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The great innovator: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

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The great innovator: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was one of the greatest musicians of our time.

A great innovator, the legendary singer offended the purists by taking liberties with form and style. Yet his efforts injected vivacity into the Hindustani classical music scene.

MOHAN NADKARNI pays tribute to the maestro on the occasion of his eighteenth death anniversary last month.

Added to the potential for infinite musical expression was a vivid imagination that reveled in a variety of stylizations and improvisations.

BadeGhulamMy early familiarity with the music of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (who was also known as ‘Sab-Rang’, a pseudonym he used in his self-composed bandishes) goes back to the early ’40s – through his radio recitals as well as his commercial discs that were frequently broadcast from various AIR stations. It is difficult to remember the number of times I must have heard him ‘live’ in Bombay a decade later, till his death on April 23, 1968. Nor can I recall the number of occasions on which I met him during his residence in this metropolis.

But I vividly remember my first meeting with the Ustad at his Malabar Hill bungalow on March 28, 1963. My visit was prompted by persistent rumours that the Ustad, though stricken with paralysis for two years, had decided to stage a come-back to an active concert career. Those of us who had seen him in a semi-conscious condition during his illness and witnessed his utter helplessness were understandably inclined to dismiss the rumours out of hand.

But then seeing was indeed, believing. I was face-to-face with the Ustad, seated cross-legged on a settee in his spacious drawing-room. Without even so much as an introduction, but with that child-like smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he told me that he was already booked for a concert by a leading music circle in Bombay. At 61, he seemed to me like a disabled lion, majestic even in distress. He was infirm of body but indomitable in spirit. He glanced at the crutches lying by his side, but spoke of the curative power of music.

And, within a few moments, he had his swara-mandal on his lap. As I listened to him sing his favourite theme. ‘Bajuband Khul Khul Jaa’, in bhairavi, in a deep, husky but soothing voice, I realised that something short of a miracle had come off, after all.

Occasionally, the maestro would pause for a moment and explain the significance of his theme. Then suddenly he would switch to a sensitive depiction of all its niceties – the charm of its poetic enunciation or the beauty of its erotic colouring or the depth of its emotive impact. It was the very quintessence of the light classical idiom, all in his inimitable manner.

I sat listening to him spellbound for more than an hour, during which he also reeled off a variety of brief, tidy chhota khayals, thumris, a ghazal and his famous devotional ‘Hari Om Tat Sat’ in pahadi. Needless to say, the scheduled public concert he gave in the week that followed, is still hailed as symbolic of the triumph of the spirit over the body by all those who were lucky to attend it on that momentous day, April 2, 1963.

The music of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, all said and done, was possibly the best conceivable amalgam of technique and appeal. His voice was so unique in its expressiveness that it could afford anything 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 stylisations and improvisations, all within the larger framework of the North Indian tradition. He adapted his medium to render fluent khayals, sprightly thumris, erotic ghazals and soulful bhajans with an artistry all his own.

In his voice, the fluid melodic line of Hindustani music took a novel shape – it was the theme, as it were, that developed technique instead of technique moulding the theme. And that was what made the Ustad one of the most popular and also one of the most controversial musicians of the century. Which is also why, despite the impressive following he built up over three decades, he had as many detractors as he had admirers.

That Bade Ghulam Ali Khan gave a new élan to the evolution of Hindustani music is a hard fact that must be acknowledged. Yet his unorthodox vocalisation irked the purists to a point where they even questioned the authenticity of his professional lineage. Then there were others, ardent music-lovers themselves, who raised their brows at the brevity and tempo of his classical compositions. The sensibility of many a connoisseur was also often hurt by the Ustad’s hawk-like swoop on a light classical or devotional variety right in the midst of a raga elaboration in progress.

Equally intriguing was his penchant for sarangi-oriented taan patterns and plenitude of sargams which often dominated his singing. One also recalls in this context the stir he had created in the 1930s by yet another innovation, now better known as the Punjab variety of thumri. It is now recognised as a pace-setter in light classical music. But there are sticklers for tradition who still continue to feel that under the impact of this innovation, the pristine Purab ang would eventually pale into oblivion.

Official recognition in the form of titles and awards, like the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award came his way in fulsome measure after he became an Indian citizen. Extremely generous he gave away a large part of what he earned to charity and left no will behind. He also liberally guided many disciples, but few could measure upto his eminence. Munawwar Ali, his son, is a leading vocalist in his own right; but ironically, he suffers in comparison. The consolation is that he has left behind a fairly rich repertoire of recorded music, which includes his own compositions, for posterity.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was a maestro who would endear himself even to a stranger by his innate affability. He was courteous to a fault and humorous by disposition. His conversation, if at times rambling, was simply-worded and he could answer questions with a child-like simplicity. Here are some excerpts:

On his family background: I belong to Kasur, near Lahore, now in West Pakistan. I loved music instinctively from my childhood. Perhaps ever since I saw the light of day, I was exposed to music from my forbears, on both the paternal and maternal side. But I took regular lessons from the age of 5 from my uncle, Kale Khan, a court musician of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. After my uncle’s death, my father Ali Baksh Khan, guided me in my pursuits. He gave me a long and exacting training in vocal music. He did not allow me to perform in public till I was 23.

On his gharana: Both my uncle and father ranked among the most authentic exponents of the Pathiala gharana, known for its purity of articulation, romantic approach and emotional appeal. I have modelled my music after their pattern.

On the sarangi connection: My critics think that I belong to a tradition of sarangi-players and that I even started my career as a sarangiya. This is wrong, malicious and mischievous. My gharana represents a tradition of blue-blooded vocalists. As for me though, I love the sarangi as much as I love my voice. I am always charmed by its music – its smooth, soothing and clear tone. I learnt to play the sarangi because it gave me a correct insight into the infinite possibilities of a pure swara. Is there any other Indian instrument whose tone blends so perfectly with that of the human voice?

On the rationale of his approach to concert music: My critics are right when they say that the beauty and charm of raga music is in its leisurely improvisation. But then the days of chamber music, the music of long hours, is long past. We now sing for the masses. I know from my experience how today’s audiences react to elaborate presentations. In this age of speed and hurry, people are naturally inclined to prune their tastes to suit the conditions. Yet, I adhere to the purity of tradition.

I choose to include the lighter fare in my concert as it helps to lend variety. My critics should know that I am in a much better position to sense the needs and preferences of my listeners han what they think.

On the Punjab variety of thumri: There’s nothing like Purab ang and Punjab ang in thumri. Purab, the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh, is the birth-place of the traditional thumri. The compositions sung in that style are composed in the languages of that region, Purabi and Brij Bhasha, and they are sun in the traditional style wherever Hindustani music is in vogue.

The so-called Punjab-ang is no departure from tradition. It simply represents a fusion of suitable folk-tunes from Punjab with the orthodox lineaments of the Purab thumri. Do you know that the Purab tradition itself has branched out into two styles in Lucknow and Varanasi? Why not then in Punjab or, for that matter, in Bengal? Whatever the name thumri’s real charm lies in its artistic, imaginative depiction.




How the virtuoso became an Indian citizen

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was possibly the first musician to undertake tours from Pakistan to India after partition. Such visits were eagerly looked forward to by his fans till he finally decided to become an Indian citizen in the late ’50s. Although, till then, there was no objection from the Indian government to the Ustad’s visits and his brief sojourns, which were always in conformity with the visa regulations then in force, it was quite intriguing to find that his music – both ‘live’ and recorded – was taboo in the government media. Even mention of his name was forbidden by the broadcasting authorities!

This brings to mind an interesting incident in which I was involved. It was in early 1956, when AIR Bombay had booked me for a Marathi talk in its monthly series on the cultural activities of the metropolis. As it happened, precisely during the period to be reviewed, the Ustad gave a number of public concerts in various parts of the city and the suburbs. Naturally enough, I devoted a sizeable part of my nine-minute script to his concerts. I was also given permission to bring the script for AIR scrutiny as late as the day of the actual broadcast. (In those days, talks were meant to be direct broadcasts, save in exceptional cases.) I visited the radio station on the day of the scheduled broadcast with my script for scrutiny.

Imagine my predicament when the concerned programme executive told me, politely but firmly, after reading the script, that I should delete that part of the write-up which mentioned the name of the Ustad and his concerts. I was, till then, blissfully unaware of the AIR taboo. The censored part was of three minutes’ duration. And worse, the time at my disposal was too short for me to conjure up another memorable event for mention in its place. I literally developed cold feet. But with the kind assistance of the AIR officer, I somehow managed to fill the gap.

This lends credence to the then prevalent belief that the Ustad’s frequent visits to India, only to be followed by his return to Pakistan, were frowned upon by the authorities. Stories making the rounds in those days said that a good deal of persuasion was being brought to bear on the maestro to make India his home. It is said that the Ustad was clearly reluctant to do so. The situation reportedly reached a point where he was clearly given the option of either accepting the ‘quit’ notice, with a total ban on future visits, or taking up Indian citizenship.

What is still more strange is that it was Morarji Desai, the then chief minister of Bombay who, according to gossip-mongers, was instrumental in persuading the Ustad to settle down in India. It was said that Desai’s persuasion and assurance to provide him with a bungalow at Malabar Hill and other facilities brought about a change of heart in the Ustad.

To think of Morarjibhai, known for his prosaic outlook on life (not to speak of his many of the angularities) being so music-conscious as to extend such favours to a musician! Be that as it may, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was destined to be a precious acquisition to our musical inheritance. And he is the only Pakistani musician to have dared to become an Indian citizen.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, May 4, 1986 

1 Comment

  1. Respected Mohan ji

    Your review on the Bade Ustad ji is insightful. it flows like water and reads like wonderful story. We don’t see much written about him…so, Thanks a tonne

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