The journey of Mehar Ali Sher Ali, artistic and otherwise, is representative of most musicians and performing artistes. Dr Sadat Ali Saqib has documented their ceaseless struggle which took them to a point where they are now recognised as one of the leading qawwals of the country.
They belong to a family of hereditary musicians, though not from the Qawwal Bachcha lineage. Hailing from a small principality called Padhor, probably under the larger tutelage of the State of Patiala, the ruler of the principality, Maharaja Ettar Singh, a cousin of the Maharaja of Patiala, was a lover of music. Because of his position and resources, he extended his patronage to classical music.
The rulers of Patialia were great lovers of the arts and sports. A whole gharana is named after the state because of the lavish patronage that was extended to music which facilitated the musicians and outstanding ones to congregate in the state. They were also great lovers of cricket and wrestling. We know that Ghulam Muhammed (Gama pahalwan) and Imam Buksh were patronised by the state and Gama won the world title in freestyle wrestling and became a legendary figure and source of pride for the subcontinent. In cricket, too, the Maharaja with a few others was basically responsible not only for popularisation of the game but also by making the sport Indian. He helped to institute the Ranji Trophy while promoting the cause of local cricketers against the colonial British.
Maharaja Ettar Singh invited outstanding musicians to his court from all over India, but at times they could not make it in time because of difficult travel conditions or prior commitments which were always to some other princely state, since they were the principal patrons. So he decided to groom local musicians. He was advised to offer his patronage to two very promising youngsters — Ali Buksh and Karam Buksh. They were taken under loyal patronage, went through proper regimen of training and made the shagird of Halwara Talwandi’s famous doyens Ustad Maula Buksh Khan and Ustad Syed Ali Khan Sarmast. The two brothers stayed there for more than twelve years as shagirds picking valuable and finer details about the complexity of gaiki from the outstanding ustads of dhurpad.
All this was around the middle of the nineteenth century as they became darbari gawayias. Khansahib Ali Buksh Khan had sons Rahim Buksh and Azeem Buksh. They were patronised by the state, but for music training and shagirdi they stayed loyal to Halwara Talwandi. Both of them became outstanding vocalists after going through various states of training and apprenticeship. Azeem Buksh later quit singing and became a darwaish while Rahim Buksh continued with music and became well-known. He had three sons Chajju Khan, Ralle Khan and Badaruddin Khan. The sons became very well-known musicians, and after the death of Rahim Buksh took up the mantle of singing. Badaruddin was the father of Mehar Ali and Sher Ali.
Then came partition and the family had to migrate due to riots. Badruddin came to Kasur, got to know that some families from Padhor were living in a nearby village, Raja Jang, so he moved there. Chajju Khan settled in Multan. Badruddin lost both his children born before partition, probably due to very harsh conditions then. But in 1948, Mehar Ali and then Ashiq Hussain were born. Ashiq Hussain was ill most of the time, so on the advice of a bazurg he was later renamed as Fazal Hussain.
Badruddin had started to sing but, in Pakistan, there was just no way to survive except to sing on the shrines which he then started to do. In Pakistan, he again made his sons shagirds of Halwara Talwindi’s Ustad Ghulam Rasool Khan who after partition had migrated and started to live in Kamalia.
There they learnt the art of dhurpad and raagdaari. Mehar Ali as a young boy had started to accompany his father on the tabla but a little later Fazal Hussain had become bigger and joined them as well. They first performed as a group on the shrine of Fateh Shah in Raja Jang and a little later at Data Darbar in Lahore in 1960. By next year, Baba Haider Ali, a very good tabla player became part of the group and so the three — Badruddin, Mehar Ali and Fazal Hussain — formed the core of the group with the tabla accompanist Baba Haider Ali.
The group was still not that well-known. So at bigger melas and urs, they were not allowed to perform; nevertheless they sang out of the designated area. In the same year, on the urs at Hujra Shah Muqeem as they were singing outside the prescribed arena, fortunately, a close associate of the gaddi nasheen heard them and reported to Imdad Ali Shah, the gaddi nasheen, who then asked them over to sing before the formal session of qawwali began. Imdad Ali Shah was very impressed by their performance and wanted to know their names. When he heard the names were Mehar Ali and Fazal Hussain, he advised the father Badruddin to change the name from Fazal Hussain to Sher Ali so as to rhyme with the other brother.
The father renamed him as Sher Ali. This was the second time his name was changed on the advice of a bazurg.
Later, as they became well-known as qawwals, they felt the need for more guidance about the form; so Mehar Ali formally became the shagird of Muhammed Ali Fareed Qawwal and Sher Ali of Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal. The form of qawwali had become more complex with time with bol bant and girha bandi, and it appears from the book that they continued the process of learning from the well-known qawwals of their era like Ali Buksh Waiz, Fateh Ali, Mubarak Ali, Muhammed Ali Fareedi, Salamat Ali, Ghulam Fareed Sabri, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In the qawwali repertoire they included geets or introduced the geet ang in their rendition which they integrated with the form.
Dr Sadat Ali Saqib has done his PhD in Punjabi, teaches at the Oriental College in Lahore and is the author of many books, though this is his only venture so far into music.
Author: Dr Sadat Ali Saqib Sufi
Publisher: Inayat Publications, Faisalabad