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Melodic sensuousness

Remembering Barkat Ali Khan

Melodic sensuousness
Roshan Ara Begum with Ustad Barkat Ali Khan.

Last week in a concert organised by Pakistan Classic Guild, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan was remembered at the Alhamra by Hussain Buksh Gullo, Asif Javed, Saleem Bazmi, Basharat Ali, Faiyaz Ali Khan, Ghulam Shabbir and Inayat Abid when they rendered his famous numbers.

Usually barsis or anniversaries are held to recall and remember the contribution of great musicians on the day of his or her death not with talk and speeches but with singing and playing. And rightly so because the best way to pay a tribute to a master is in the art form he specialised in, leaving a legacy from which following generations benefit.

Actually in the month of April, around its middle, falls the barsi of Bade

Ghulam Ali and there are programmes to recall and remember one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century. The people of Lahore embrace and applaud him as their very own and not without reason. He lived the formative years of his life here. It was Lahore from where he was launched and even when he rose in stature making major musical contributions he repeatedly came back to it.

But once he migrated to India in the early 1950s he only paid a visit to Lahore once while travelling to and from Kabul to participate in the then very prestigious Jashn-e-Kabul held under the patronage of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan.

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, the younger brother of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan lived most of his life in Lahore too and died here as well. His baithak off the grave of Naugaza in the walled city was a haunt of the music lovers in the years following partition and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s migration to India. The latter started to dominate the music scene in India, while other members of the family dwarfed in comparison. The others, Barkat Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan, all  in varying capacities were involved with the performing arts with Mubarak Ali Khan venturing out to work in the then evolving medium of cinema.

Ustad Barkat Ali Khan was no less a vocalist that Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Many assess him as a better thumri gaik than the elder brother.

It has been an unfair comparison for Ustad Barkat Ali Khan was no less a vocalist that Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Many assess him as a better thumri gaik than the elder brother. He went on to make solid contribution in dadra, kaafi, ghazal and lok geet.

Within the Pakistani musical list of preferences ghazal may be a form much cherished but till the 1950s and 1960s the vocalists looked down upon the singing of this form and placed it even below that of thumri and just above the qawwali. But the two forms of ghazal and qawwali have been resurgent while the kheyal and thumri have gone through a process of decline here.

As pioneer of the present day ghazal gaiki, Barkat Ali Khan can be said to be the most outstanding exponent and he must have been forced by circumstances and dwindling audiences to take up ghazal more seriously than he would have done otherwise. He can be truly called the father of the contemporary ghazal gaiki that saw so many outstanding performers of the form in Pakistan. The growth of the ghazal from the thumri can be laid at the door of the ustad as he was able to see the possibility of exploring the musical space without compromising a great deal on poetry.

The most significant aspect of ghazal gaiki is that its musical worth should transcend its poetical content. Contrary to the boorish understanding or poplar perception that the musical content should only enhance the poetical content (a line propagated by pompous poets who see primacy of the word over the note) it should be the other way round. The liberation of the melodic line from the limitation imposed on its expansion by words ensures the autonomy of the musical form; otherwise it only becomes a sonic illustration of the word. It was actually Ustad Barkat Ali Khan who showed that this was possible as he brought in the richness of the thumri gaiki to bear on the mere musical rendition of words.


It is unfortunate that very few recordings of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan have survived the ravages of time. But the few that have give a very good account of his rendition of the thumri in particular. No one had the ability to bring out the sensuous quality of the form while staying strictly within the melodic framework of the raag. The sonorous quality of the voice, the adroit embellishments/ graces and its development on the melodic line of the raag opened up a whole new dimension where the austerity and grandeur of kheyal was transformed into the sensuousness without at any point drifting into melodrama and sentimentalism.

Hussain Buksh Gullo prides himself for being a shagird of the Patiala Gharana but actually it is Ghlulam Ali who can claim to have benefited personally from Ustad Barkat Ali Khan. His father, a sarangi player, had named him after Bade Ghulam Ai Khan and had insisted the young Ghulam Ali to be accepted as the shagird. In the beginning he refused but when the young Ghulam Ali sang one of his thumris he said yes. But since Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had migrated to India, in his absence Ghulam Ali was mainly mentored by Barkat Ali Khan, and the other two brothers in Pakistan Mubarak Ali Khan and Amanat Ali Khan.

As was obvious in the programme no one had the lilting quality of voice or its virtuosity to combine the two so well as to make the distinction between the two impossible to pick. Some of the more popular numbers crooned took the audiences back to the high virtuosity of the ustad but no one could sing the thumri the way he did. Even the few attempts that were made further widened the gap of what lay embedded in memory and what was being rendered.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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