The Phenom – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Now that we are here and professing our love for everything music, I cannot help but wonder how we got here. When did an arrangement of sounds, made by someone else far away and played on magnetic tapes or drives, become so important? When did that start? How did I learn my own sense of like or dislike? Why do I like the music that I like? And why SO BLOODY MUCH? Why am I not like any other regular person, who isn’t moved to tears or isn’t forced to skip like a frog by a song?

I believe it is all in our subconscious, and all that we know was embedded into our brains way before we started noticing music as a separate entity.  Music is always present, even in the most joyless of households. Movies, movie trailers, TV channels, radio, jingles, mobile ringtones, music your water purifier plays while it pees, what your elevators hum as they carry you, the loudspeakers blaring to celeberate shadi or diwali or eid or christmas or even a birthday. It is everywhere, in some form or the other. Hence, as a kid, you pick up these things without realizing how your clean-slate-sponge-of-a-brain is absorbing EVERYTHING. And when your family is even a little bit musically inclined, it is but natural you pick that up too.

For me, this meant Bollywood. My parents maintained a comprehensive collection of the old time artists and my elder sister (then a teenager) kept up with the latest movie music. I devoured all cassettes I could get my hands on and slowly, steadily I sort of started developing a taste for a certain kind of music. Dreamy melody and idealistic, romantic (not the valentine kind, but ideological) almost spiritual lyrics.

There was a collection of really nicely packed, fancy looking cassettes that my father had, which he would only bring out on rare occasions. The packet was kept on the highest shelf, and always covered with a croquette cover that my nani had made. Of course, being a kid, the air of mystery around the safekeeping of the packet was too much to bear. So, one day when my father wasn’t in town, I climbed on the tallest chair I could find and carefully pulled out the packet. It was a maroon leather cushioned box, with the name of the artist engraved in gold on the top – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

That was my first contact with the maestro. Initially, I found his singing style to be too loud and unpolished. I was too used to the smooth slippery voices of Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan, Shaan, Sonu Nigam, Rafi, Kishor. Their voices flowed, but Nusrat Fateh Ali khan’s leapt out of the speakers and punched you in the face. I couldn’t understand why in the world is the man so angry? The cassettes were taken out of the player, put into the box neatly and the box restored to its hiding place to wait for an adult.

It wasn’t until I saw the music video of Afreen-Afreen years later on TV that my interest in Nusrat Fateh Ali khan was revived. The visuals of the videos helped create that atmosphere in my head, I think, and after that, I was hooked.  90s was a tremendously rich time, musically. Every music video was a tiny film in itself, and I think they were quite creative because sellability wouldn’t have been such a issue back then when TV channels were still in their infancy.

In time, I began to understand the art of qawwali and Sufism, which brought about an irreversible change in my mental framework. You see, in sufi music, love is presented as a divine concept. The beloved is but a manifestation of this feeling. This love isn’t your feeling towards one person, but it is a state of being. Some direct it towards a God and become fakirs, some direct it towards a woman and become a hopeless lover and some direct it towards their families and become the nurturer of generations. This is how, without me intentionally doing it, my mental image of love was set. A feeling so strong that it will move you to tears with joy, a love independent of its destination and existing because it must. We are bombarded by content which trains us to see “love” as a singular entity which starts with a trigger and dies if not tended to. In such a world, it is hard to grasp the vastness of this emotion and witness its existence.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was this Love personified. He called out to the skies with his songs, but it was his music which was his love. His words worship a subject, but do that in a way that does not need the subject to even be aware of the existence of this love. Note that nowhere in his songs does he ever assert possession, or even demand anything from the beloved. Each line transcends a certain aspect of the person/thing he is singing for and expresses his desire to have the opportunity to maybe, just maybe, manifest this love in some manner. And the emotion. OH THE EMOTION! You can hear him smiling through the tender words and as the song progresses, his voice climbs the slope of intensity to denote passion and weaves breathless patterns to depict the urgency of his serenade.

This one right here, is my favourite song from Ustaad Khan. I love all his songs, but Tu mera dil holds a special place. More than any of his other songs, this reminds me that the love-in-itself is a reality. It is out there for me, within my reach, to someday understand and experience. I might be mocked, considered naive or be taken advantage of because of this, but this state of being is nestled quite stubbornly and deeply in my mind, too cozy to be perturbed by external circumstances. This is the foundation that enables me to bounce back every damn time.

And how could anything go wrong, if everything you do stems from love?


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