Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tufail Niazi – Pakistan’s Greatest Folk Singer

It was in my teens, almost 25 years ago, when I first heard Tufail Niazi singing "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" from Heer Waris Shah in that uniquely rustic and melodious but exceptionally virtuosic voice that has brought tears to my eyes many times over the years. Of all the wonderful music I grew up with (mostly because it was what my parents played in the house) this song by Tufail Niazi alongwith K.L Saigal’s “Ik raje ka beta le kar urne wala ghora” and Begum Akhtar’s “Chaa rahi kali ghata, jiya mora lehrae hai” have a special place in my imagination. (The youtube link above does not include it but Saigal's cackling laugh at the end of this recorded song on the LP is an enduring childhood memory). Every time I hear these pieces again they conjure up the same mesmerising effect they had on me when I first heard them huddled around my father's turntable or in later years, his various cassette players.

Piecing together Tufail Niazi's biography, his marvellously syncretic Punjabi life struck me as unusual even in pre-1947 Punjab but his life story is no longer even possible. He was born in 1916 in the only Muslim family in the Sikh village of MadairaN in Jallandhar district. MadairaN was only a short distance from Sham Chaurasi, famous birthplace of the musical gharana of that name (Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, arguably Pakistan's finest classical vocalist, hailed from this gharana). Tufail's family and ancestors were "Pakhawajis". (Pakhawaj is a tabla-like percussion instrument traditionally used as accompaniment in Dhrupad singing, the much older and temple-rooted form of Hindustani classical vocal music than the newer, more popular Mughal-era creation Khayal.) Historically, some of his family members were "Rubabis" who sang Gurbanis (songs in praise of the gurus) in Gurdwaras. Tufail followed this family tradition and started singing Guru Nanak's bani at the Gurdwara in the village of Pumba near Amritsar where his maternal grandfather was employed as a rubabi. After three years in Pumba he lost interest and his father, Haji Raheem Buksh took him to a Gaushala (house of cow protection) in Gondwal near the town of Taran Taaran. Here he joined the Gaushala singing party that went from village to village to spread the message of cow protection. Imagining a traveling Muslim rubabi preaching, in song, the protection of the sacred cow in his mellifluous voice brings a smile to my face.

Tufail lived in Gondwal for four years and would have likely moved sooner if it was not for the attraction of listening to great performers at the "chhota mela of Harballabh" held in that town every year (the main Harballabh Mela used to be in Jallandhar which attracted India's greatest musicians). After leaving the Gaushala, Tufail first became a "Raasdhari", street performers who just congregated impromptu audiences anywhere and performed an amalgam of theater, narrative and song often based on episodes of Lord Rama's life (Ramlila). He then joined a traveling theater ("Nautanki") and honed his theatrical and storytelling skills playing a hero in productions of famous Punjabi folktales like Heer Ranjha, Sohni MahiNwal, Sassi PunnooN and Pooran Bhagat. Most of this pre-partition part of Tufail's life today reads like a page not from 20th century history but a much older epoch that we can no longer even imagine.

At the time of partition, like all East Punjabi Muslims, Tufail too had to move from his ancestral lands and he ended up in Multan. To survive in this new unknown place where he hardly knew anybody, he opened up a milk shop. It was fortuitous that in 1949 a police inspector who had known him in East Punjab and had been a fan saw him and, on learning that Tufail had abandoned his music because he had no instruments and no other way to make a living, intervened. He got him instruments from the state coffers and organized a mehfil for Tufail introducing him to the people in Multan. It is unbearable to imagine that Tufail Niazi's voice could have been lost forever were it not for the effort of an ordinary fan who saved him from potential obscurity. We owe that unknown police officer a deep debt of gratitude.

Tufail soon became well known in the cultural circles of Multan after which there was no looking back. He started singing for Radio Pakistan and had the honor to be the first singer who performed on Pakistan Television, the day of its inauguration on November 26th, 1964. He sang his famous song "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" that day. It was at that time that PTV's senior producer Aslam Azhar gave him the name Tufail Niazi because Tufail had told him that his pir was Hazrat Pir Niaz Ali Shah. Before this he had been just Tufail, Master Tufail, Mian Tufail and lastly Tufail Multani. Later, under Uxi Mufti he worked with great dedication to help set up and sustain the National Institute of Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa) in Islamabad. He received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1983 and died on September 21st, 1990. A stroke had left him debilitated and unable to perform and he died in poverty with a wounded sense of official and unofficial neglect which has been the lot of so many Pakistani artists. He is buried in the graveyard in Islamabad.

Here is a performance of "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" from PTV:



Tufail Niazi was a folk musician deeply influenced by classical forms and it is the mastery of his classically trained vocals combined with a soulfully melodic voice that mesmerized his audiences. The wonderful Punjabi sufi storytelling of his repertoire as he stood singing energetically in his lacha and a silk kurta created the total effect of a performer who was involved in something that was inseparable from the rest of his existence. His singing is often intensely moving as he sings about episodes in the lives of Punjabi epic lovers most notably Heer Ranjha (this is a link to an excellent post on this Punjabi folk masterpiece on Pakistaniat) richly evoking their anguish set in a beautifully sketched Punjabi rural social milieu.

Many of my favorite songs by Tufail Niazi are rooted deeply in classical music. I can listen to them over and over again and they possess the power to stir the most potent emotions. Here at APNA's site are some great Tufail Niazi songs for which I cannot find youtube videos. Two of my favorites (in addition to "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal") that never fail to move me are "MeiN vi jaaNa jhok Ranjhan di" and "We tooN neRe neRe was we dholan yaar" (in Raga Tilak Kamod). In addition, I love a tappa-like song in Raga Khamaj called "Jhuk RaiyyaN meiN to" which I have been unable to find on the internet.

Remarkably and sadly, I was not able to find any decent photograph of Tufail Niazi on the internet to include in this post. To end this piece, here is a youtube audio of the above mentioned "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" which is inspired by Raga Bilawal.



Credits: This post owes several biographical and other details to the book “Tufail Niazi”, compiled and edited by S.M Shahid as a tribute to this great performer. In addition to informative pieces in Urdu (Mumtaz Mufti, Chanan Gobindpuri, Bakhtiar Ahmad, Akhtar Imam Rizvi, Shahbaz Ali) and English (S.M Shahid, Sarwat Ali, Mushahid Hussain, Saeed Malik), the book comes with 2 excellent CDs of Tufail Niazi’s unforgettable folk songs.

15 comments:

sabizak said...

Great work!

Fawad Zakariya said...

Thanks Sabi:)

Faisal Irfan Mian said...

Great research :-))....

readerswords said...

Thanks for the post. I hadn't heard of Tufail Niazi and it has been wonderful listening to this great voice. Like that unknown police officer, you have done a great job in bringing this voice of a syncretic culture to us.

Fawad Zakariya said...

@readerswords: Thanks for your kind comments. An introduction to even one discerning new person to a talent like Tufail Niazi makes the effort of doing these more than worth it. Thanks also for continuing to visit the site.

Afaque said...

Well I, rather many others too, owe a lot to you for letting us know this much info about him. I knew him very little before that. In fact we are all running after the westernized culture so much that we have forgotten our own heroes and our own roots.
Great work :)

Raza Rumi said...

Brilliant -
I am glad that you shared the link. What a life!
I will be cross-posting this piece on Pak Tea House hoping that you would endorse this...

Fawad Zakariya said...

Raza, glad you liked it. You are welcome to use it.

Rahul Banerjee said...

lovely songs. you have done a great service by bringing ustaad tufail into a bigger public domain. i am listening to him with a great serenity as i write this comment.

Fawad Zakariya said...

@rahul: Thanks for your kind comments and for visiting. Tufail Niazi does need a wider audience amongst music lovers who can appreciate him.

Saadia said...

This piece was more than just a post. A service to our heritage and culture, drowning fast in the seas of modernity and turbulence. Thank you!

Saadia
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http://saadiam.blogspot.com

Fawad Zakariya said...

@saadia: thanks for your nice comment. It is always nice to know that there is an audience out there.

OBV said...

brilliant stuff here!

Tufail Niazi is incomparable for the feeling with which he rendered punjabi folk.

thanks for sharing (particularly that akhteri baai video aside).

ajnabi said...

Great biography Thank you so much. A Great musician.

Fawad Zakariya said...

Thanks for visting ajnabi. I browsed your blog and enjoyed it as well!