Mohammad Tufail Niazi was born in 1916 in Madairan, district Jallandar. Tufail’s family was the only Muslim family in Madairan which otherwise was a Sikh population village. Madairan, was only a few kilometers away from Sham Chaurasi, famous birthplace of the musical gharana linked with Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s finest classical vocalist.
Tufail’s family and ancestors were “Pakhawajis”. Pakhwaj is a tabla- like instrument traditionally used as accompaniment in Dhrupad singing, the much older form of Indian classical vocal music than the newer and more popular Mughal-era musician’s creation Khayal.
Historically, some of his family members were “Rubabis” who sang Gurbanis, the 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, the 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.
Tufail lived in Gondwal for few years and would have moved sooner if it was not 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 audiences anywhere and performed an amalgam of theater, narrative and song often based on episodes of Lord Rama’s life. He then joined a travelling theater “Nautanki”. He practiced 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 paints a picture like not from 20th century history but a much older epoch that we can no longer even imagine.
At the time of partition, like all other Muslims from East Punjab, Tufail also had to move from his ancestral lands and he ended up in Multan. To survive in this new and unknown place, he opened up a milk shop. Fortunately, in 1949 a police inspector who had known him and had been a fan saw him and was told that Tufail had abandoned music because he had no instruments and no other way to make a living, intervened. He managed to get him instruments from the government and organized a mehfil for Tufail introducing him to the people in Multan. Tufail Niazi’s voice could have been lost forever had it not for the effort of an old fan who saved him from potential obscurity.
Tufail soon became popular in the cultural circles of Multan after which there was no looking back. He started singing for Radio Pakistan and had the honour 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 that he had been just Tufail. Later, Tufail Niazi worked with great dedication to help set up and sustain the National Institute of Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa) in Islamabad.
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. His Punjabi Lacha and a silk kurta always 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.
He received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1983, died on September 21st, 1990 and is buried in the graveyard in Islamabad.