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. They praised him. Khan did not look back.

His countless performances across the region transported listeners. His impeccable vocal range and immersive style of singing became the talk of the town, and not just in South Asia. In 1985, he performed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in London. People in Japan would attend his performance barefoot out of respect for the ‘Singing Buddha’, those in France would find themselves transported to another world without even understanding a word of what he was singing, and the Americans would stand up and dance in the aisles to the fast-paced hypnotising beats of his qawwali.

The innovative Qawwal

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was not just a Qawwali singer, he was also an innovator in music.

According to author Adam Nayyar, once during a tour in Japan, Nusrat kept watching TV commercials before his concert. When asked why he was doing so, Khan responded that he was spotting the ‘most effective’ music the Japanese used in their commercials to attract buyers. Nayyar observed that in the next concert in Japan, Khan infused those Japanese melodies into his Qawwalis.

But before he mesmerised foreign audiences, he was not hailed as one of the greatest by a certain section of Pakistanis, especially the elite. For them, his music sounded like cacophony and was too loud for their taste.

“You know this perfectly good cloth they make in Faisalabad. People won’t buy it unless you stamp ‘Made in Japan’ down the side. I’m just like that cloth for the ‘gentry’,” the maestro commented.

Taking Qawwali beyond South Asia

Qawwali, a traditional form of divine music, is staunchly guarded by conservatives. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s decision to take this art form abroad was criticised by some, but the Ustad (master) had a befitting response.

“Many have said I have compromised my faith by coming to the West. But this is not so. To travel the world and open the hearts of those whose were previously closed is a joy worth the other sacrifices,” he once told American journalist Andy Carvin.

Khan also collaborated with English musician Peter Gabriel and American singer Eddie Vedder. Musician Don Heckman wrote about how his concerts felt like in 1996.

“Almost before realizing what is happening, the audience—despite its unfamiliarity with the verbal messages of Khan’s devotional songs—is quickly swept up in the emotional fervor of the music,” Heckman wrote.

In just 48 years of his life, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left an indelible mark in South Asia. Even after more than 25 years of his demise, his music continues to keep enthralling generations of listeners and those who wander into the lanes of Pakistani music and Coke Studio on YouTube at night.

This article was originally published in The Print on October 13 and has been reproduced with permission.


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Uyghyr ahmadi Oct 13, 2022 06:29pm
A rare Pakistani loved by the whole world
Taimoor Oct 13, 2022 06:33pm
I have a simple question from all the admirers of Nusrat like myself. Why wasn't he honored with a proper civilian award like at least a Sitara-e-imtiaz when babies, media celebs and instagrammers from Pakistan [no offence to their digital talents] with much less command of music have been given such honors. Why? He was undeniably the best and unparalleled at what he would do. All other greats in fact seem boring when you properly start listening to Nusrat.
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Oct 13, 2022 06:57pm
Inna Lilla Hay Waa Inna Illehey Rajayoon.
Ahmad Oct 13, 2022 07:03pm
He was one of the greatest musical maestro the world has ever seen. His void can never be filled and he will always remain alive through his pure as soul music.
Zak Oct 13, 2022 07:54pm
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a master of masters, missed to this day and listened to this day.
Angelina Oct 13, 2022 08:22pm
It can indeed be said that Masters like Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are born once in a millennium.
Yasir Mehmood Oct 13, 2022 08:28pm
Though he was one of the innovator in Qawwali, but we have forgotten some remarkable legends(I would say above an beyond Nusrat) like Agha Rasheed Ahmed Faridi, Mubarak Ali Makha Lahori, Ustad Bakhshi Salamat and many more. We need to spread words about these forgotten legends, who did not get as famous as Nusrat, but are true qawwali maestros.
Firangi Oct 13, 2022 09:23pm
Nusrat and family should be treated as the treasure of Pakistan. Great singer with great passion and faith. Hats off!
Wani Oct 13, 2022 10:25pm
Devine voice, one and only great Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahab, rest in eternal peace
M. Emad Oct 13, 2022 10:56pm
Michael Jackson of South Asia
Aaqib Oct 13, 2022 11:10pm
Been almost 25 years Since this man is gone but still rules the Millions of hearts across the Globe ! That’s the real Award to me !
WASEEM MALIK Oct 14, 2022 01:07am
Legend! Miss you so much.
Fake accent Akhtar Oct 14, 2022 03:26am
Great singer.
Om P. Gandhi Oct 14, 2022 04:27am
I loved the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His music used to bring divinity to me. May he rest in peace.
A. M. Khawar Oct 14, 2022 05:41am
Enjoyed this article. It is a befitting tribute the most innovative musician of the 20th century. Listening to him in Washington DC in 1990 is one of my most cherished memories of my life. He is a legend who will be remembered for a long long time.
Mogambo Oct 14, 2022 06:27am
There won't be another NFAK.May his soul rest in peace.
TPA Oct 14, 2022 07:40am
xohaib Oct 14, 2022 08:05am
@Taimoor does it matter. I rather not have him in the same list you mentioned.
M. Emad Oct 14, 2022 10:41am
Old-style music.