nce in the 1960s, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan persuaded me to accompany him to listen to a man called Tufail at a festive occasion of the
of Heera Mandi. Now Amanat Ali was the scion of the still on-the-make Patiala Gharana of singing, and he was unable to set aside his put-on pride. Consequently he insisted on going to the soiree in disguise; he hid his face behind a scarf, and I didn’t get in his way. Instead I helped him climb onto the roof of a WASA water tank that was in darkness. The festivities were just starting: Tufail (not Niazi in those days) began with the song ‘Dardan Mar Liya Way Mera Dil Darda Na Boley’. It was a composition in the raag Marubihag, cleverly arranged into an unassuming folk song. Tufail and his ‘party’ members rendered it with such verve and finesse that it made the audience spellbound. It was the very first time I had heard such a masterful ‘folk’ tune.
Tufail Niazi was born in village Manderan, town Sham Chorasi, district Hoshiarpur (now in India) to a family of professional musicians. His paternal ancestors were
(percussionists with Dhrupad singers) and his maternal ancestors were
(singers of gurbanis in Sikh gurdwaras). Initially Tufail studied music with one Himmey Khan and got employed at the gurdwara of Pamba. But he had a wayfarer’s spirit and soon set off in search of other varieties of music. First he joined the
or touring theaters where he learned the art of acting and performing in public. Afterwards he joined a group of
or singer-storytellers, and acted and sang with them at lively melas and the
ceremonies of saints. Soon he was known for performing the Puran Bhagat and Heer Ranjha, and was called Tufaila Natt, the latter being the lowly caste associated with all manner of public entertainments, though of course Tufail was not, strictly speaking, from the Natt
. Around this time he also became a disciple of Mian Wali Mohammed Khan of Kapurthala, and began to study seriously the ancient and notoriously difficult Dhrupad style of singing. He also benefited at this time from the musical expertise of one Pandit Amar Nath of Batala.
But to enter the music industry Tufail had many rivers to cross. After the Partition, he moved with his family to what had become Pakistan and settled in Multan. This was a hard time in his life, the consequence of abruptly losing his home and lifestyle and livelihood, but some elites and well-wishers took note and helped him put together a team of
raasdharis. In the meantime some well-known personalities of the Doaba terrain, namely the writer Mumtaz Mufti and his friend the dramatist Ashfaq Ahmed, helped Tufail get a foot into Multan Radio. Now he was able to sing for a wide public audience, and his polished style of folk singing made him an instant hit. He left Multan and settled in Lahore. He composed and sang for a film called ‘Dhoop Chhaaon’ but it was a flop. When the Lok Virsa institute was founded in Islamabad with the avowed mission of “preserving” the folk music of Pakistan, Tufail Niazi got a permanent job there, one that enabled him to build his famous house in Islamabad.
After years of singing in large public spaces, Tufail’s husky voice had been toned and chiseled to a fine quality. He was a versatile singer who could perform
with equal ease. His genius, however, lay in his rendition of folk tunes, which are at the core of all our music. His knowledge of raags came together with his actor’s instincts, with the raw energy and sheer physicality of his performances, and led to a marvelous corpus of songs, the most famous of which were ‘Saada Chiriyan Da Chamba Way Babula’ and ‘Mein Naee Jaana Kheriyan De Naal’ and ‘Mera Sohna Sajjan Ghar Aya’. In fact, many of his songs became so popular that music directors began to plagiarize them for their films! Tufail was aware of this, of course, and deliberately composed many songs in obscure and difficult raags.
His fame took him to USA, UK, the Middle East, China and India, where he got the opportunity to regale many of his hitherto unseen admirers. In Pakistan, despite his growing fame, he continued to perform at local venues for an adoring public, at music conferences and festivals and at the
of dead ustads. In 1981 he went to India on a one-week visa, and was immediately invited there by the Maharajas of Patiala and Kapurthala states. His Indian visa eventually had to be extended for three months, and Tufail performed at Kapurthala, Patiala, Jullundhar, Delhi and Bombay, and was given the KL Sehgal Award, the Amir Khusrau Award, the Shield of Honour and the Ustad Amir Khan Award, the last of which was presented to him by sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan.
In Pakistan he continued to enthrall audiences with his popular TV programme ‘Lok Tamasha’. He was loved even by the people who ought to have been his rivals, including the otherwise grasping Madame Noor Jahan, Mehdi Hasan and the mercurial Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, who often stayed with him in his Islamabad house.
Tufail was a gentle, soft-spoken man, so soft-spoken, in fact, that he could sound, when talking, like an old woman who had just come out of anesthesia. But the moment he sat before his harmonium on the stage, he was transformed into the voice of the land itself, loud and clear and full of soul.
One thing he never did was refer to anyone as “ustad”. He always called everyone by their first name, even the great maestros. This resulted in some confusion, as for instance when he referred to Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as just “Ghulam Ali Wadda” or to Ustad Barkat Ali Khan as “Barkat Ali”. Perhaps this was because he had never been allowed to forget that he was once known as “Tufaila Natt”, which must have forced him into a show of humility, though later he used that same logic of lowliness to bring every proud ustad down to the level of human beings. He was, after all, no more than a folk singer, and could not be expected to rise to the mannerisms of the high and mighty!
It is ironic, therefore, and also strangely fitting, that he should be remembered today as a giant of music, towering high above many of his contemporaries, his voice ringing louder and clearer in our ears than any of theirs.
He died on the 21st of September 1990 and his survived by his sons.
Ustad Ghulam Haider Khan lives in Lahore