As one stood seeing the body of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan being lowered into the grave, one wondered whether kheyal gaiki was being buried in the country. Many musicians have a belief that classical music could never die. The prospects look far from sanguine in times where musical taste has undergone a drastic transformation.
One saw in person the tireless effort of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in keeping the torch of kheyal gaiki and raagdaari burning over decades. After the untimely death of his elder brother, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, he was doubly entrusted to keep the flame of music lit as well as provide for the family. As an elder he kept the brood together, desperately trying to create conducive conditions in the family for the younger members to discover and develop themselves as vocalists.
The Patiala Gharana, one of the youngest gharanas of kheyal gaiki but also one of the most respected, was founded by his grandfather Ustad Ali Buksh and his friend Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in the later half of the nineteenth century after creatively amalgamating influences of four gharanas Delhi, Gwalior, Jaipur and Rewa, under legendary gaiks like Tan Rus Khan, Haddo Khan, Gokhi Bai and Barre Mubarak Ali Khan. Since then the Gharana has contributed significantly to kheyal, thumri and kafi through a succession of brilliant artists like Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, Mian Meharbaan, Ali Buksh Khan, Ustad Kale Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Mukhtar Begum, Fareeda Khanum, Munawwar Ali Khan and Zahida Parveen.
From the maternal side, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan’s grandfather Mian Payare Khan drew his lineage from Ustad Banne Khan who introduced kheyal gaiki in the Punjab. Payare Khan too was an outstanding performer while his son Ustad Umeed Ali Khan sang in his own inimitable style to a large audience in Punjab and Sindh.
At partition, the father of Ustad Fateh Ali and Amanat Ali, Ustad Akhter Hussain made the choice to opt for the new country, without knowing what fate awaited them in Pakistan. When probed, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan only disclosed that there seemed to be initially no intention but then the decision was taken very abruptly. These youngsters were in no position to question the elders, and both Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali sat on top of the rail compartment while their elders, men and women squeezed inside to reach Lahore, anticipating an attack any moment of that fateful journey. Hamid Ali Khan was yet to be born.
Perhaps, the most significant change was the migration of the Hindu and Sikh population from Pakistan which, in a way, meant that the section which patronised these musicians disappeared overnight. The princely states in India have been seen as aberrations and anarchic institutions propped by the colonial administrators, but they performed even if by default some very important functions, one being the patronage of the classical arts, whether of literature, painting and music. The princely states were abolished in Pakistan and most of the musicians who were employed by these rajwaras then had to fend for themselves in the open market, which unfortunately was never very big or lucrative.
Quite a large number of top class musicians chose to come to Pakistan because they were Muslims. Roshan Ara was at her prime while Salamat Ali, Nazakat Ali, Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali, Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Shaukat Hussain Khan, Sharif Khan Poonchwale to name a few were still young and had to establish themselves. The migration of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to India was quite a big blow to musicians in the country but his absence left the field relatively open for the younger musicians to scale the very top.
Ustad Akhter Hussain too was a singer of no mean merit but his sons Amanat Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan became star performers in the country. They made their debut in the 1950s; soon it was evident that two singers of great potential had arrived. There was a certain youthfulness about them and their singing which attracted youngsters; it was a good blend of melodic intensity and catchy virtuosity.
During the next couple of decades or so, classical music was sustained by the great interest which East Pakistanis took in it. Most of our front-rank performers went to Dacca (now Dhakka) and performed to great accolades and some reward which was much higher than what they ever managed here. In the meantime, both Nepal and Afghanistan which had royal dynasties, patronised classical music and invited leading artistes from the subcontinent including that of Pakistan to perform.
In Pakistan, obviously the attack on classical music from three sides was all half-baked but damaging. One section maintained that this syncretic form is too Hinduised to become part of the cultural manifesto in the new state; the second that since all arts have to move with the times classical music was perceived to be a product of an age long gone and was condemned to die in the new environment; while the third section believed that classical music was too elitist and did not cater to the musical taste of a cross section of the population. Its exclusivity had to be challenged and then done away with.
The real problem started after 1971. One, the patrons in East Pakistan were lost forever and then a political change rocked Afghanistan. On a personal level, the death of Amanat Ali Khan in 1974 was a devastating blow. These two brothers had always sung together, neatly dividing the gaiki by specialisation. The death of Amanat Ali made Fateh Ali to reinvent his entire singing. He had to do all what Amanat Ali used to do, bang in the middle of his career, which in any case was not an easy thing to do.
Amanat Ali Khan had a gifted voice and he embellished his singing in broad sweeps, by lagao and blossoming out in the upper register while Fateh Ali engaged in intricacies of the countless behlawas and complex taans, respectively drawing inspiration from two elders of their gharana, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan.
Kheyal stood at the top in the hierarchy of music in our tradition during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. When Ustad Fateh Ali Khan sang a ghazal or a couple of them to save the family from financial hardship, he was much criticised for having abandoned his tradition because singing of the ghazal or kaafi was perceived as a considerable comedown. By teaming up with famous musicians in the West, he ensured a steady livelihood while the musical output of the collaboration can be seen in doubt.
Looking back at the life of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, this state of classical music seems to be a failure of two generations. For people who had decided at one point in their lives to save classical music from neglect and extinction in the final analysis achieved precious little. The grand tradition of classical music or Clasiky Mauseeqi or Ahang e Khusravi, whatever the cultural idealogues of Pakistan may like to call it seems to be taking its last few gasps.
Despite promises and programmes and proposals nothing much was done for the preservation and promotion of classical music. It was left to wither on the vine and thrown before the market forces which operated on the principle of controlling the profits of the market.
And above all the essentials of kheyal gaiki — the larger than life sweep, the otherworldliness, liberation of the sur from the bol, the autonomy of the art form from the received truths of politics and religion — all appear to be discordant with the contemporary sensibility of our times here.