One of the most intriguing figures in classical music has been Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. People who heard him live swore by his singing but the few records that he cut did not measure up to that reputation. There was undoubtedly a great deal of intensity in his rendition and a certain peculiarity which could only be admired by the truly initiated.
Never was there a greater disservice done to a classical vocalist than to him by the few 78 rpm records that he agreed to cut as a vocalist and then in conjunction with Ustad Umeed Ali Khan. A man who was used to singing “khula gana” for hours was asked to perform within a timeframe of three minutes. The pressure must have been to stuff all this virtuosity in that single time period and it ended up as being a very rushed act and surely not a true reflection of his prowess as a vocalist.
Like many others who agreed to have themselves recorded in the first half of the twentieth century, before the advent of the long playing record, the three minute benchmark of recorded sound was unfortunately the only opportunity for assessing the musical capacity of vocalists or instrumentalists.
Most top of the line vocalists and instrumentalist constructed their performance according to their own strengths and weaknesses, and then put those to advantage tailored for the occasion that they performed on. The limitation of time as little as a few minutes was never a consideration for a performance, and most dispensed and capitalised in relation to the feedback and the vibes they received from the audience. Their performances were also greatly influenced by what had happened before them, especially the one performance immediately before.
In important concerts since all well-known ustads participated, leaving nothing to mediocrity, one of the most awesome tasks was to recapture the attention of the audience, if a preceding performance had been really good. The final outcome of a performance was thus based on a number of such variables.
Usad Ashiq Ali Khan too was a gawaiya trained and schooled in the tradition when the final make or break point was live performance before the discerning audiences. To the many who saw and heard him perform, it was a treat and as he was truly indomitable. This performance was always a class act in which he used to great advantage the stronger part of his gaiki thus shielding the shortcomings. The strong point was that it was “mushkilaat” that he was taken in by because he did not have a voice that was naturally gifted like some of his contemporaries, for example Barey Ghulam Ali Khan. He had to develop certain other musical strengths to counter the dominance of the more naturally gifted vocalists.
Other than the very intricate, complicated, forceful tans, his laikari was much appreciated and applauded. He matched all that with a certain aura the occasion demanded by rising up to the challenge of the moment. His was thus a class act as a performer which may have appeared ordinary or bereft of the halo when considered as merely individual virtues rather than its sum total.
The recordings were not truly reflective of the impact of the overall performance that included alaap, bara kheyal in vilampat lai, chotta kheyal in mudh and drut lai followed by tarana rendition adorned by very complex flights and subtle rhythmic divisions. What the recordings did was to highlight the weaker parts or aspects and totally overriding the stronger aspects of his gaiki. He therefore suffered on both counts.
Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan was born to Ustad Fateh Ali, the cofounder of the Patiala Gharana in the later part of the nineteenth century. It is said that Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was a very surila gawaiya. He died much before Ustad Ali Baksh Khan, the other cofounder of the Gharana, and Ashiq Ali Khan in the absence of the father became an enfant terrible and would just not subject himself to any discipline which his inherited art demanded. It is said that he ran away from home and went to his maternal uncle Amir Ali Khan in the Multan area.
According to another riwayat, he just loafed around on shrines and other places of amusement from where he was finally rescued by the shagirds of his father, Mian Maharbaan and Sardar Bai.
Sardar Bai took him to her home and he was also properly coached by both of them enabling him to become a gawaiya of great stature in an era of many front rank artistes.
He was also credited with singing the kaafi in the classical Ang. It is said that Ali Buksh Khan, the father of Barey Ghulam Ali Khan and Barkat Ali Khan, was a great kaafi singer and he may have influenced him or probably his interaction with the Punjab gawayas. Some of them from his own family, who had settled in Sindh, where besides many experiments and bandishes in Sindhi they also sang the Sindhi Kaafi in the classical style may have given him the cue and shown the possibly of developing the ang of Sindhi and Punjabi kaafi in his own imitable style. That caught on and was later sung by many others including some of the masters of the Patiala gharana like Barey Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan of Sham Chaurasi.
From among the blood line of the founders of the Patiala Gharana, he was principally responsible in the second generation for consolidating the gains of the gharana. He carried the banner high with many of the shagirds of the gharana and was able to give a more finished form to that ang.
Like his father, he too was a great source of inspiration and had many shagirds who then made a name for themselves like Zahida Parveen, Mukhtaar Begum, Farida Khanum and Hussain Buksh Dhaari. He died in Lahore in 1948 and is buried in Takyaa Mirasiyaan, which was a garh of music in the city of Lahore.
The barsi of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan falls on March 10