Nusrat Fateh Ali
Khan's death at the age of 49 is a matter of sadness, a great tragedy. He was a true
artist, inheritor and practitioner of a vanishing musical heritage: the qawwali.
This musical form of the Sufi mystic tradition has been sung for many centuries and Nusrat
Fateh Ali Khan came from a family or dynasty of qawwals.
In the Indian (this
includes the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi) schools of Sufi mysticism which permit
countenance and encourage the sama or seance, the qawwali is used for the
design, creation and cultivation of techniques that induce ecstasy (haal or wajd)
in the listener. Qawwali is thus an essential ingredient of worship as practised by
Sufis, their disciples and the devotees who flock to the shrines of Sufi saints.
Sufis, like the aiyanars and other bhaktas, love God with an
all-consuming passion which leaves no room in the heart for either the world or worldly
pursuits. Qawwals using words from poetry embellished by notes and percussion from
the classical and semi-classical tradition of Indian music serve the needs of Sufi dargahs
or tombs by creating the atmosphere for a seance. They verbalise and point with music the
yearning and suffering of the lover separated from the beloved.
Their call to love is given through verses selected for poignance from lyrics. The ghazal
in Urdu or Persian and the geet in Hindi verses become canvasses to absorb and
radiate colour from the note patterns of the modes chosen to render the songs.
These modes (ragas and raginis) transform the verses into mantras
or chants, incantations or formulae. Magic arises from the fusion to make the
multi-layered meaning of the words manifest itself. The drumming (tabla) targets the heart
by first merging with and then taking over and regulating the heartbeat. Variations in
speed, decibels and the quantum of sound produced - from the almost-inaudible to the
eardrum-splitting crescendo - obliterate the outside world with its insistence on
objective reality and focusses the sensitivity of the listener inwards and just into the
region of the heart. The one feeling that survives is the capacity to suffer.
Newcomers and casual visitors to qawwalis are sensitised as if by osmosis from
the overflow of immense feeling exuded by others in the audience. The novices react to the
level and extent of emotion their hearts are capable of experiencing. Tears well up to
pulsate on the tip of the eyelash or flow incessantly from the eyes; lumps rise to choke
the throat and breathing is in intervals and takes the form of short, sharp gasps.
It is, increasingly, a rare qawwal who can deliver this formula every time he
performs and Nusrat Fateh Ali never failed. Farewell, Nusrat Fateh Ali, farewell!
AS the centre of the qawwali art form is the lyric or the ghazal, perhaps
it would be illustrating to go into its origin and development. Since the arrival of the
Turkic and Afghan tribesmen in India in about A.D. 1000, a most important place, a power
base or shakti sthala has been occupied in Indian poetry and music by the lyric
form called ghazal. This word, of Arabic origin, is now common heritage to all
Indian languages and many Indian poets use it as the preferred form.
In Arabic, ghazal means a lover talking to his beloved amorously. The ghazal
was developed further and to its maximum potential in Iran and in India where Persian was
the court language of the Turcomans, Afghans and the Mughals who ruled in the North and
the Bahamanis and their sucessors in the South. Of the Persian poets, Hafiz of Shiraz
enjoys the highest reputation. The Indian poets held in esteem for Persian verse are Amir
Khusrau (13th century) and Mirza Bedil (18th century). Khusrau also wrote in Hindi and was
devoted to the great Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrau's Persian and Hindi verse is sung at
Sufi shrines even today, some seven centuries later. On the anniversary of the saint's
death, the Urs festivities start with qawwals singing a Khusrau verse.
The ghazal and the geet both found the qawwali their natural
habitat as they represent a lover talking to the beloved amorously. The status of love was
very high in the Athens of Socrates and Plato and the Dillee of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir
Khusrau. Their belief was that God was the only true male and that all of creation was
female. Just as the female yearns for the male so also does the finite soul yearn for the
Infinite. Life on Earth is separation and exile. Death is reunion with the Beloved. The
anniversary of the death of a saint is celebrated as would be a wedding. It is called
'Urs' which means "Nuptial Union". The Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin commences with
the qawwals singing Khusrau's verse written at the death of the saint. It reads:
"Goaree soawaiy seij purra, mukha purra daareiy kaiys;
Chull Khusrau ghurr appuney, reiyn bhuyee chahoun deys."
("The fair one is asleep on the bed and her hair covers her face; O Khusrau! Wend
your way home, for the world has become dark.")
When this verse is sung again and again and portions of it are "lifted" into
the higher octaves, the hearts of the listeners are plunged into grief. Khusrau's sorrow
at the death of his beloved Master envelops all present. Tears well up in many eyes. Some
get up and gyrate in the tight circle of their seat walled in by the huge crowd. A great
catharsis occurs and all pilgrims return lighter and fulfilled.
The Sufi shrines were active all over India, from Srinagar to Chikmagalur. The kind of
world which developed around the ghazal and the qawwali has now all but
disappeared. When an echo occurs it can still come alive. This can perhaps be invoked by a
In the early 1980s, the Pakistani Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz made his first visit to
Hyderabad (India). Deeply affected by a verse of Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, a
16th-century prince of Golconda in the Deccan, he returned repeating it and echoing it in
a brand new ghazal of his own. (Interestingly, Ahmad Faraz is a Pathan and Muhammad
Qui Qutb was a Qara Quinloo Turk from Central Asia whose grandfather Sultan Quli had
emigrated to India from Hamadan in Persia in the 15th century.)
The Deccan (Dukhkhin) is synonymous with Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, which encompasses
in history the cities of Golconda, Bhagnagar and Secunderabad. Urdu poetry originated in
some area vaguely called Deccan (or Dukhkhin).
A pioneer in writing Urdu ghazals from somewhere near Ahmedabad in Gujarat is
known as Wali Dukhkhinee. His name suggests that anyone from outside the twin capital
cities, Agra and Dillee, or the North of India was called Dukhkhinee or some kind of an
This is the Urdu verse with which Ahmad Faraz regaled his audiences in India and
Pakistan on his return from Hyderabad:
"Quli Qutb hoa, ya kay Ahmad Faraz, Piyaa Baaj such hay jiyaa jaayay naa."
(Be it Quli Qutb Shah or Ahmad Faraz, it remains an eternal verity and an abiding truth
that a lover cannot pass his days and live in any real sense if he is separated from his
This tribute from a 20th-century Pakistani poet to the 16th-century Qutb Shahi Sultan
of Golconda stems from and echoes a verse of the Sultan:
"Piya baaj piyalaa piyaa jaayey naa; Piyaa baaj ik pal jiyaa jaayey naa."
(It is impossible to quaff a measure of wine in the absence of the beloved. O! How can
I survive for one single moment without the beloved!)
A great poet creates a new space which he fills with his own fresh, newly minted verse
and in the process creates a brand new tongue. Although Urdu/Reykhtaa/Dukhkhinee had been
in existence for a few centuries before the birth, life and times of Sultan Quli Qutb
Shah, his cascade of 50,000 verses gave the critical mass necessary for a new dynamism and
viability for the new language. His leadership by precept and example made the poetry of
the Dukhkhinee language not only acceptable but fashionable among the elite and his
generous patronage helped draw fresh talent into its fold.
Perhaps the 21st century will witness the birth of a poet who will enable Urdu to rise
like a Phoenix from the ashes of the great holocaust caused by the communal divide. It is
possible that this genius and innovator will freely use words from English and other
European languages - besides, of course, the Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, Telugu
and Malayalam - which help give precision in meaning to new images and concepts.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was attempting a globalisation of the mystic experience by
collaborating with musicians from other countries and performances in countries with no
Urdu. Such experiments may well breathe new life into the ghazal and the qawwali.