LAHORE: This is where his voice soared. This is where it was captured on tape. This is where Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan slept and made his music — his magic.
Sargam Digital and Sound Studio on the first floor of Malik Plaza at Scheme Chowk in Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore was set up by the giant of qawaali in 1983. As one walks into the studio — still home to the instruments and equipment once used by Khan — the space immediately strikes a chord. A chord that reverberates deep in the spine, plucking at the memory of a man who serenaded us with his melodious voice.
Khan used the studio at the peak of his career, recording some of the most eminent qawaalis including the famous Ali Da Malang here. Not all that he recorded, however, was released during his lifetime. In fact, some unreleased recordings are still said to be tucked away safely within the confines of the studio.
Khan did not just build the studio to rehearse and record, it also became his home. Even when he died, Khan was brought to the studio for one last time. Any other country’s government would have jumped in to preserve the place and its legacy. But unfortunately, the economics of property trumped its heritage. The studio was rented out along with the bedroom Khan resided in.
Yet, there is some consolation. Most of the instruments and equipment still work. And when Khan’s nephew and heir apparent Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sold the property in 2007, it found its way in the hands of a man in love with Khan’s music.
Music director Raza Shah never for once doubted the history and importance of the studio he had come to acquire. He restored the mixer and the instruments, beckoning artists to record using the same knobs and pegs that once helped capture Khan’s virtuoso trill. Perhaps the most significant of these acquisitions is the Tascam mixer that was gifted to Khan by his fans in London in 1994. Over twenty-five years later, the contraption continues to ensure that under the attentive ear of Shah, the audio levels at Sargam studio are just right.
Renowned crooners Naseebo Laal, Akram Rahi, Humaira Arshad, Saira Naseem, Atta Ullah Khan Essa Khailvi, Arif Lohar are among those who have recorded songs at the studio after Khan’s demise.
Music lovers from around the world have come to visit the place. Last year, the great Indian singer Hans Raj Hans and composer AR Rahman came to the studio. Some come to enquire about the sale of these instruments and equipment because of their love for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But I believe these are our country’s assets and I am here to care for them, not sell them,” says Raza Shah.
This is also because Khan himself never used the studio for commercial purposes. “He produced his own work here. It is also where he met his friends. Some of the rooms on the floor were turned into bedrooms. But now the studio is limited to just this one room,” explains Shah, adding politicians including PTI chief Imran Khan often frequented the studio in the past, but never returned after Khan’s death.
The real treasure, though, might not be the room that now remains of the studio. It might not even be the instruments and equipment Khan once used. The real treasure is the massive body of work left behind by Khan, master tapes of which are now in the secure custody of Shah.
“Around five thousand tunes and songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are safe here. Some great singers and his family members have contacted me to get them,” Shah shares with pride. “I am a music director and I know how this works. Nusrat’s belongings are sacred to me.”
For Shah, the studio is a shrine. And he has no intentions of letting anyone desecrate it.