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An ustad's legacy

Print edition : Jul 20, 2002 T+T-

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's enduring contributions to the world of Hindustani music and to the singing of the thumri, the bhajan and folk tunes are in focus in this, his birth centenary year.

AS a young journalist then, I was in good time that morning for my interview with Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of Bombay State, at his official residence. But something had upset the morning's schedule, and there I was, cooling my heels, as officials, politicians and visitors trooped in and out.

When I was finally sent for, Morarji Desai apologised for the delay. "You know," he explained, "Bade Ghulam Ali, from Lahore, was here this morning. He is the very best living exponent of Hindustani classical music. After 10 years in Lahore, he has discovered that his cultural roots are in India, and he wants a permanent immigrant visa. What do you think I should do - recommend his case?"

I was flattered to be 'consulted' by Desai. I said: "For me, he isn't the best living singer, but certainly, an Indian citizenship for him benefits us immensely."

Morarji Desai was not used to being contradicted, and certainly not by an upstart junior scribe. What I said was not music to his ears. "Oh, so for you he isn't our best singer, is it? Who meets your exacting standards?" he asked.

I should have demurred, but persisted: "I honestly think Ustad Amir Khan from Indore is our best singer." It was only years later I came to know that despite being professional rivals and despite possessing diametrically opposite styles, the two maestros (Amir Khan was seven years junior to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan) retained an innate respect for each other.

It is a measure of the depth and diversity of Indian classical music that despite the contrasting styles of singing, both had their vast, loyal following and aficionados.

Music critic Mohan Nadkarni, in his Great Masters: Profiles in Hindustani Classical Vocal Music, says Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's music was extroverted, exuberant, volatile and eclectic. On the other hand, Amir Khan's magic amalgam came from the Khanda-Meru school - an introverted, dignified durbar style, where the pattern and the tempo of singing builds upon itself and evolves ever so gradually.

Morarji Desai successfully negotiated the grant of a permanent immigrant visa to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan between 1957 and 1958. In an unusual gesture, he also helped the ustad to settle down in Mumbai, earmarking for him a posh Malabar Hill bungalow facing the sea, and inviting the city elite to a musical concert at his residence.

In 1962, in the evening of an event-filled life, the ustad moved to Hyderabad, where Nawab Zahir Yar Jung, a long-time admirer of his music, offered him support and space in his Bashir Baug palace. It had begun a hundred years ago in Kasur, near Lahore, and ended, after many highs, honours and haunting concerts in Hyderabad in April 1968.

This year we celebrate the ustad's birth centenary, and attempt a centennial assessment of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's lasting contribution to Hindustani music and to the singing of the thumri, the bhajan and folk tunes. He made a major contribution to Hindustani music and revolutionised the singing of the classical khayaal as well as the folksy ditties. We select him from among several outstanding exponents of classical music because in the 20th century, he came closer than many others to re-inventing the raison d'etre of Indian music - the vision of a "Naadh-Brahma", the nirvaan of secular music, a vision of a self-sustained universe created from the exquisite amalgam of raag, taal and taan.

As a child and as an adolescent, Ghulam Ali learnt music from his uncle, Ustad Kalle Khan of the Kasur gharana. Inspiration and hard work helped this ambitious youngster to chisel out the angularities in his singing. His preparatory years were marked by industry and determination, which fact became evident in the unsurpassed range and quality of his voice.

In the years that followed, it was the maestro's voice that gave his art an immortality which was rarely equalled. The voice could articulate the quiver of a delicate note to the opening of the floodgates of powerful taans. His listeners were awe-struck at the amazing voice range, which moved freely through three octaves and the most intricate patterns of signing without losing its flexibility and sweetness.

Curiously, young Ghulam Ali, like Amir Khan and some other outstanding vocalists, began his musical career by learning to play on the exquisite stringed instrument, the sarangi. It is said of Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar that he was proud that most of his pupils, including the sitar wizard, Ravi Shankar, the sarod virtuoso, Ali Akbar Khan, and the flautist, Pannalal Ghosh, had firm foundations in their musical expressions because of the intense training that they had with the sarangi and later, in dhrupad dhamar and pakhawaaj.

High-quality music required a unity of raag, taal and taan, said the Maihar maestro, Ustad Allauddin Khan. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan admitted that it was his early felicity with the sarangi that influenced his musical articulateness profoundly and later, his ability to execute difficult but exceedingly fluent and sonorous taans. "Can you find another instrument which is so close to the human voice?" he would ask.

Whether it was the khayaal with its courtly discipline, the thumri with its wistful romance or the bhajan with its devotional elan, the ustad opened the eyes and attuned the ears of music-lovers, critics and experts to the importance of voice culture and voice control and the place of emotion in music.

Ghulam Ali Khan made his first bow before the public in a Delhi durbar, organised in honour of the Prince of Wales by the British government and the princely states in the early 1920s.

He arrived on the Hindustani musical scene in the 1930s, riding a new gharana style called the Patiala Gaiki. But what caused a sensation were his debuts at the All-India Music Conference, Kolkata (1939) and later, at the Vikramaditya Sangeet Parishad, Mumbai (1944). These heralded the rise of a new star on the musical firmament.

Distinguished musicians participating in the classical music soirees praised the virtuosity of the 40-year-old Ghulam Ali Khan, whose voice combined a sweetness and pliability that could handle unpredictable swara combinations, deliver taans at incredible speed and captivate audience with ease with surcharged emotion in singing.

An usually attractive trait of the ustad's singing was his absolute virtuosity and mastery over intricate taan patterns. It won him friends, admirers and fans across the musical divide, in Carnatic music also. An admirer recalled a visit he made to the ustad's Mumbai residence, shortly before he moved to Hyderabad. The doting follower had to fly to Calcutta a few hours later and it was almost 11 p.m. when he rang the ustad's doorbell. The fan revealed that not only was he treated to tea and sweets at that hour, but that the ustad asked his son Munawar to fetch his swar-mandal so that he could sing a few thumris for the visitor. Overwhelmed, the visitor remarked to his host in Mumbai: "Can you beat this great artist's humility and uttar absorption in music?"

FEW luminaries have shone so brightly on the classical music firmament for almost two generations as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did. Few still could combine so remarkably, tradition with magnetism, technique with grace and pure classicality with popular appeal.

"It is rare to come by a musical wizard", writes music critic Mohan Nadkarni, "who could intone with such finesse for aligning his music to the moods and tastes of his mixed audiences. His clear and mellifluous voice, which had both range and depth, was his fortune and he had admirably adopted it to his medium to render fluent khayaals, sprightly thumris, erotic ghazals, soulful bhajans and perennial folk songs with an artistry all his own."

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan himself said once: "Many people think that classical music has no power of expression and has only technical virtuosity. They forget that emotion is the very soul of our music and that it has the power to express even the subtlest of nuances."

While singing thumris, especially, the ustad would often break his singing to emphasise the sensitive depiction and the charm of its poetic element, enunciate its beauty and delicately delineate the erotic colour or the depth of its emotive concerns. Occasionally, while singing classical raags, he would stop to show how a certain pattern of singing would go if it were a thumri, and if it were classical singing.

The ustad had his critics, too, who would criticise him for compromising on the chaste purity of the classical compositions "for cheap popularity". This is, of course, a variant of the old conundrum: whether music, especially classical music, should be for the "classes" or for the "masses".

Bade Ghulam Ali himself once said: "I know I have been criticised by the so-called high-brow votaries - for shortening the vilambit, singing in raags like Durbari Kanada, Marwa and Lalit and compromising on tradition. I agree that the charm and the heart of classical music is in its leisurely rendering. But then, gone are the days of the leisurely durbar music concerts, which could go on for hours, repeating its contents. We now have to sing for the people whose leisure is limited, and align our music to their moods and caprices."

G. N. Joshi, a recording company executive in Mumbai and himself a singer, has written with feeling of the human side of the maestro. Once Joshi was in the ustad's Mumbai bungalow when there was a cloudburst, and the anger of the sea nearby, amid the lightning, created an eerie atmosphere. Joshi recalls how Bade Ghulam Ali sang the many variations of Malhaar raag trying to match the lapping of the waves on the seashore, "echoing the clap of thunder with gamak taans; the lightning with brilliant phirats or vocal pirouettes, and the rain with torrents of taans over the three octaves". It was a jugalbandhi between Man and Nature.

Similarly, at a musical mehfil in Hyderabad's Bashir Baug palace, when a night-train in the nearby Nampally station gave a shrill whistle to mark the start of its journey, Bade Ghulam Ali (who was about to begin his recital), started on the same high note and progressively came down through the Tivra, Madhya and Mandra octaves - to the deafening applause of his audience. Bhimsen Joshi, the veteran classical singer, recalls how impressed younger singers were with the ustad's uncanny ability to cross three octaves and touch an even higher note. "When we tried it, our larynxes went on strike," he recalled recently.

In his last few years, when the ustad was afflicted by partial paralysis, he had to undergo physical massage daily for two hours in order to condition his body. This was a ritual he hated - until he chanced to match the massage with musical raags. Like some other wizards of music in Hindustani and Carnatic music, his commitment to the swara, raag and laya was so total that daily life became a musical exercise.

Not to be missed is his contribution to restoring the thumri to its pristine place among folk ditties. Under his tutelage, thumri singing reached an esoteric level that had not been reached earlier. Indeed, many who listened to his haunting thumris such as Aaye na baalam, kya karun sajani; Yaad piya ki aaye; Kate naa biraha ki raat for the first time, realised how powerfully music could display emotions. Many were attracted to the ustad's music through his thumris.

His thumris are a magical amalgam of dexterity, vitality, flexibility and range of voice which ensures an electrifying impact. The bol-banao thumri, set on vilambit taal, provided the ustad an extended canvas for reposeful improvisation; the bol-bant thumri (popular in Kathak dances) is faster and allows rhythmic play. Single-handedly, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan created what is known as the "Punjab Ang" of the thumri. The ustad's repertoire included the Dadra, with its coquettish metric cadence; the Kajri (for which Mirzapur town is famous) which extols romantic moments and pining; the Chaiti depicting the trauma of separation in the post-harvest season, and so on. Under the pen name Sab-rang, Bade Ghulam Ali composed many of his own songs.

G. N. Joshi has written of how in 1948, a dozen exquisitely sung thumris were recorded by his company at one sitting, "under false pretenses"! The ustad, like numerous artists, had a weakness for scotch whisky and a toothsome viand. After he had said he was too unwell for a recording, the ustad was invited to come to the company's offices for a "small drink". Joshi had prepared a couple of tanpuras attuned to the maestro's pitch, and called his senior instrumentalists to an adjoining room. After a peg or two of scotch, the maestro took up the tanpura to make a technical point which did catch him off-guard, but made him want to show his progress. One after another Bade Ghulam Ali reeled off his thumris. It was only when Joshi said "we just need two more" that Bade Ghulam Ali demanded to know how many had been recorded. "Two more will make the right dozen to cut a record," he was told. Joshi said ustad was a gourmand - "Rangila Gavayya and Rasila Khavayya".