Thumri Beauty: Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan

I wrote a book once called The Hindustan Way. The basic premise was that there used to exist a broad cultural ethos across much of the northern half of the Indian subcontinent in which Indians of all faiths participated. While elements of it, especially linguistic, emerged out of the Islamic world it was a culture that synthesized Hindu, Sanskritic, Turkish, Arab, Persian and Bengali traditions and viewpoints without much consideration for rigid boundaries.

The land that stretched from Peshawar to Dhaka and down into the Deccan was often referred to as Hindustan and the culture Hindustani. In the sphere of music Muslim artists performed for Hindu rajas and sang of Hindu myths. Hindu painters excelled in miniature paintings that depicted Mughal court life. Bismillah Khan, a Muslim, was the appointed musician of the Kashi Viswanath temple in Benaras, one of the city’s most holy sites.

When 1947 rolled around and there was shiny new Pakistan one fine morning in addition to plain old India, much confusion ensued in the minds of map makers, politicians, rabble rousers and religious scoundrels. Where would these artists, writers, thinkers and singers be placed? Were they Pakistani (by dint of their birth) or Indian (by virtue of their patronage in Bombay or Gwalior)? Families and gharanas were presented with existential challenges. Who are we? With whom do we stand the best chance of succeeding and flowering?

Tonight’s artist, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, was an Indian singer who in 1947 became known as a Pakistani. He hailed from a grand Punjabi family of classical Hindustani singers. His brother Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, is generally considered to be one of the top 2 or 3 singers of modern times on both sides of the border. Barkat Ali was himself an accomplished singer of ragas but excelled and specialized in the singing of lighter classical material especially thumri and dadra. In this field, those who claim to be the experts say Barkat exceeded the accomplishments of his elder brother.

Bade Ghulam Ali travelled between Kasur, the family home town in Punjab, Lahore and Bombay, even after Partition, his restless soul torn between homeland and better prospects. Eventually, he decided to throw his lot in with India and today is claimed in biographies as “Indian”. His brother, Barkat, seemed content to stay in the new country, which was really the same old country, just with a new name. People consider him to be Pakistani.

As far as I’m concerned they are simply two fine examples of that old north Indian Hindustani culture.

This is a slight record in its running time. The four thumri recital draws to a close far too quickly, and you are left longing for more. But what you get is indeed, very sweet. Barkat sahib’s voice is perfectly suited to the thumri with its delicate, sometimes tentative atmosphere, matching the amorous nature of the lyrics.

Jai Hindustan!

Ras Rang Thumri

Track Listing:

01 Ab Na Manoon Tori Batiyaan

02 Tum Radhe Bano

03 More Saiyan Tanak Dhun Laye

04 Jao Kadar Nahin Bolo


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