“I love all the Sufi saints and their poetry”

Hans Raj Hans speaks to Ammara Ahmad about Sufism, Punjabi music, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

“I love all the Sufi saints and their poetry”
I went to meet Hans Raj Hans in Lahore’s Avari Hotel on the Mall Road on a February morning. He had performed at the same hotel a day before. We sat down to speak in a small lobby on the second floor. Raj sat there after warmly greeting me, with his blonde shoulder-length curls and light eyes, in an overcoat that looked like a sherwani. He wore silver rings in his ears and fingers. Raj is fifty plus and a grandfather but looks more like a rock star whose age one can only guess. Next to him sat two of his friends who were initially very excited to have met him but were now unnerved by the delay caused by a young and overtly excited interviewer.

Raj has been visiting Pakistan for many decades now and he is deeply revered here. Probably because not only does he sing Sufi poets, he behaves like a humble fakir himself and wins friends with his earthy philosophy everywhere. One cannot tell whether he is an Indian or a Pakistani, a Sikh, Hindu or a Muslim from the way he speaks. This is probably why politicians and stars want to befriend him on both sides of the border. Rahul Gandhi personally met Raj when he was dropped from a seat in the Rajya Sabah (Upper House of the Indian Parliament) at the last moment. Senior Congress leader’s had to find ways to pacify Raj’s community – the Valmikis.

Though Raj is well-known for his Sufi songs, and now some Gurbanishabads and religious songs, his film songs gained critical acclaim too. He sang for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan when the latter composed the music for the Indian film Kacche Dhaage.

My first question was obviously if his parents approved his passion for music. As is often the case in this part of the world, they didn’t.

“No. They were very angry. I had to leave home.”

Ammara Ahmad: How did you first meet Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?

Hans Raj Hans: We first met in a singing contest in the UK, Birmingham. It is organised by the Oriental Star Company. Indians and Pakistanis get together to organise it, to find some new talent. I was the Indian judge and Nusrat Sahib was the Pakistani judge. I came to know this when I had already reached there. I had been listening to him for a long time and I was very delighted. This was in 1984.

Then we sat with our respective files. After a few minutes, I started feeling that I am a criminal of music and he is the only judge. I started giving the same marks as he did. I kept asking him.

There are many like me but the only one like him.”
"When I met Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I saw a dervish (Sufi ascetic) in him, not an angry person. He never criticised anyone"

AA: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left behind an enormous body of work but not as many interviews. What was he like in real life?

HRH: When I met him, I saw a dervish (Sufi ascetic) in him, not an angry person. He never criticised anyone. He didn’t talk to anyone else. There is a Punjabi song “kisse di ki gal dassa apni nai mukdi” (What should I say of others, I have so much to say of my own). He used to practice music 24 hours a day.

AA: Did he have the tune already when you walked in for that song?

HRH: He had a tune before I came in. But he made me learn it, sat with me as I did. Then he helped me in the dubbing as well.

AA: Why didn’t he sing those songs himself?

HRH: I asked this in a reality show called Janoon when Rahat Fateh Ali was there. He said that Nusrat Sahib said that this song “Khali Dil Nahi Jaan Wee Aye Mangda” – only Hans Raj Hans can sing it. He didn’t tell me this directly and frankly, I don’t buy this either. I was very happy. I thought that whenever I will be sad, I will remember the fact that Khan Sahib used to love me so much. Bombay is full of musicians. I was a village singer. I had never sung in Bollywood before that. That was my first song. After that, I sang a lot of songs in Bollywood.

AA: How do you choose a song?

HRH: I find it easier to compose and sing it but the musical arrangement (orchestra) has to be organised by someone else. I love all the Sufi saints and their poetry. I sing them all. I have done a lot of commercial music as well but I chose them because I am a Punjabi and from this region. Otherwise, I have sung Amir Khusrau and Sheikh Saadi in Persian.

"I am neither an Indian nor a Pakistani, I am a human being. I pray for the universe. Genetically, we are one. And we will be gathered. They won't be called Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. They would be called 'my people.'"

AA: How did you understand them?

HRH: You cannot understand them through intellect. You understand them through your heart. This has nothing to do with your intellect. Many wise people are also clueless. This is the world of the un-intellectual. You understand it through your feelings, not your brain. This is not about your intelligence. Do aur do ka jor hamesha char nahi hota, soch samajh walo ku thori nadani dey maula [Two and two don’t always make four, may God give the wise some foolishness]

AA: And how did this interest in Sufism develop?

HRH: I used to be disturbed by poverty, poor health, and helplessness because basically, I was an outsider. So I felt that these people have no food and the songs that I sing have nothing but a langar in them. I thought I have the right to live and this is my life. Then I moved towards commercial music, when I went on the worldly side, my songs became hits. I got infinite wealth and fame. The person who had commuted by foot for more than half his life now had the best cars and houses. I saw this world for 15 to 20 years, went straight from the dargah to Las Vegas, London, Toronto and Washington. So after a while, I thought that world was better. The lamp that worked with kerosene oil was better than the light of Vegas. It is a glorious city without a soul. That was a simple city with a soul. So I had a reunion.

AA: So you avoid foreign tours now?

HRH: No. I go everywhere. Taking money, singing on weddings, counting money – that’s what I have stopped. Now I have no tension. Sing a little, eat a little and then sleep. When I don’t sing for money, it’s not a paid job. I can sing whenever I like and stop whenever I like. I earned a lot of money and saved a lot. I have two sons, both are working in films as heroes: Navraj Hans and Yuvraaj Hans. In this old age, what would I do with money? My sons are super-hit heroes and they sing as well.

AA: How does the Punjabi music differ on the two sides of the border?

HRH: The surs are the same - seven. The training, environment and foods are different.

AA: Are you happy with the Punjabi music in Pakistan?

HRH: Not at all. I have heard Tufail Niazi, Pervez Mehdi, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Shaukat Ali … this jumping around right now is the job of the dishonourable. This dance…

AA: But yesterday they were dancing in front of you too?

HRH: I stopped them. I said this is what I got rid of and came to Lahore for, and now there is the same thing in Lahore. People consider it a hit show while I consider it a flop. People are happy when you bring tears to their eyes.

AA: Have you collaborated with other singers from Pakistan?

HRH: I am a huge fan of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan – Aftaab-e-Mausiqi (Sun of Music). If I consider someone close to my heart, it is him, from whom I learned a lot. Ghulam Ali Sahib, when he sings ghazal. He is alive and considers my home his home. I give him fatherly respect. From A to Z, all the Pakistani singers, they will tell you their home is in Jallandar. This is my earning. They come as if it is their own.

AA: Is Heer as famous in the Indian Punjab as it is here?

HRH: Indians remember Heer, Saif-ul-Malook, Mian Muhammad Baksh, by heart. People recite it under the banyan and give examples of it in the Panchayat.

AA: Do you think Punjabi folk and Sufi music is endangered?

HRH: No, the truth is never endangered. One should never feel insecure. Previously, I used to do three shows in three days, now I don’t even do it once in three months. Well, I just feel the standard should remain the same. I never said I am unhappy.

AA: How do the singers on this side of Punjab differ from those on the other side?

HRH: The difference developed not just on this side but that side also. People have become commercial, more business-minded. Now people don’t have the patience to spend 10-12 years filling the hookah or pressing the legs of their teacher. Now people are in a hurry: make the audio, video, and hammering, run it on a channel and run it on TV. If you repeat a lie, it starts looking like the truth.

AA: Singing competitions like Indian Idol are popular in India and Pakistan. Do you support them?

HRH: This is very good because it brings forward new talent. So many Pakistani artists went there. They were greeted very lovingly, got work for movies and even Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, if he hadn’t gone to India, just think: where would he sing? When he went there for the first time on the wedding ceremony of Rishi Kapoor, no one knew him. There he sang Shah-e-Mardan-e-Ali, and from there it’s history.

If Mahesh Bhatt hadn’t had that first song “Jiya Dharak Dharak Jaye” by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan – where would it be? Indian industry always welcomes Pakistan singers. Secondly, I am neither an Indian nor a Pakistani, I am a human being. I pray for the universe. Genetically, we are one. And we will be gathered. They won’t be called Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. They would be called “my people.” And the one who is humane is His man. He could have said Rab-ul-Muslimeen, the Lord of Muslims. But he said Rab-ul-Alimeen – the God of the Entire Universe. He said that if your neighbour is hungry, you don’t have the right to eat. He didn’t say that the neighbour has to be a Muslim. We can’t understand politics but we can try to understand love. Love has no border: no one is Pakistani or Hindustani.

AA: What is this tattoo on your hand?

HRH: This is the mention of Guru Nanak. Our first guru. This is like 786 is for Muslims. It’s called Omkar. It is the translation of Bismillah, which Guru Nanak believed in a lot and he even went to Makkah…

The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com