India Celebrates 60th Independence Day

This week, both India and Pakistan celebrate the 60th anniversary of their independence after British India was split. Commentator Sandip Roy recalls the singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose music bridged the divide between the two countries.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week, both India and Pakistan celebrate the 60th anniversary of their independence. And that was a time when British India was split up.

Today commentator Sandip Roy recalls the singer whose music bridged the divide between the two countries.

SANDIP ROY: I first saw Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan when a Bangladeshi friend dragged me to a concert in Berkeley. Nusrat was a large man, round like the full moon, who lowered himself down onto the stage floor with difficulty. But when he opened his mouth, his voice soared in jagged swirls of divine ecstasy. The audience danced deliriously in the aisles while the ushers looked on helplessly.

Mr. NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: While our leaders rattled sabers at each other, Pakistanis were listening to Indian music and watching smuggled Hindi films. Across the border, Indians were playing Pakistani artists. We were torn apart by partition in 1947 but still bound together like a Bollywood film about brothers separated at birth. They end up in rival gangs, but each carries half a locket with their mother's picture.

Nusrat, while always a Pakistani, became a superstar of the subcontinent. Soon, Nusrat was singing for Bollywood films, his music videos on MTV India. He collaborated with Indian poets. His Qawwali music celebrated divine love, becoming one with the creator.

Mr. KHAN (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: Pakistan turns 50 on August 14th 1997; India, the next day. The day after that, Nusrat was dead at 48. The entire subcontinent went into mourning. Now a new Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan CD has landed on my desk, "Dub Qawwali," unreleased Nusrat tracks overlaid with dub and reggae beat.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KHAN (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

ROY: Nusrat was never scared of experiments. Perhaps he would have relished crossing yet another boundary. He had already broken through the toughest border - the no man's land between India and Pakistan. Sixty years after the bloodstained dawn that made him Pakistani and me Indian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is singing again. The subcontinent couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media, and host of "Upfront," on member station KALW in San Francisco.

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