Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the greatest of them all

Dr. K.Rohiniprasad

The maestro with his family.
Ustad Munawar Ali (front row) provided vocal accompaniment to his father.


The sleeve notes on the long play records of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1902-1968) refer to him as the foremost among Hindustani vocalists. He was regarded a phenomenon even by his contemporaries. Born in 1902 in Kasur (West Punjab), Bade Ghulam’s fame as singer was initially limited to areas in and around Lahore. It was after 1939 that he became a favourite among music aficionados in Calcutta, Bombay and other cities in the subcontinent. According to G.N.Joshi, himself a vocalist associated with the HMV for several years, Bade Ghulam Ali introduced himself to lovers of classical music in Bombay in 1944. He presented Raga Marwa and a thumri, as they had never been sung before. This was in the Vikramaditya Sangit Parishad held in the Bombay University Convocation Hall.

The most striking aspect of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s singing is the amazing and effortless phirat of his voice, which ranged through three octaves. He won the appreciation of his illustrious predecessors including Ustad Alladiya Khan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan (father of Ali Akbar Khan and guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar), Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (father of the sarod player Amjad Ali Khan). In music festivals Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was invariably the biggest attraction of the evening and no one would dare to perform after his concert. His lilting thumris like Yad piya ki aaye, Kate na birahaki raat, Tirchhi Nazariya ke baan and Prem ke fande me aakar sajani, on records, cut in the forties, are still extremely popular with listeners, not only in India, but all over the world.

The Ustad’s impressive physique and the lofty gait of a monarch were as arresting as the sweet, soul-stirring notes of his music. His friends knew him not only as a versatile singer and an appreciative gourmet and an excellent cook. During his tours of Madras city, he used to take with him about eight persons including cooks. After one concert in the city the reputed Carnatic vocalist G.N.Balasubramaniam was so impressed that he prostrated himself at the Ustad’s feet.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan remained a Hindu at heart and his famous compositions like Hari Om Tatsat vouch for this. He was uncomfortable in Pakistan and Morarji Desai, the then Chief Minister of Bombay was instrumental in helping him acquire a flat in the city. He became an Indian citizen until his demise in 1968 in Hyderabad. The Ustad was reluctant to cut discs and a lot of persuasion was required to make him agree to make recordings of his music. Thanks to these efforts today we have immortal pieces as Aaye na baalam, Naina more taras rahe and Prem ki maar katar, to name a few.

Bade Ghulam Ali's study of music was extensive and while discussing any aspect of music, he would make intelligent observations that would surprise and impress the most learned and knowledgeable persons. On the emotional side, the exhibition of nature's strength always inspired Khan Saheb and he would give vocal expression to his feelings in ragas. From the balcony of his flat on Malabar Hill one could see the turbulent sea with its rising mountains of waves and he would reel out gamak taans in Raga Malhar when there was a clap of thunder. He would be inspired by a flash of lightning to indulge in a brilliant phirat, and when it poured cats and dogs, the result would be a torrent of powerful taans ranging over two to three octaves. It sounded as if a jugalbandi programme was in progress between Nature and this great man.

The greatest vocalist of the modern era, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's musical gifts were evident at an incredibly early age. The Ustad could not recall, as an adult, at what age he had begun to master the twelve notes. At the age of three or four, even as he started talking, he learnt sargams as a child learns his mother tongue. Recognising the musical prodigy in him, his father Ali Bux put him, at the age of seven, under the tutelage of Ustad Kale Khan of Patiala for the next ten years. The boy would go to a desolate spot, stand in front of a wall, sing out musical notes loudly and listen to the echo to correct himself! Some tongawallahs watching the proceedings from a distance would make fun of him for sometime and go away since he remained indifferent to their taunts.

After Kale Khan’s death, Ghulam Ali continued his training under his father. For the youngster, music became the sole passion and he practised day and night. His joys and sorrows were centred on music. Gifted with a great musical lineage, intelligence, sound training and high artistic sensibility, the purity of the note for him became the supreme thing, Other musicians including Ashiq Ali (of Tanras Khan gharana) and Baba Sindhi Khan groomed him later and some critics detect the influence of Ustad Wahid Khan his khayal alap. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s genius added rare polish and glow to the style of Patiala gharana resulting in unprecedented popularity.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan has influenced hundreds of singers trying to emulate him and thousands of music lovers who cherish his music. No other North Indian vocalist ever attracted such large audiences in the South as did Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Whether it was a sedate khayal, a romantic thumri or a devotional bhajan, the Ustad would put his heart and soul into the song. This made contemporary musicians and music lovers realise not only the importance of voice culture and modulation, but also the value of emotion in music. While many musicians sing perfectly and correctly, impressing the listener's intellect, very few of them can touch the heart as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan could. The remarkable pliability of his voice, the amazing swara combinations, the incredible speed of his taans and the ease with which he could sway his audiences by his emotional renderings that brought every rasa to life, were the envy of contemporary musicians. His varied and richly expressive style, the rare perfection of rendering the composition resulted in great popularity for the Punjab ang.

Under his pen name, "Sabrang", he composed numerous khayals and thumris. It is said that his "Kali ghata ghir ayee sajani", makes us hear the rumbling of thunder, see the flashes of lightning and share the agony of the separated one. His khayal "Mahadev Maheshwar" or his favourite bhajan "Hari Om Tatsat" would invoke religious feelings. In his thumri, "Naina more", he could portray the entire longing of the eyes of the beloved and the playfully romantic plea of the Gopi. According to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, emotion is the very soul of our music that can express the subtlest nuances of feeling. His style is an excellent blend of impressive technical mastery and appealing emotional expression. He was never interested in political and religious differences and knew only of two categories of people: music lovers and the uninterested ones. He would say "I know only one thing: Music! I am just a humble devotee of God and Music."

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan belonged to the era during which film music became a powerful attraction to the general public. In spite of its great commercial value, the appeal of film music is short-lived. As other films come along the old film and its songs are gradually forgotten. Classical music has a lasting hold on the interest of listeners in spite of the fact that recordings of classical music do not sell as fast as film music. Nor does its value to music lovers decline. Here we should ignore the present fancy that focusses more on the appearance and the hype that surrounds classical musicians rather than their music. In this context, the contribution of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan assumes special significance. The larger-than-life image of this legendary musician made his fans and other musicians hold him in deep awe.

Hailing from Lahore in Punjab, his performances in other Indian cities in the forties took the audiences by storm. As his rendering of khyals and thumris won unprecedented popularity, he never looked back as a performer. Early efforts by music director Naushad to get him to sing for films like Baiju Bawra did not seem to materialise but he sang a couple of songs for Mughal-e-azam. His attempts to dodge the assignment failed because the director agreed to all his seemingly impossible terms.

On behalf of HMV, G.N.Joshi had to use a lot of tact and guile to get the reluctant Ustad to record his music in the forties and these 78RPM discs remain unique to this day. In the early sixties, as long playing records became popular, initial efforts to persuade the Ustad to cut discs did not fructify. In 1963 when his health started deteriorating, he set aside his initial demand for a hefty remuneration and recorded two LPs. This was followed by other recordings. Today, apart from many private collections, more of his recordings are available from the archives of the All India Radio.

Musicians like Pandit Jagannathbua Purohit, Professor B. R. Deodhar and others had close personal interaction with the Ustad during his stay in Bombay where he ultimately settled down. Later Nawab Zahir Yar Jung took Khan Saheb to Hyderabad and looked after him till he breathed his last in 1968. The Ustad’s elder son Karamat Ali went to Pakistan but his younger son, Munawar Ali remained with him and sang along with him in concerts. Munawar imbibed the vast treasure of his father's musical knowledge. Bade Gulam Ali's talented younger brother Barkat Ali Khan often accompanied him on the harmonium. Barkat Ali sang excellent thumris and won a lot of fame. He influenced several ghazal luminaries like Begum Akhtar and Ghulam Ali. Barkat Ali Khan passed away in Pakistan in 1963. Munawar Ali Khan carried on his father’s style of singing until his early death a few years ago. His son Raza is a vocalist and Ajoy Chakravarty is carrying on with the Patiala tradition.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan used to spend most of his day singing. That is reflected in his intimate familiarity with the notes and gamaks of any raga. Even as his masseur would work on his limbs during his recovery from paralysis, he would sing snatches of sargam that would match the movements of the masseur’s hands. He literally breathed music all through his life. His Darbari, Gujari Todi and other records makes us wonder how such an amazing quantity of music could be fitted into just three minutes of singing. He was and would always remain a musical phenomenon.

1 Comments:

Blogger xerses dominique said...

Great Historical Post About a Great Maestro of Patiala Gharana.... Undoubtedly he is the greatest of All till now ever recorded for Patiala Gharana. Unparallel !!!
After Legendary ustad Faiyaz Khan (agra Gharana) he was really great.

8:51 AM  

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