Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan rightly deserved not only recognition as one of South Asia’s foremost classical singers, indeed, THE singer of his generation, but his name as well. He was undoubtedly, bade (elder, large, senior). His body was immense with people referring to being next to him as if he were a massive strong elephant. He loved life, singing, whiskey and food and sported one of the most pronounced distinguished moustaches between the Indus and the Brahmaputra.
He cast a long and wide shadow too, from which is very talented son Munawar found it hard to escape. Though the father always chose Munawar to accompany him on his many tours, he was reluctant to let the younger man achieve his own singing potential. The deep mysteries of family life.
G.N. Joshi a sound engineer for All India Radio and HMV in the early years of Independent India wrote an immensely pleasurable and personal account of his years with these great singers. I include it here.
Film music has a tremendous attraction for the masses and it has great commercial value. But, like the films, its appeal is short-lived. A popular film and its songs may hold the public interest for some time, but as other films come along the old film and its songs are gradually forgotten.
It is not so with classical music, which has a lasting hold on the interest of listeners. Even though records of classical music do not sell as fast as film records, their value to music lovers does not decline. In 1944 the Vikramaditya Sangit Parishad was held in the Bombay University Convocation Hall. An artist from Punjab presented Raga Marwa and a thumri, as they had never been presented before, and will never be presented again. This was how Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan introduced himself to lovers of classical music in Bombay. Raga Marwa, which he selected as his opening item, has a combination of notes –komal rishab and shudha dhaivat– which sounds very pensive and persuasive. The Ustad‘s melodious voice and his most arresting style gripped the listeners from the start. He unfolded before the amazed audience a most attractive and elaborate picture of Raga Marwa.
The almost effortless phirat of his voice, which ranged through three octaves –Mandra, Madhya and Taar-elevated the artist and the listeners to immeasurable heights of musical experience. This was Bade Gulam Ali’s maiden appearance in this city. He came, he sang, and he conquered the entire musical world of Bombay.
The audience that day was star-studded. Eminent artists like ‘Aftab-e-mausiki’ Ustad Faiyaz Hussain Khan, Ustad Allaudin Khan (father of Ali Akbar Khan and guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar), the famous sarod player from Gwalior-Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (father of the young sarod player Amjad Ali Khan), Marhoom Ustad Alla Diya Khan and many others were seen nodding in appreciation of Bade Gulam Ali’s performance.
Ustad Alla Diya Khan with his snow-white mustache and fair complexion, was a very impressive person. He had settled in Bombay a few years before, but having stayed many years in Kolhapur, he always dressed in the Maharashtrian style. He looked very dignified, clad in a pure white dhoti in Brahminic style, an open collared coat, shining pump shoes and a turban tied in the impressive Kolhapuri fashion. Amidst the galaxy of artists he looked like an emperor holding his darbar. M. R. Jayakar honoured him that night with the title: ‘The Mount Everest of classical music’.
This was a significant night, not only because I heard Bade Gulam Ali, but also because it was the last appearance of Ustad Alla Diya Khan in such an august assembly. That night the Ustad was flanked by his disciple Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar on the right and his son on the left as tanpura accompanists. This was indeed an unforgettable experience.
Bade Gulam Ali Khan was the biggest attraction of the evening. In this, his very first visit, I managed to bring him to our studio to record a few of his choicest khayals and thumris. He sang lilting thumris like Yad piya ki aaye, Katena birahaki raat, Tirachhi Nazariya ke baan and Premke fandeme aakar sajani, and these records, cut almost forty years ago, are still popular with listeners, not only in India, but all over the world. Bade Gulam Ali Khan had an impressive physique and the lofty gait of a monarch. It was hard to believe that this broad-faced, bewhiskered giant was capable of producing such sweet, soul-stirring notes. A year after our first meeting, on the occasion of my elder daughter’s birthday, I invited Bade Gulam Ali to my place for dinner. It was a pleasant surprise to see the great Ustad at the dinner table, consuming, with great relish, a whole chicken. nearly two dozen chappatis and more than a kilo of mithai (sweetmeats) and still more amazing was his 4 hour musical recital immediately afterwards. I thanked him profusely and jocularly remarked that people would always remember him as rangila gavaiyya and rasila khawaiyya (a versatile singer and an appreciative gourmet). Bade Gulam Ali was also an excellent cook. On many occasions for several years thereafter, he pressed on me delicious dishes such as mutton paya and karela mutton which he had prepared himself.
Bade Gulam Ali hailed from Lahore in Punjab. It was his heartfelt desire that I, who was by now one of his dear friends and great admirers, should visit him in Lahore. A chance to respond to this invitation came very soon. Mr. Z. A. Bokhari the then station director of All India Radio, Bombay, offered me a chain booking to broadcast from the Lucknow, Delhi and Lahore radio stations. I spent most of my stay in Lahore with the great Ustad. Walking with him through the Hiramandi park of Lahore city I felt as if I was walking by the side of a majestic elephant who was parading through the streets, accepting the reverent salutations of numerous admirers. He lavishly showered hospitality on me. This was the end of the year 1945.
During his short visit to Bombay in 1948 I fixed up a recording session with him. In the afternoon, when I had everything arranged for recording in our studio, he telephoned to say that he was not feeling well enough to record. I insisted that he should come over and that we would not do any recording but we would have a nice long chat and dinner. Very reluctantly he accepted my pressing invitation. Before he came I had to plan a strategy whereby I would be able to persuade him to strain his vocal chords. I gave a hundred rupee note to my peon Sakharam and instructed him to procure a bottle of Scotch, which was the Ustad‘s favourite drink. Sakharam was to bring the bottle and the glasses into the studio only when I gave him the signal to do so.
I had arranged things in the studio in such a manner that I could start recording at a moment’s notice. I instructed that the accompanying musicians be kept waiting in an ante-room. I escorted the great Ustad into the studio, assuring him that we would not do any recording but would have just an interesting and enjoyable evening. On the spacious wooden platform were two tanpuras already tuned to suit his pitch. The Ustad, a man of generous proportions, always preferred to sit cross-legged on the platform instead of on a chair. I seated myself near him with one tanpura close at hand. While we conversed I casually started playing on the strings of the tanpura. ‘Khan Saheb,’ I said, ‘ I want to know why followers of the Gwalior gharana prefer to use tivra dhaivat, in Raga Lalat, instead of komal dhaivat which sounds so much sweeter.’ With the sound of the tanpura playing in the background Khan Saheb could not resist demonstrating why komal dhaivat is preferable to tivra dhaivat. 1 noticed with satisfaction that my strategy was succeeding. Unseen by him, I gave the signal to Sakharam who walked in with the bottle and the glasses. Noticing this, the Ustad looked happier, though he protested mildly. I said to him, ‘Since we are not going to do any recording we might as well have a gay time.’ I came up with another question while the maestro was enjoying the drink. ‘Why is it that some singers use both tivra and komal nishads in Raga Adana? Is it correct to do so?’ I refilled Khan Saheb’s glass, and he who had been sitting in a relaxed position so far sat upright in his usual singing posture, fully inspired and in the mood to sing. He picked up the other tanpura which was close to him and began to demonstrate how Raga Adana should be rendered.
I allowed him to sing for a while and then said, ‘Khan Saheb, your voice is in absolutely top form!’ He guessed the implication of my remark, and smiling a little mischievously he said, ‘So, you do want to do a recording’. Taking this as a form of consent, I immediately summoned the accompanists and in a few minutes all was ready for the recording. Khan Saheb was indeed in great form that night. The next two hours literally flew by. He sang one enchanting song after another, and we were able to record such immortal pieces as Aaye na baalam, kya karun sajani, Naina more taras rahe hatn and Prem ki maar katar, to name a few. Like a person possessed Khan Saheb poured his heart and soul into the magic notes. He did not even know how many songs he recorded; this after having been determined not to record at all. During a short respite I handed him a fresh glass. After taking a sip from it he said, ‘Joshi Saheb, you must have cast a spell on me. I was determined not to sing. How many have you recorded?’ I smiled and replied, ‘We need only 2 more.’ ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. ‘I mean 2 more songs would make a round dozen; we have got only 10.’ We had a hearty laugh and thus the memorable recording session came to a close. Outside it had rained very hard and inside the studio we had had torrents of music. Bade Gulam Ali’s study of music was extensive. While discussing any aspect of music, he would make intelligent observations that would surprise and impress the most learned and knowledgeable persons. A seminar was once arranged under the auspices of the Sur Singar Samsad. In Hindustani classical music, ragas are ascribed particular hours of the day or night for their exposition. The point under discussion at the seminar was whether there was any scientific reason for this convention or whether it was just a result of custom and tradition. Bade Gulam Ali gave his opinion with practical demonstrations.
According to him ragas are divided into two types. A raga of the first type may be played between 12 noon and 12 midnight. Ragas of the second type may be played at any time from midnight to 12 noon. The ragas in the first section are known as ‘Purva ragas’ and those of the second section as ‘Uttar ragas.
He also propounded another theory explaining why a particular raga should be sung at a particular time and why, if it is rendered accordingly, it is more effective and appreciated by the listeners. The 24 hours of the day are divided as follows:
1.4 in the morning to 7 in the morning.
2.7 in the morning to 10 in the morning.
3.10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon.
4.4 in the afternoon to 7 in the evening.
5.7 in the evening to 10 at night.
6.10 at night to 4 in the morning.
It will be observed that in the ragas of the first and fourth divisions the 2nd note rishabh and 6th note dhaivat are komal swaras. These ragas are also known as Sandhiprakash ragas. Bhairava of the morning variety and Purvi of the evening, having these notes, are Sandhiprakash ragas. Khan Saheb explained how just a slight change of half a note in the structure of the octave changes the raga from a morning to an evening one. In Raga Bhairava the 4th note, madhyam, is shudha, while in Purvi the 4th note is half a note higher, that is, tivra madhyama. He also demonstrated and explained the difference between the morning raga Todi and the afternoon raga Multani. Although both have identically the same notes in the octave, they differ from one another owing to different vadi samvadi notes and different chalan.
Khan Saheb however added that this theory was based on his observations of general practices. He was of the firm opinion that the theory of division of ragas according to time has some scientific basis and that physicists should be able to arrive at some final explanation after experiments.
Ragas are also seasonal melodies. For example, Raga Malhar is associated with the rainy season and Raga Vasant with spring. One evening during the monsoon I had the good fortune to find Bade Gulam Ali in a very exuberant mood. From the balcony of his flat on Malabar Hill one could see the turbulent sea with its rising mountains of waves. This exhibition of nature’s strength always inspired Khan Saheb and that day he gave vocal expression to his feelings, in a number of variations of Raga Malhar. He reeled out gamak taans 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. Bade Gulam Ali was very generous in sharing his knowledge and rare compositions with deserving persons.
Bade Gulam Ali had a lively wit and sense of humour. His elder son Karamat Ali, who lived in Pakistan, was on a visit to his father when Bade Gulam Ali introduced him to me as ‘my Bade Shahzede – Karamat Ali’. When I inquired about the nature of his profession, Bade Ghulam Ali gave a loud burst of laughter and, pointing to four or five little children playing nearby, he said, ‘Look, that is his Karamat.’ Karamat Ali joined in our burst of laughter.
His younger son, Munawar Ali, was his constant companion and was being groomed to succeed him. He always accompanied Khan Saheb on the tanpura and being so close to his father, he imbibed the vast treasure of his father’s musical knowledge. Naturally with such training and all the makings of a first grade artist, everyone expected him to follow in Bade Gulam Ali’s footsteps. Unfortunately, however, Bade Gulam Ali had always kept Munawar under his wing. Consequently, Munawar did not learn the art of performing independently and in spite of the vast knowledge he received from his father, this gifted but unlucky singer is still struggling to make a name for himself.
Bade Gulam Ali’s brother Ustad Barakat Ali Khan also had great talent. The sweetness and phirat of his voice sometimes surpassed that of Bade Gulam Ali. Bade Gulam Ali, however, allowed his brother to accompany him on the harmonium but never to sing with him in public. Therefore Barakat Ali remained unknown to most music lovers in India. It is difficult to say for what reason Bade Gulam Ali always kept his son Munawar and brother Barakat Ali in the background, not giving them a chance to display their talents independently. I had the good fortune to hear Bade Gulam Ali and Barakat Ali sing together in the same mehfil when I was a guest of Nawab Zahir Yar Jung at the Basheerbag palace in Hyderabad.
The Jainophone Record Company of Lahore, which was a sister concern of H.M.V., was the first to market Barakat Ali’s records. Of these Bagome pade zule, Ek sitam aur lakh adaen and Ufari jawani haye jamane have made his name immortal.
In 1962 Barakat Ali came on a visit to Bombay. At my request he made three records, one of ghazals and the other two very lilting dadras. At this recording session. Barakat Ali was in the mood and willing to record many more songs but my boss (the same ‘Kudhon ke Badshah’ mentioned before) came in the way. He was of the opinion that we could record more when Barakat Ali next came to the city. I helplessly obeyed and, after making three records, Barakat Ali returned to Pakistan never to come back. Only a few months later he passed away in Karachi. I felt extremely upset with my boss for coming in the way of my recording more of this gifted musician’s work. Years later I was able to lay my hands on some of Barakat Ali’s tape recordings from which I got enough material for two LPs. Although we embarked on the production of LP records in 1960, I could not get Bade Gulam Ali for LP recording till 1963, There is a story behind this.
In 1959 we received from our head office a copy of the first Indian classical LP record, featuring Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod. The record had an introduction by the world renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Obviously, it was meant for Western audiences. I was asked to evaluate the sales potential of LP records in India. Until then all our records had been made on 78 R.P.M. and were 3 minutes and 20 seconds long. Most classical musicians found it very difficult to do justice to a raga and give their best within such a short time. The LP record would be 5 times the length of a 78 R.P.M. record and I felt that this would be very welcome, not only to the performers but also to listeners and lovers of classical music. However, an LP disc would cost more than Rs. 30 in those days, and considering the pockets of Indian listeners, I had to be very cautious, bearing in mind the sales aspect of the venture.
I was, however, very anxious to have the facility of putting classical music on a long playing record and hence advised our head office to send to us 300 copies of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s record. These, when put in the market, sold out very quickly. Hence it was obvious that, in spite of their high price, the market was ready to absorb LP records. I took this as the green signal to bring stalwarts in the classical field before the microphone for such microgroove recordings. To persuade an artist to record was always a problem. Apart from the conservative outlook of our musicians, their performing form, health and condition of voice had to be considered. To add to this, artists usually put a very high price on their performance, Bade Gulam Ali, like others, had always complained about the inadequate length of records. Therefore, when I approached him, telling him that he would be able to get about 17 to 18 minutes per side, he was very happy and immediately consented. ‘Very good’ he said, ‘I will do the recording but I have a request. On the previous occasions, you paid me on a royalty basis, but this time I want cash.’ I tried to reason with him as to how a royalty agreement would be more advantageous to him in the long run. But he was very adamant so I asked how much he would expect in cash. ‘I want only a lakh (100,000) of rupees,’ he said.
This was an impossible demand, and I told him so. I decided, therefore, to drop Bade Gulam Ali for the time being. During the next few months I recorded artists like Nazakat Ali, Salamat Ali, Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amir Khan, Bismillah Khan and several others on LPs. These records found quite a big market and became popular. Whenever we brought out a new LP I made it a point to show a copy of it to Bade Gulam Ali. The LP records always had very attractive covers and these tempted Bade Gulam Ali to agree to my proposal. The demand for a lakh of rupees was the main hurdle. My bosses also tried to reason with him, but this only made Bade Gulam Ali more obstinate. ‘If you are not ready to pay my fees I will go and record abroad,’ was his final answer to them. I had however not given up hope. I kept up friendly relations with him and persisted in my persuasive tactics. In the course of 6 months Khan Saheb climbed down from a lakh to 45 thousand, and after another 4 months he agreed on 25 thousand, from which he would not budge.
From the commercial point of view, film records with their huge sales potential are most profitable to the company. Records of classical music, even by a top artist, would never have such a large sale in a short period. The company, being always eager to get quick returns and a large turnover, was naturally reluctant to enter into a cash contract. Therefore Bade Gulam Ali’s demand for 25 thousand was also unacceptable.
One more year passed, and around 1962 his health started deteriorating. This affected his voice and performance. Early in 1963 he gave a concert at Shivaji Mandir, the theatre in the Dadar area of Bombay. Of course, I attended it. With Munawar Ali accompanying him on the tanpura, Bade Gulam Ali started with Raga Bhoop. After some alap he started the bandish. But instead of giving it his usual slow and thorough treatment, he very soon switched over to sargams. It was obvious that he found it difficult to keep his voice steady and stable on the raga notes. In my opinion the concert was an absolute failure. More than 60% of the singing was done by the son. Whenever I attended his concerts it was my practice to meet him after the concert. But on this occasion I was so painfully disturbed in my mind that I went home without meeting him. The thought of this rich treasure slowly but steadily dwindling. caused me much mental anguish. The next day, however, I could not resist the temptation of meeting him. He had noticed my absence after the concert the previous night, and wanted to know the reason for it. I told him the truth. Previous to this appearance in Shivaji Mandir I had noticed distinct signs of decline in his health and performance. I said to him, ‘What you presented a month ago at Akola you could not present yesterday and what you achieved yesterday you may not be able to give tomorrow. This is really a very serious state of affairs. An artist of your calibre is born, maybe, once in a century. For God’s sake listen to me and make an LP record.’
For a few moments he looked worried and pensive, then he said, ‘Very well, I will make only one record. I will sing one morning and one evening raga. The morning raga must be recorded in the morning and the evening raga at the appropriate time.’
I was delighted beyond words, and asked when we could do the recording. ‘Fix it for tomorrow evening,’ he said. A very important film recording was scheduled for the next day, but as I was getting Bade Gulam Ali after years of patient waiting, I arranged to cancel the film recording the following evening I drove him to the studio in my car. On the way he said, ‘Joshi saheb, I am doing this for your sake, but I want you to give me at least some cash.’
I was moved almost to tears at these words and I felt that had I the authority and power, I would have thrown open the cash boxes of the company and asked him to help himself. I said to him, ‘I am indeed grateful to you and overwhelmed at his sign of your affection for me. I will give you some cash but please do not ask me how much it will be. Whatever I give you after the recording would be out of love and respect for you and you will have to accept it in the same spirit.’
This touched his artistic soul and soon the commercial side of the recording was forgotten. That night he rendered raga Darbari Kanada with Munawar giving him only instrumental support on the tanpura. Before we started I told him that he would get about 19 minutes for the performance. ‘All right, but it would have been nice if you had given me half an hour,’ he said. However, since Munawar was not allowed to sing with him, Khan Saheb soon found the strain too much. After just 10 minutes of singing he showed signs of being tired and wanted to find out how much longer he would have to sing. Instead of the alloted 19 minutes he finished in around 17 minutes. Sweating profusely he remarked, ‘Are Bhai, 15 minutes of singing for you here is equivalent to 3 hours singing in a mehfil (concert)‘.
We played back the raga recorded by him. This gave him the rest he badly needed and it also gladdened him to listen to his delightful performance. He then said, ‘Now I would like to sing Malkauns.’ I did not remind him of his earlier stipulation. It was to my advantage to keep him in good humour. In the following hour Malkauns was satisfactorily recorded. At last I had got an LP record out of him. Then I reminded him, ‘Khan Saheb, you promised to sing one morning raga.’
‘Aare Teri, I clean forgot about that,’ he exclaimed. ‘Never mind, we shall do it tomorrow morning.’ The following morning he sang first Raga Gunakali and then something that sounded to me like Khambavati or Rageshri He told me that it was neither, but was known as Kaushi Dhani.
Thus, instead of one, I succeeded in bagging 2 LP records. Finding him in a very amiable mood and quite happy about his performance, I felt it would be a good idea to get something more out of him. So I said, ‘Janab, the bhajan Hari om tatsat has always been a hot favourite with your listeners and a must in your mehfil. So you must record it.’ ‘How can I make it last for 19 minutes?’ he asked. I thought that it would be a good idea to put it on a semi long playing (extended play) 45 R.P.M disc. So I said to him, ‘You sing it only for about 7 minutes’. Thus I got him to record the beautiful bhajan. Then I reminded him of the other side of the disc. He smiled and said, ‘You are very smart; last time, I remember you got 10 songs out of me when I did not want to record even a single one.’ I said, ‘But Khan Saheb, every record has to have 2 sides; you must give me one more piece.’ I suggested the thumri Kanakar mar jagaye-Bamna ka chora and he readily accepted my suggestion since this was also his pet song. In this manner he eventually gave us 2 LPs and one extended play record. I prevailed upon him to sign a royalty contract but, as promised, I paid him Rs. 5000/- in cash, as advance against royalty. Once again the fact was proved, that a genuine artist values affection more than money.
This recording had been delayed for more than two and a half years because of his unreasonable demand for a lakh of rupees. His failing voice is evident in these records. If he had only agreed to my requests earlier, we would have had a number of recordings of this great artist which would have been appreciated by millions of his fans. Just a few months after this his health deteriorated further. My friend Nawab Zahir Yar Jung, a true patron and lover of music, took Khan Saheb to Hyderabad and looked after him till he breathed his last in the Basheerbag palace. It was here that I had heard his memorable mehfil with Barakat Ali on the harmonium, and it was here that the mehfil of his life came to an end. He left behind a priceless and glorious heritage of music. For me, besides this, there remain very fond and enduring memories of his warm-heartedness and intelligence.