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Retrospection: BADE GULAM ALI KHAN

The Times of India, May 5, 1961

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

55 - RetrospectionMUSIC to me is more than my food. I live music – it is my very life, and Icannot live without it. I would rather die with a song on my lips than live without music –so declaimed the maestro. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as I rose to take leave after a brief meeting with him as his Malabar Hill residence in Bombay.

This was some five years ago. My visit was occasioned by persistent rumours that the celebrated vocalist, already stricken with paralysis for two years, had decided to stage a come-back to active musical life. Those of us, who had seen him during his illness and the utter helplessness that had befallen him, were disinclined to believe the rumours they were too good to be true.

But then here was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, seated cross-legged on a settee, telling me with a twinkle in his eyes and with that characteristic impish smile on his lips, that he was already booked for a concert by a leading music circle in the city.

Infirm of body but exuberant in spirit, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was then 61, looked like a disabled lion, still majestic in his deportment. He spoke of the curative powers of music and within a few moments, he had his sur-mandal on his lap. As I listened to him rendering his favourite them in Bhairavi. Bajuband khul khul ja in a soothing, husky, deep voice. I realized that something short of a miracle had come off, after all.

And who, indeed, would have thought that Bade Ghulam Ali, crippled by a seemingly incurable affliction would be able to sing again. Occasionally, he would pause for a moment and explain the significance of his theme : and then suddenly switch on to a sparkling display of all its niceties the charm of poetic enunciation, erotic colouring and emotive impact the very quintessence of light classical idiom, in his own inimitable manner. I sat listening to him spell-bound.

The return of this maestro to active musical life was truly symbolic of the triumph of the spirit and the scheduled public concert where he sang a week later more than proved this.

It is easy to be a dry traditionalist in art but difficult to interpret the wealth behind it. Fine words these from a contemporary critic. And nothing can sum up the truth of these words better than the art of Bade Gulam Ali. For his was the music that presented the best imaginable blend of appeal and technique. His voice was so unique in its expressiveness that it could afford anything from a subtle delicate nuance to a vigorous powerful tone from a mere quiver of resonance to a flood of melody.

Added to this potential for infinite musical expression was a vivid imagination that reveled in a variety of stylizations and improvisations, all strictly within the frame-work of classical traditions. He adapted his medium to render fluent khayals, sprightly thumaris, erotic ghazals and soulful bhajans with an artistry all his own. In his voice the fluid melodic line of Hindustani music took novel shape : it was theme which developed technique instead of technique moulding theme. And that was what made him one of the most popular and also one of the most controversial musicians of this century.

The music world is full of feuds and does not take kindly to innovators. Thus, despite the impressive following this versatile genius came to build around him for three decades, he had as many detractors as he had admirers. That he gave a—elan to the evolution of Hindustani music is a hard fact that must be acknowledged. Yet his unorthodox vocalization irked the purists to a point where they even questioned the authenticity of his musical lineage. Then there were others, themselves keen lovers of music who raised their brows at the brevity and tempo of his classical compositions. Ghulam Ali’s hawk-like swoop on a light classical or devotional variety right in the midst of a raga elaboration also hurt the susceptibilities of many a connoisseur. Equally intriguing was his penchant for sarangi oriented tan patterns and plenitude of sargams which often dominated his singing. One also recalls in this context the stir he had created in the thirties by yet another innovation in the light classical domain now known as the Punjab variety of thumari and immensely popular with the masses.

I hazarded another meeting with Bade Ghulam Ali soon after his celebrated concert. I say ‘hazarded’ advisedly : the reasons that prompted this meeting were rather ticklish. I was keen to know the other side of the Ghulam Ali story straight from the horse’s mouth and it was with some misgivings and a sense of trepidation that I explained to him the purpose of my visit.

The Ustad was in an expansive mood, visibly pleased with the reception he had from the press and the public in the wake of his recital. With simple candour, he recalled his childhood days, telling me that he hailed from Kasur, near Lahore, now in West Pakistan. He developed an instinct for music from his very childhood. Ever since he saw the light of day he had the opportunity to listen to elevating music from his forbears on both the paternal and maternal side. He learnt to sing as he learnt to talk but it was from the age of five that he took regular lessons in music from his uncle, Kale Khan, a noted vocalist of his time and a court-musician of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. After his uncle’s death Ghulam Ali continued his musical pursuits under the guidance of his illustrious father Ali Baksh Khan.

Bade Ghulam Ali recounted in a reminiscent vein, how his father with the right blend of parental love, understanding and discipline subjected his son to a most exacting training in vocal music. Not until he was 23 did he allow the youngster to give a public performance.

It is acknowledged that you gave a new lease of life to “khayal” singing in general and the Patiala “gharana” in particular. There is also a popular belief that your style of singing represents a fusion of the Patiala and Kirana traditions of music. Is this true ?

Sab Jhoot! Both my uncle and father were among the most authentic exponents of the Patiala gayaki, a style distinguished for purity of articulation romantic approach and emotional appeal. I have modeled my melody after their pattern.

I have oftenheard it said that the sarangi was your first love and that you earnestly took to vocal music at a fairly later age.

The temperamental and moody maestro seemed rather piqued by this question, but vehemently denied having ever started his career as an instrumentalist. He, however, hastened to say that he had to pay on the sarangi and many other instruments to earn his livelihood. “But what makes you ask this question?” came the counter-query from the Ustad.

“The sarangi-like fineries in your singing.”

“No No No. I love the sarangi as much as I love my voice. Instruments like the sarangi, with their smooth, soothing and clear tone, gave me correct insight into the infinite possibilities of a pure swara. And there is really no other Indian instrument whose tone blends so perfectly with that of the human voice. I am always charmed by the music of the sarangi.”

Contrary, to convention, your raga expositions are marked by brevity even in “vilambit” tempo, to be followed sometimes by two “drut” pieces and then even a “tarana” all in the same raga. The speed and hurry with which you pass from classical to lighter tunes………

I know I have been much maligned by the so-called highbrow votaries on this score. No doubt the beauty and charm of classical music lies in its leisurely improvisation. But gone are the days of chamber music – the music of long hours. We have now to sing for the masses and align our music to their moods and caprices. I know from my own experience how audiences react to elaborate improvisations. Ours is an age of speed and hurry where people are inclined to prune their tastes to suit the conditions around them. There can of course be no compromise on principle – I mean thr purity of tradition and whatever I do I do within the limits permitted by tradition.

Much has also been said against my fondness for lighter fare but you see my critics must know that I am in a much better position to sense the needs and preferences of my audiences than they think they are.

The Punjab variety of “thumri”, so popular these days, is now recognised as a pace-setter in light classical music. But sticklers for tradition continue to feel that under the impact of this innovation, the pristine Purab “ang” will eventually pale into oblivion. As one who pioneered the evolution and development of the Punjab “ang”. I would like you to enlighten me on this point.

There is nothing like Purab ang and PUNJAB ANG IN THUMARI. Purab (Uttar Pradesh) is the birth place of the traditional thumri. The traditional thumri compositions are all woven in the languages of that region, namely, Purabi and Brjj Bhasha, and they are sung in the traditional style wherever Hindustani music is in vogue. The so-called Punjab ang is no departure from tradition. It only represents a fusion of suitable folk tunes from Punjab with the orthodox lineaments of the Punjab thumri. The Purab tradition itself has branched off into two styles in Lucknow and Varanasi. Why not then in Punjab and for that matter in Bengal? The real charm of thumari lies in its artistic and imaginative delineation.

Bade Gulam Ali Khan had an unwavering grasp of the fundamentals of Indian melody as few others could and he used this basic firmness for popularizing the classical and light classical traditions of North India among the common folk. Timber and tone were in his blood and they found the most exquisite expression through his marvelous voice which swayed the masses wherever they heard him.

He had the pride of his calling but none of its prejudices and jealousies. Big-built and puffy faced Bade Ghulam Ali would appear grave and even haughty at first sight. But so innate was his affability and so infectious his sense of humour that he would endear him-self even to a stranger. He was courteous to a fault and his generosity, proverbial. His conversation was simply-worded and he held contemporary musicians, both Hindustani and Carnatic in great esteem. His popularity with southern audiences was a covetable distinction for a northerner.

Titles and awards came his way in plenty. But he seldom cared for them. His recording for the radio and the gramophone are his precious bequest to posterity. Even generations yet unborn will hail Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as a surprise that just came off.






  1. I grew up reading Mohan Nadkarni’s music reviews in Times of India in 60s before I left for US. I was so enthralled and captivated by his writing that when I went to a musical concerts of the great artistes and listened their performances either in Rang Bhavan, Birla Matushree, St. Xavier’s College or other venues ( in those days there were very limited venues), I would eagerly wait for the next morning to read TOI review of Mohan Nadkarni. Reading his reviews taught me so much more about Hindustani Classical music. Music Lovers are eternally grateful to him for his wonderful and lyrical writing.

    • A agree with you. Music critics / journalists of Mohan Nadkarni’s class took it as their primary responsibility to propagate classical music via their reviews & reports. An utterly erudite music journalist if ever there was one, in our country.

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