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Remembering the ustad

As time has passed Ustad Salamat Ali Khan’s death anniversary has begun to go by without a mention

Remembering the ustad

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan’s death anniversary may go unnoticed this year too, as it has in the previous few years. Some activity took place soon after his death, but like the others he too may have been consigned to history. The Salamat Ali Khan Music Circle Award (SMC) was also instituted, and awarded to various deserving recipients in the years after his death.

The life of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, who came to Pakistan in his late teens and then blossomed as a kheyal, thumri and kaafi vocalist, earned the respects of connoisseurs all over. His work, especially in the subcontinent, can be a reference point to take a look at music and its classical forms in the years of Pakistan’s existence.

It is a little difficult to say what dhrupad and then kheyal were called; we know that they were placed at the very top of the hierarchy of music forms in the last 500 years or so. The categorisation of mousiqi which itself is an Arabic translation or transliteration of the Greek word mousaki is derived from the muses, while in the subcontinent the expression or the term used was sangeet with the primacy being granted to the vocal tradition because it was considered that the human throat was the most complex instrument ever invented.

The word classical must have invaded the field of criticism, gained currency as a tool of understanding and appreciation through European intervention and then its total domination, especially in the field of knowledge. The Arabs called it ghina or lahan or huda with competing definitions riddled by its association with the monolith called Islam.

In the 19th century, during the galvanisation of the national sentiment based on the ancient history and culture of the area, a term shastriya sangeet was coined or was dug up and dusted from the archives to contemporise and make it in synch with the rising tide of nationalism, reflective of the right of people to be masters of their own destiny. Shastriya meant what was in the shastra, the book, implying the sacred nature of the role secured by its longevity and continuity. It was placed at par with other ancient sacred acts and theories which were being reinvented for modern India.

But in the subcontinent a distinction had always been drawn between what was highbrow and what was popular. Margh was music for the discovery of the self and the world while deshi was popular music for entertainment. It was also called saman or samic music, organically linked to the sacred texts and it’s chanting was said to lead to a journey of self-discovery and salvation.

The Muslims’ attitude towards music has always been ambivalent. They have been the greatest of practitioners, resisted secondary subservient role viz a viz religion, siding with the courts or the sufis for greater freedom for themselves and their expression in music. They were nevertheless riled and were unhappy over its overstressed links with religion (Hinduism) during the colonial period.

Belonging to the famous Sham Chaurasi Gharana, these two brothers, ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan actually were the architects of their own gharana of kheyal gaiki.

They did not call it by another name in that period, but, in Pakistan, Khursheed Anwar insisted that this grand tradition of music with a developing history of integrating influences from all over, especially the musical systems it came in contact with, be called Ahang e Khusravi. He insisted that the music of the last 700 years was qualitatively different from his music and emphasised that calling it shastriya music would be going back in history in pursuit of some pristine unalloyed entity called sangeet.

The same ambivalence has characterised the state of Pakistan. In the West, the musicologists started labelling classical music either as court music or art music. Happy with coinage and divisions they have now created another category called Sufi music.

Belonging to the famous Sham Chaurasi Gharana, these two brothers, ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan actually were the architects of their own gharana of kheyal gaiki. These professional musicians with proper lineage in Punjab were dhurpad singers.

Of the four major schools of dhurpad in Punjab — Talwandi, Haryana, Sham Chaurasi and Kapurthala — their grandfather Mian Karim Buksh was a great dhurpad singer and the flag bearer of the Sham Chaurasi gaiki, but the grandsons, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali chose to switch to kheyal gaiki. They did not formally submit themselves to any ustad but the influences were many and the most profound were that of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Ustad Barrey Ghulam Ali Khan — the two giants of the Patiala Gharana who dominated music, with Tawakkel Hussain Khan, one of the most virtuoso of singers.

Classical music forms by nature are conservative, not quick on the draw of latching on to the new innovations and experiments in other popular music forms. It is generally considered kosher if the children of an ustad or the gharana continue with the practice which has been instituted, either by an elder or the gharana in its most general terms, and it was and probably still is looked down upon if the children or the progeny begin to drift away and start to practice a form that is not the due bailiwick of the gharana. The word which is next to an insult is to be beusdada, which implies that music has been poached upon and not acquired through a legitimate channel that is through an ustad.

These days with many sources freely available with advances in technology, many of the youngsters receive their inspiration and instruction from various sites and networks. The human element has been deleted and replaced by a machine.

The brothers thrived under adverse conditions, grappling with indifferent patronage and a raging popular taste. They had two sides to their music, one for the initiated and the other for the popular, and kaafi can be placed in the latter while kheyal and taraana in the former. Most classical vocalists have lived this two-faced existence or even three-faced existence, if one also adds ghazal to it.

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan’s barsi falls on the July 10.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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