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Watching Rahat Fateh Ali Khan perform in concert

Last updated on: June 18, 2013 18:29 IST

Watching Rahat Fateh Ali Khan perform in concert


Aseem Chhabra in New York
Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's concert -- held over the weekend in New York -- was quite disappointing, writes Aseem Chhabra.
It happened immediately after the intermission.
On Saturday, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (now anointed as Khan Sahib and even Ustad by the promoters of his show at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum) had spent an hour singing his pop versions of some of the qawallis made famous by his late uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as some recent Hindi film songs.
After the intermission, one of the organisers asked Bollywood composer Salim Merchant -- one half of the successful Salim-Sulaiman brothers team -- to come up on stage.

We had already been told several times by the organisers that Salim was in the audience. Even Rahat had mentioned that Salim was present in the theatre, adding, "I respect him a lot."

On stage Salim spoke briefly, praising Rahat as an artist and then the organiser asked the two to perform together. I do not know if the two had rehearsed -- Salim had arrived in New York just a day earlier -- or perhaps it was a spontaneous performance. But the next few minutes were pure magic when the two performers sang Saaiyaan from Madhur Bhandarkar's 2012 film Heroine.

Image: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan at the concert
Photographs: Courtesy


Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to be in a rush

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Nassau Coliseum -- the large ice hockey arena, home to the New York Islanders team -- echoed with the powerful voices of the two singers. I was reminded of the reason why I had first travelled 30 miles -- all the way from New York City to Hempstead, Long Island -- for what I was hoping to be an entertaining live performance by an artist who I first saw on stage with his uncle in the late 1980s.

Alas, most of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's concert was mediocre at best. There was a poor selection of Bollywood songs, but worse, poor rendition of some of Nusrat's iconic qawallis.
He seemed to be in a rush.
There was no prelude to the qawallis, no build up to the actual lyrics, no improvisation by him or the musicians who were accompanying him.
Instead, Rahat merely sang all the lines. So we got hurried renditions of Alla Ho, Akhiyan Udeek Diyan, Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai, Mast Nazron Se Allah Bachaye, and the really flat closing performance of Dum Mast Qalandar.

His group included a few qawals, two guitarists, a drummer, and a man who played a mini silver-coloured saxophone. It seemed like an odd blend for a concert that was supposed to high on qawallis. 

Nusrat engaged in a lot of fusion music, working with a range of western musicians including Peter Gabriel, Eddie Vedder, and composer and producer Michael Brooks. And the results were always brilliant.  

Image: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan

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Rahat Fateh Ali Khan Bollywoodized his performance

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I am not a purist and there is a room for collaboration with western artists and developing fusion tones. But there is also place for simply unadulterated qawallis in the real Sufi tradition. Rahat has found another route. He Bollywoodized his performance.

I first saw Rahat, when he was a young slim man -- sitting in one corner of the stage in New York City's Town Hall, his young voice a great counterpoint to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's deep sonorous voice.
I saw him perform several times through the mid-1990s, always a very important member of Nusrat's group. He used to call himself Rahat Ali Khan. He added the second name Fateh after the Nusrat passed away in 1997. 

Rahat then took over the legacy of Nusrat. In the later-1990s, he gave a solo performance in New York City's intimate Joe's Pub, hoping to bring in Nusrat's eclectic mix of audience of all colours and the western celebrities who attended his performance.  

Even at that point, it was evident that he lacked the gravitas and huge talent of Nusrat. Rahat was never destined to become great like Nusrat. His fan base never went beyond South Asians in the subcontinent and in the Diaspora.

Image: Salim Merchant at the concert

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Under the watchful eyes of big name Bollywood composers, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan does well

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His Bollywood career, launched 10 years ago, has gotten him a lot of fame in India, and respect in Pakistan. He is by far the most successful Pakistani artist working in the Bollywood film industry.

Rahat has done well for himself, financially and in terms of popularity. The two emcees reminded us a few times that this was his 60th live performance in the year, where he travelled to major cities around the world with large South Asian Diaspora. 

But his success, all the Hindi film songs he sings, has come with a price. Under the watchful eyes of big name Bollywood composers, he does really well. But left on his own, his performances are not strong.

He did sing some Bollywood songs like O Re Piya and Teri Meri Prem Kahani. In a touching moment, he asked his young son to join him on the stage to accompany in singing the Dabangg song, Tere Mast Mast Do Nain.

Some people in the audience -- made up of a substantial number of Pakistanis -- seemed to enjoy the show, and did not appear to have issues with how Rahat had reduced each qawalli to a mere pop song, losing all depth, devotional energy and entertainment value.  They started dancing and clapping the moment he mentioned Allah Ho.

But I kept thinking about a time when the qawalli tradition, as practiced by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, was considered high art, representative of the best of Pakistani and South Asian culture.

On Saturday, I witnessed a real low in South Asian culture.

Image: The audience

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