Formless: Ustad Rashid Khan


Ustad Rashid Khan

A gorgeous collection of nirgun bhajans sung by the eminent artiste Ustad Rashid Khan.  When I purchased this album I automatically thought these would be Kabir dohes so associated is he with the concept of nirgun (the formless ground of all being).  In actuality, these are contemporary compositions by Kavi Narayan Agarwal.

In Hindu/Sikh philosophy there are two two types of God: sargun, which takes form and nirgun that which remains eternal and formless and void. The word, nirgun,  is made from the two roots ‘nir‘ which means ‘without’ and ‘gun‘ which means ‘material or physical form’ or ‘attribute’ or ‘quality’ or ‘merit’. So these two combined means “without form” or “without quality” or “without merit”. When referring to God it means “un-manifest” or “without attributes”, “without physical form.

No more words are needed for this lovely music.  This is music for absorption and reflection and peace, not for analysis and description.

Track Listing:

01 Prabhu Ki Preeti Jagi

02 Subah Shaam Tera Naam Japu Main

03 Tum Ho Aadi Tum Ho Anth

04 Yeh Andhiyara Mit Jaayega



Too much loss: Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan



Eighty two years ago Fateh Ali Khan was born into a family of courtly singers in the Indian princely state of Patiala. His father and grandfather had established themselves as prized royal servants and indeed, had been instrumental in founding an entirely new gharana of classical Indian music.


The young boy grew up learning the intricacies of khyal and the ancient mode of singing, dhrupad. He was an excellent student. He would sit at the side of his elder brother Amanat Ali to perform for the maharaja who quickly promoted the lads to official positions in the court.


The brothers travelled across India to sing at the major music festivals and ‘conferences’ where they wowed the staid and serious audiences. In the rarified world of north Indian classical music, Amanat and his younger brother, Fateh were as close to superstars as you could get.


Though they were blessed with golden voices (Fateh specialized in the lower registers, balancing the elegiac tenor of his brother) they shared a curse with an entire generation of Indians.


In 1947 their country was divided. A sort of inchoate whirlwind swept up Indians from all across the northern tier of the country and dropped them to earth, crushing families, livelihoods and dreams by the million.


Like countless other Muslims, Fateh’s family made its way to a new place called Pakistan, the Land of the Pure, hoping and praying it would a mini paradise on earth.   Whatever the country eventually became, in those early years, Pakistan was in chaos. The country needed administrators, soldiers, judges and teachers. Classical musicians, no matter how gifted, were completely ignored.


The family scraped together a meagre living, teaching and performing from time to time. There were offers and invitations from fellow musicians to return to India where at least some musical structures existed. Where audiences still existed. Where patronage still existed.


But Fateh and Amanat declined. They stayed loyal to Pakistan and eventually garnered a name for themselves. Radio and then TV welcomed them. Private mehfils were still few and far between but at least they were singing and recording.


Disaster struck again in 1974 when Amanat by now one of Pakistan’s most loved and accomplished voices, passed. Fateh sank into despair. In a grand gesture he refused to sing for several years, and when he at last took the stage again, tears stained his cheeks.


Yesterday, Fateh Ali Khan himself passed away. His life was bittersweet and touched repeatedly by death. His nephew, Amanat’s son, Asad, himself a master singer passed away at a young age. Despite his lineage, accomplishments and talent, Fateh was never able to make much money as a singer. The old patronage system had died in 1947. The only regular support he could count on was state TV and radio. Hardly enough to raise a family on.


He did find audiences outside of Pakistan, not just in India but in Europe, Japan and North America, too. Teaming up with his younger brother, Hamid or his son, Shafqat, Fateh Ali continued to make impressive music for many years.   But a certain sadness accompanied him throughout his life. In his eyes, voice and words there was always the tinge of regret and loss. As if all things irreplaceable had been snatched from him before their time.


We will miss you Ustadji.


Track Listing:

01 Raga Bageshri

02 Raga Naraini

03 Raga Madhmad Sarang

04 Raga Multani

05 Raga Bheemplasi

Ustad FAK

The Three Friends: Call of the Valley


Among the handful of Indian records that have found a significant audience in the ‘west’, Call of the Valley is undoubtedly the most loved. Listeners gush when they talk about it, indulging in multiple superlatives and 5 star ratings. It’s no surprise that George Harrison, the quiet and Hindu Beatle, loved the record. But when one considers that grumpy old Bob Dylan has given it a thumbs up as well, one does take notice.

The album, released nearly half a century ago in 1967, does deserve its reputation as a classic. Probably no other album of South Asian music has sold as many copies. The general consensus is if you only have room for a single Hindustani classical record in your collection, Call of the Valley must be it.

My first encounter with the album came in the 70s when a cassette came my way in wintery Minnesota. I missed India intensely and what I heard coming out of my Walkman transported me instantly back home.   This was musical magic. The sound was at once reassuringly familiar but entirely fresh. The musicians had managed to create such an evocative world with their instruments, the idea of needing any other record, be it classical or Indian or any other type, seemed redundant.

The musicians who conceived and performed this seminal music are now all highly respected, internationally renown superstars: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Brijbhushan Kabra. But half a century ago, they were young musicians on the make. But a haughty traditional musical establishment was dead set against them. How dare they think they could bring their unusual instruments into the pure realm of classical music!

Pt. Shivkumar Sharma left home in Kashmir in the mid-1950s to seek his fortune in Bombay. Though his father disagreed with Sharma’s stubborn insistence not to pursue an ‘office job’ he gave his son Rs 500 to get him to the big city. The youngster sought work as an accompanist (he had been trained in tabla) but also never missed a chance to promote the instrument he’d brought with him: the santoor. The instrument may have had deep and ancient antecedents in India but until Sharma came along, it was regarded simply as a folk instrument from a minor region of the country.

By his own confession, Hariprasad Chaurasia, had been bewitched by the sound of the bamboo flute from his earliest years and prayed that one day he would have the chance to learn. But first, he too, had to resist his father’s career advice, which in this case was to take to the wrestling akhara. Though he did wrestle for a few years and got a government job at the age of 18 he never gave up on his dream and began an 8 year apprenticeship with Pt. Bholanath Prasanna.

Eventually, he too made his way to Bombay where he struggled for three years to get Annapurna Devi, daughter of the great Ustad Allaudin Khan, to agree to be his guru. Although Pt. Pannalal Ghosh had managed to break the bansuri into the classical orchestra the flute was still very much dismissed as a folk and peasant instrument.

The final maestro, Brijbhusan Kabra was headed for a sporting career when he discovered the sound of the Hawaiian guitar as a student in Calcutta. He returned to Rajasthan determined to master the instrument but (you guessed it) his father stood in the way. Eventually, the two reached a compromise—the guitar was OK as long as it played only Hindustani classical music. Becoming the shahgird of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Kabra single-handedly adopted the guitar to the demands of raga-based music blazing the trail for such latter day stars as Debashish Bhattacharya, Kabra’s most famous disciple.

By the middle 1960s the three Young Turks found themselves in Bombay. Each had achieved some status but was far from being a major artist. Sharma was approached by a record company to compose an album of ‘thematic’ music. Something in a classical mode but not entirely restricted to dhrupad-based ragas.

Immediately, his mind flew to the valleys of Kashmir and the name of the piece, Call of the Valley, came quickly. With his two friends, also armed with their non-establishment-approved instruments, the three met in a studio and laid down the tracks of what they all considered would be another small notch in their professional belts.

If not exactly an overnight sensation, Call of the Valley quickly caught the imagination of listeners from Bombay to Brooklyn. And the three friends who had endured so much to get their instruments and talents recognised, went on to become senior artistes of the sub continent.

This is an original copy of the first pressing of this illustrious record. Released by HMV/EMI, India in 1968 it’s sleeve notes are well worth reading as you listen to the fabulous intoxicating enriching sounds.

Call of valley front

call of valley back

Track Listing

01 Ahir Bhairav

02 Nat Bhairav – Ek Tala

03 Piloo – Teen Tala

04 Bhoop -Jhap Tala

05 Des – Dadra Tala





Folk Music Sampler (serial number unknown)


I love putting together these folk music collections.  I’ve lost count of how many I’ve done over the life of this and the previous blog but you can pretty much rest assured this won’t be the last one.

Upmahadesh is the Hindi word for ‘subcontinent’. Most of these songs come again from the northern half of the Indian upmahadesh though some of the singers such as Pt. Bhimsen Joshi originally hail from parts further afield.  Like the lovely photo above (not mine) Punjab features highly. As always!

And of course, not everything here is purely folk music.  Bhimsen Joshi’s and Manish Vyas’s contributions are classical. And Begum Akhtar could just as easily be included in the classical fold, so profoundly did she command the art of the ghazal. But all three fit quite nicely within the mood of this sampler. Most tracks are commercially (or were) available if you look hard enough but one track in particular is rare indeed.  It is Track #7 and I’d like to thank my friend Hanif Haji for sharing this with me.  It is a live recording made in Ginjee, Uganda presumably in the 1960s before Big Daddy Idi Amin expelled South Asians from the country.  I’ve taken the liberty of giving a title to the track based upon the lyrics but admit this is not the true name of the song.

A final note. Track number 4 by Allan Faqir is  the mysteriously named, Side A. That refers to the side of the cassette tape it was originally recorded on. As this spine-tingling track is in Seraiki/Sindhi I can’t make up a title!  Just listen to it and give it whatever glorious name comes to you!

I hope you get as much pleasure from these songs as I do.


UpmahadeshTrack Listing:

01 Changi Naeeyun Kiti [Reshma]

02 Tumko Dekha To [Jagjit Singh]

03 Khush Hoon Ki Mera Husn-E-Talab Kaam To Aaya [Begum Akhtar]

04 Side A [Allan Faqir]

05 Aesi Chal Main [Nisar Bazmi]

06 Karuna [Manish Vyas]

07 Bombay da naujawan [Ramta w Surinder and Prakash Kaur]

08 Mane na bhaye dasa bisa [Pt. Sanjeev Abhyanka]

09 Kal Chaudvi ki Raat Thi [Jagjit Singh]

10 Hik Hay Hik Hay (Baba Ghulam Farid) [Hamid Ali Bela]

11 Qissa Hirni [Alam Lohar]

12 Raga Gaur Sarang [Pt.Bhimsen Joshi]

13 Uth Bayth Re [Nargis Balolia]

14 Chhalla [Kashi Nath]

15 Traditional Pashtoun Song [Sultan MohammadChanne and Shah Wali]

16 Jajo Jajo Re [Dayaram Sarolia]

17 Goriya Mein Jana Pardes [Resham and Parvez Mehdi]

18 Bai Ja Tracter Te [Arif Lohar]