Not many artistes get the chance to train under icons. But Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the lucky ones. He grew up under the tutelage of legendary Sufi and qawwali singer, late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was also his paternal uncle.
On Teacher’s Day (September 5), while reminiscing about his youth, and the time spent with his illustrious uncle, Rahat says, "I have tried to inherit his gaayaki (style of singing). He was a very quiet person, and he had all his conversations via singing. This quality is one of my fondest memories of him.Harmonium or gaayaki ko chodke unka aur koi shaukh nahi tha (he didn’t have any other interest besides playing the harmonium and singing)."
The singer says that he would get cold feet whenever he would practise with Khan. "Bahut khaufnaaq mahaul banta tha (it used to be scary). After he would sing a line, he would ask me to repeat, and I used to get petrified. But he always appreciated my work. He was very strict when it came to music. Whenever he was angry with someone, he would not talk to the person for weeks and months," he says.
Listen to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan here
The 41-year-old, who has crooned various Bollywood chartbusters, adds that being Khan’s successor was challenging for him. Ask if his uncle’s stardom helped him make a mark as a singer, and Rahat says, "It made things even more difficult for me. Agar fankar saccha ho, to uske fans bhi sacche hote hain; aur agar fans sacche hon, to woh kisi aur fankar ko accept nahi karte (if an artiste is honest, he or she will have loyal followers, and they don’t follow anyone else easily)."
He sang his first Hindi film song in 2003 for the film, Paap. In a journey spanning over a decade in India, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has crooned several Bollywood chartbusters. However, the Pakistani singer found himself embroiled in a legal battle when he was detained at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport in 2011 for allegedly possessing undeclared foreign currency. As a result, Rahat didn’t visit India for over four years. During his recent visit to the country, the singer spoke about how much he missed being in India, the changes in Bollywood music, and more.
Listen to Rahat's music here
You have visited India after a gap of over four years. How does it feel?
It’s actually been five years since I last visited Mumbai, and about four and a half since I travelled to India. Bahut accha lag raha hai. Bahut mann kar raha tha India aane ka (I am feeling very nice. I really wanted to visit India all this while). Staying away from my Indian fans was more painful than the legal case. I feared that they would misunderstand me. Everyone commits mistakes, but to accept that and mend it is important. If you think positively, positive things happen to you. That’s the mantra I followed.
Do you think Bollywood music has changed over the past five years?
Yes, some amazing vocalists have entered the industry. I am very fond of Arijit Singh and Ankit Tiwari. But I think change kuch zyada ho gaya (there have been too many changes). The originality of vocals has faded away. Ab aisa lagta hai ki gaana gaaya nahi ja raha, bajaaya ja raha hai. Music ne awaz ko daba diya hai (Now it feels like a song is being played and not sung. Music has overshadowed vocals).
Are you interested in composing for Hindi films?
Composing for Bollywood films is very difficult. Actually, more than making a song, proving your music in today’s times is harder. But I am sure that things will change, and art will again be the most important thing to be associated with an artiste.
What’s the difference between music of Bollywood films and Pakistani films?
I think raw material is more in Pakistan. Technology na hone ki wajah se abhi bhi wahan ka sangeet zameen se juda hua hai, jo ki ek rehmat hai (Due to lack of modern technology, the music is still rooted, which is a blessing).
Do protests against Pakistani artistes performing in India, and singing for Bollywood films bother you?
I think people will never let that happen. Our fans in India love us so much that they will demand our voice. I have never felt any difference between the way I am treated in India and in Pakistan.
Do you miss Bollywood music of the past decades?
I miss originality in Bollywood music. Singers like Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and Shafqat Amanat Ali sing in their natural styles. But, with auto-tune coming in, the originality of film music has suffered. It damages the vocals. Singers don’t realise that when they have to perform live, there is no auto-tune. So, they feel humiliated when they cannot deliver well on the stage.
You have sung many blockbusters for Salman Khan. What kind of a bond do you share with him?
I feel that Salman bhai is a true hero. People across the world love him.
Which Bollywood composers and singers are closest to you?
Sajid-Wajid and Shankar Mahadevan saab are my favourites. I am also really fond of Vishal Bhardwaj saab (film-maker). He offers something new in every project, which is amazing.
Will you ever be open to singing an item number?
(Laughs) I don’t think my voice will suit an item number. I might just start applying classical genres to it (laughs).
Which are your favourite genres?
Classical music, ghazal and qawwali are my favourites. I also listen to flamenco (Spanish folk music).