Treasures of the subcontinent
Away from the high drama of politics and power, explosion of real and fake news and the daily struggle to eke out living, humans need to refresh for the next day. And what can be better than listening to music?
One maestro who groomed several stars such as Noor Jehan, Fareeda Khanum, Ghulam Ali, etc was Ustad Barey Ghulam Ali Khan, who remains an unrivalled ‘sarangi’ player till today. His bewitching performances made many to think of him as the personification of the proverbial ‘mojza’ (miracle). Another maestro who produced magical notes with his ‘shehnai’ that hypnotized the audience was Ustad Bismillah Khan. Before him, ‘shehnai’ players were lowly treated. It must have been quite degrading for them because not only were they discouraged to mingle with the guests but at the weddings of rajas and zamindars, they were made to perform either on the first or the second floor of the house because of the loudness of this instrument but the magic of Bismillah Khan raised the status of ‘shehnai’ players for good.
If one is seeking inspiration from music then one must listen to the ‘sitar’ performances of Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar who dedicated their lives to the tonal improvement of this instrument. It is the excellence of their skills that has made most of the ‘sitar’ players to follow either of them to date. It goes to the credit of Ravi Shankar to open the world of subcontinental music to the outside world leading to the East-West fusion of music, particularly, due to his association with the Beatles and the violin maestro Yehudi Menuhim. Similarly, the art of ‘tabla nawazi’ has been immortalized by the brilliance of the legendary Ustad Allah Rakha. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he formed the trinity of ‘tabla’ playing heroes with Kishan Maharaj and Samta Prasad. Allah Rakha remains the all-time best because he had the uncanny ability to “totally engage the mind of his listeners with what he was playing.”
Hardly any account of the classical music can be complete without its master singers. Ustad Amir Khan was the ‘musicians’ musician’ because of his philosophy that “Naghma wahi hai jo rooh sune or rooh sunaye” (music is that which originates from the heart and touches the soul). Another master vocalist was Bhimsen Joshi because it was said that when he sang, the proverbial fairies descended from the heavens. Yet another voice that is a treat to the ears is of Kumar Gandharva. He was known as the ‘miracle man’ because despite losing one lung to the tuberculosis and doctors’ warning that he would never be able to sing again, the brave artiste not only defeated the deadly disease but continued to spellbound the audience by his singing with one lung.
If one is seeking inspiration from music then one must listen to the ‘sitar’ performances of Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar who dedicated their lives to the tonal improvement of this instrument
The world of music has been hotly contested by female classical singers as well despite the fact that it was not considered respectable for the fair sex to practise this art. One such ‘Queen of Melody’ was Kesarbai Kerkar, who disproved through her expertise, the “popular notion that women had comparatively lower lung capacity than men.” Another unforgettable name is Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, who took the art of singing ‘ghazal’ to great heights, being duly awarded the grand title of ‘Malika-e-Ghazal.’ The ‘ghazal’ that shot her to fame was “Deewana banana hai to” and the songs that immortalized her were “Koeliya mat kar pukar” and “Ae mohabbat tere anjam pe rona aaya.”
From the worldly perspective, the artistes often live a tough life in our part of the world, however, some of these maestros attained both the public recognition as well as the material comforts. For example, Akhtari Bai was given a house and a car for singing for a music company. Ustad Vilayat Khan was rewarded a Mercedes Benz by the king of Afghanistan in 1964. Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan was paid Rs25, 000/ for each song in the film ‘’Mughal-e-Azam” when top class singers like Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar were paid just Rs500/ per song. Ustad Bismillah Khan was honoured with a twenty-one gun salute by the Indian army at his burial ceremony.
Lives of such unique masters are often full of interesting anecdotes as well. Classical singing has remained the preserve of the select few with special interest in this genre. Once, when Ustad Amir Khan was invited to perform before the provincial governors of India, he confided to an accompanying artiste, “Yaar, suna hai aaj Hindustan kay governors aa rahe hain. Yeh log to hamara music samajhte hi nahi hain, isiliye tum kum bajana aur mein bhi kum gaoonga” (since the audience today is likely to not know much about classical music, you play for a shorter duration as will I). When Wahid Khan Sahib, the uncle of Vilayat Khan was receiving an award, he thanked the Indian President Rajendra Prasad in these words: “Huzoor! Pehle kay raja aur maharaja raat bhar sunte the, bahut mehnat aur jandaari se hum bajaate the, uskay baad inaam milta tha. Aap kitne achche hein, begair sune hi award de rahe hein! (The rajas and maharajas would listen to us all night and then gave us an award. You are so gracious that you are honouring me without hearing me play!). While receiving an award, Ustad Bismillah Khan commented “on a lighter note that when a singer is singing, his mouth is busy and hands are free, and when an instrumentalist is performing, his hands are busy but the mouth is free. But in his case, when he played the shehnai, his hands and mouth are both busy.” Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib was of the view, “Achha khaao, khoob riyaz karo, leiken aulaadon ke liye bank mein paisa mat chorna, nikamme ho jaate hain” (Eat well, practice well, play well, and don’t leave anything in the bank for your children as they will become spoilt!) Enayat Khan Sahib was fond of drinks so often requested the organizers or the fellow performers at the functions “Bhai Sahib mein pehlay baja loon?” (May I play ahead of you?) So that he could go home early to indulge with his friends. Such and many other interesting and insightful details are the subject matter of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s latest biographical work on the masters of classical music.