Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan took thumri to expressive heights which have not been equalled since. A fitting ode to the legendary musician of Patiala gharana on his 119th birth anniversary
On April 2, 2021, renowned artists across the globe got together virtually, to take listeners on a time travel to the golden days of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb. The event, ‘SaudhaTalk & Tribute: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan – The Tansen’, featured ghazal king Ustad Ghulam Ali, Chitravina N Ravikiran, Dr Geetha Upadhyaya (OBE), Founder Kala Sangam, tabla maestros Pt. Kumar Bose, Pt. Tanmoy Bose, Pt. Shubhankar Banerjee, Pt. Abhijit Banerjee, the grandson of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Raza Ali Khan, violin maestros Kala Ramnath and Sriram Parsuram, sarod maestros Pt. Rajeeb Chakraborty, Subhasis Banerjee, vocalists Pt. Shantanu Bhattacharyya, Sanhita Nandi, Pt. Chiranjeeb Chakraborty, Minakshi Majumdar, Koyel Bhattacharya and sitarist Ramprapanna Bhattacharya.
It was once in a lifetime experience to listen to great musicians reminiscing about the golden musical moments of the past. The world was mesmerised by Khan Saheb’s impeccable command over both Sur and Taal and the unsurpassable depth and range of his voice.
Ahmed Kaysher, the organiser of the event and founder of the UK based Saudha said, “Even for an agnostic man like me, Khan Saheb’s music brings tears and a sense of spiritual wonder. It is not just about the music but about the philosophy and the approach to life and art.”
In his book Thumri in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives, Peter Manuel wrote of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as an artist whose “vocal range and technique were extraordinary in themselves, but his greatest virtue was his brilliant sense of melody and nuance; combining these assets, he was able to take thumri to expressive heights which, in the opinion of many, have not been since”.
Ravikiran who was the opening speaker said, “Talking about Bade Gulam Ali Khan ji is like holding a torch to the sun. Even a statement like, “Many other musicians lived in his shadow” would probably inspire someone else to say that, “He never cast shadows but only cast light!” In an era where grace is confused with soft, Khan Saheb’s music reflected power plus Grace.”
Interactions with Carnatic
Ravikiran further shared how the beauty of the true voice culture of Khan Saheb fascinated musicians from the South too such as the G N Balasubramaniam. GNB organised a tour of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in the South and Khan Saheb in his turn was no less fascinated by GNB’s singing and learnt ragas like Andolika from him and also performed it in several of his concerts. He was also fascinated by the south Indian interpretation of Malkauns (Hindolam). Ravikiran played a short sketch of Andolika on the Chitravina and concluded after sharing some details about his father and Guru Chitravina Narasimhan’s interactions with Khan Saheb.
Ghulam Ali shared how his journey as a disciple of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan began in Lahore. “ Receiving a lot of affection from Khan saheb, I stayed there for 10-12 years. I also learnt about – Sargam and raagdari ki taleem, sargam paltas, the tonality of notes, study and interplay of words and laya and strengthening of sur from ustad’s brothers. I will never get tired of talking about Khan saheb and can go on and on,” he said.
Thunderstorm to lullaby
Dr Upadhyaya highlighted the truth and honesty of Khan Saheb’s music. Parsuram emphasised how Khan Saheb made it possible for everyone to appreciate the nada – the perfect sound that encompasses the cosmos. His voice portrayed solidity, virtuosity, perfection, resonance, power and expression. It could be as powerful as the greatest thunderstorm or cajole as a mother’s lullaby or have the tenderness of a butterfly’s wings. Through Khan saheb, we celebrate the magnificence and the infiniteness of the human voice. Parasuram explained it by rendering Miyaki Todi – Ab Mori Naiyya Par Karo, Jangala Bhairavi -Aja Balam pardesi and Raga Kedar – Naveli Naar.
To a question on his most favourite song and special memories with Khan Saheb, Ghulam Ali replied, “Thumris like Yaad Piya ki Aye , Aye na Balam, Aja Balam Pardesi, Prem Magan jiya ra are some which I render frequently at concerts. I especially remember his Drut taan of three saptaks which felt as if it got over in a second! This was something very unique.” He also recalled another incident, “When I was massaging the feet of his brother Barkhat Ali khan the entire night, he blessed me that I would not only be heard by the common masses but also by musicians in the audience. This was a great blessing which remains with me till today.”
Tabla maestro Pt Kumar Bose said, “Once Khan Saheb began a concert around four in the morning and sang till 6:30 am after which the hall timing was up. But he wasn’t satisfied and hence told his fans in the green room to accompany him to his house, where he again performed from 9:30 am to 2 in the afternoon. “This was the intrinsic hunger and thirst they had to share their music, which is seen less today.”
Pt Kumar Bose also described how Khan Saheb tuned the Surmandal with just one hand when he got a stroke, which is extremely difficult. After his voice came back gradually, the famous Aye na Balam, was recorded twice.
Ravikiran asked Ghulam Ali: “What were the Riyaz techniques, time table and principles shared with you by Khan Saheb? This will greatly inspire the students of the younger generation.”
Ghulam Ali replied, “Actually I would not have the courage to speak in front of him but would keep listening to him a lot and try to sing whatever I could. I spent a lot of time with his brothers and learnt Sur and Sargam from them and at the same time listened to Khan saheb, trying to grasp what I could.”
Pt. Kumar Bose added, “There was no specific ‘time’ for riyaz for him. Right from morning to evening he would be engrossed in riyaz.”
Playing with air
Pt.Shantanu Bhattacharya mentioned the beautiful portrait of Khan Saheb with GNB in Mahabalipuram and also his special relations with MS Subbalakshmi. “Apart from being unsurpassable and inimitable, he is a consciousness (Chetana). Khan Saheb has given the entire essence so beautifully in one line ‘Ye havah ke sath khelna hai’.
Musicians of that period were epitome of selfless service and generosity. “Ustad Munawar Ali Khan’s first solo concert income was spent in buying and distributing blankets to poor people sleeping outside on the footpath,” Bhattacharya added.
Kala Ramnath said, “Khan Saheb never shirked from appreciating wholeheartedly. For him, music was the religion, all musicians should imbibe this quality to unite the whole world.” Kala played Khan Saheb’s mesmerizing composition in Raag Kedar.
Pt Chiranjeeb Chakrabarty said, “He reformed the entire Khayal gayaki.”
Sanhita Nandi (vocal), Minakshi Majumdar (vocal), Ramprapanna Bhattacharya (Sitar), Koyel Bhattacharya (Vocal) and Subhasish Banerjee (Sarod) performed during the event