Music maestro

August 21, 2022

Some may argue that Nusrat Fateh Ali was not the first to have engaged heavily with the contemporary sonic culture.

Music maestro


usrat Fateh Ali Khan was probably the most well-known vocalist from Pakistan. One of the reasons advanced for his huge popularity was that he understood the compulsions of contemporary sonic culture and adapted his music accordingly.

In more blatant terms, it is said - negatively - that the Western intonation has pervaded our music and the vocalists and instrumentalists have moved away from the intonation that was particular to this region.

The tussle between what is particular to a culture and what is not, has dominated the debate that rages in analysing the impact of the fast moving changes and the revolution of the digital technology. The instruments that have come into creation, too, have the dominance of the international pattern that is a little alien to our culture.

Some may argue that Nusrat Fateh Ali was not the first to have engaged heavily with the contemporary sonic culture. The area that was most open to experimentation was film music. It was a totally new genre that emerged in the 1930s had no precedence to hold on to and hence resist discovering new sound territories. It also had a huge reservoir of the melodic riches to draw upon. In an era that was immensely rich in music, the film music genre, a new one, started to sow its seed in a land that was extremely fertile.

It used instruments from other cultures and explored the sound patterns aligning it with the patterns that were local. At the same time, the melodic content was heavily influenced by the compositions that were foreign but available due to the new technological resources. Some of the great film music composers also acknowledged that they borrowed generously from the melodic content around the world.

Of course the forms that were the least affected or resisted change were the kheyal and to some extent the thumri as dhrupad was dying a slow death by the Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth Century also saw the gradual acceptance of ghazal as an acceptable form of music as it emerged from the salons to attain an autonomous stature.

In a way, qawwali as a form is more open to influences from the outside. It consists of kalam that has varied from the scripture to the sayings of holy personages, to the classical poetical texts in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, to the very folk and particularly to the sung folk poetry. At the same time, it did not rally stick to any particular raga. There were scores of compositions, both traditional and contemporary in various ragas that fed it. Then within the composition there was always a musical possibility of “girah” the introduction of other kalam in another tonal formation that added vigour and vitality to the performance for is connection which may or may not be musical. Then with the compositional structure of the raga the surs from other tonal combinations could also be intoned.

Similarly, the rhythmic structure and pattern too differentiated and crisscrossed the base of the melodic structure. With such an open format, experimentation was more acceptable and inviting rather than kheyal and other traditional forms that prided themselves on the insularity of the cultural musical tradition.

From the very prestigious Jhallandhari clan of qawwals, a family moved to Lyallpur at Partition and Fateh Ali-MubaraK Ali laid the groundwork that was more willing to be fertilised by the change in political structure and went about including more kalam orientated to the Punjabi sensibility written by poets like Iqbal and poets writing in Punjabi like Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah. It caught on in a culture that was open to the combination of the word and sur rather than the primacy of the sur over the word as happens in the classical tradition.

Nusrat Fateh Ali understood the need to connect with the people and took the qawwali out of the context of the shrine and turned it into a concert item. The warm reception that the qawwals received in France in the same period opened an international forum from them and both Sabri Brothers and Fateh Ali Khan benefitted hugely from it as it proved to be an international launching pad.

The international acceptance of Nusrat Fateh Ali especially in the West had a huge fallout back home. Many people now started perceiving qawwali as something to emulate. From a lowly art form it became prestigious and the qawwals became figures of respect rather than derision.

When a musician or some other cultural figure becomes famous and is owned particularly by the West, the people back home too start mouthing their admiration.

Such recognition often works wonders in countering the deep seated bias that people have about the melodic arts in the area. It papers over the prejudice as people laud them as trophies. One wonders whether it is deep enough to overcome the prejudice or is just a phase. Nusrat Fateh Ali did that and should be lauded for that rather than for any other reason.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Music maestro