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True to classical form

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan, the custodian of a great tradition, performed at the Alhamra last week

True to classical form

A second programme of classical music featuring Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan was held at the Alhamra last week, following one organised a few days earlier at the Shakir Ali Museum.

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan is one of the leading classical vocalists around. As is the wont, he started to sing with his father, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, in his preteens. The Ustad saw more promise in him than his other sons, though the elder son Sharafat Ali sang with his father for more than two decades after the famous duo of Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan split during the decade of the 1970s.

In the beginning, it was an uphill struggle for him as he went about establishing a place for himself in the ever-shrinking circle of practitioners and critics of classical forms. And then, of course, was the comparison with his father which was more dampening than elevating. But it must have been also a cause or motivation for him to do better and to come out of the shadow that loomed over him all the time.

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan now sings with his son Faizan Ali Khan to keep the tradition alive. Shafqat’s virtuosity cannot be doubted and his taan, palta and laikaari is to be appreciated. A fugitive in life, he sought to find the fleeting character in every worker who ran the temples of high-life in Paris.

That shadow still looms. It is a given reality among hereditary musicians who always have to compete with their own fathers, uncles, grandfathers and, at a later stage, their own sons. In the traditional arrangement and scheme of things, everyone is supposed to be a vocalist or instrumentalist or composer. There is no escaping it and, if one does, it is severely and brutally ridiculed.

But after the death of his father in 2001, Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan battled alone staying true to raagdari, the classical and semi classical forms, rather than submitting to popular taste and switching on to more prevalent and acceptable forms where there are more rewards and admissibility. In the beginning, there was this exposure to the Indian audiences, as well as the growing diaspora of Pakistanis and Indians, that sustained him, fuelled his passion and inspired him to continue. The cultural linkages are revitalised to offset the alienation the diaspora may be feeling in foreign lands.

The memory of the past they left behind has been kept aglow in their minds’ eye. The retention of this glow has benefited artistes like Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan.

In an age when the younger generation is increasingly oblivious of the grand heritage of music, the relevance of artistes who have maintained some kind of link with that heritage makes them worthy of being appreciated.


The classical forms have been essentially syncretic in their make-up and the state of Pakistan found it a little disconcerting with a heritage that was not pointedly, in their perception, Islamic . Then with the sloganeering of popular or awami culture, it was all seen as being too elitist, a product of a certain class. To many with a positivist approach, with their understanding of the mundane function assigned to the arts, a little too esoteric. The boorish attacks strengthened those who have repeatedly called for a definitive purge or censorship of cultural forms in an ideologically driven Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

In this new environment, the kheyal gharanas had to survive and find their own place. The Sham Chaurasi, the gharana to which Shafqat Salamat belongs, has been resilient and accommodating in its origin and growth, and this may have helped his generation to cope with seismic changes.

Sham Chaurasi was one of the four centres of the dhrupad in the Punjab — the others being Talwandi, Kapurthala and Haryana. But the duo of Nazakat Ali/Salamat Ali chose to switch to kheyal and then, after migrating to Pakistan and their sojourn in Multan, to the rendition of the kaafi in raags. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was the dominant partner but the elder Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan had a mellifluous voice that could also traverse the three registers, and it was he who formed the basic aesthetic tonal pattern of the raag.

One of the most difficult things in kheyal or dhrupad is to establish this aesthetic tonal pattern (shakal) of the raag, and Nazakat Ali Khan was very good at making a sketch. Then Salamat Ali Khan took over and started added colour by dividing, sub-dividing, combining the variations of stress that enunciated the musical possibilities inherent in the raag.

Obviously, to many detractors, this little rebellion from tradition where a formal ustad shagirdy nexus assumes a mystical tradition was sacrilege. But proceeding on the path of dikhiya, sikhiya and parikhiya (to see, to learn and to creatively assimilate) with great deal of success silenced the critics with lightening progress in this genre. They were driven to perform at a very early age due to their promise, and also because of poverty. The family just could not bear to see them not become earning members to salvage a near desperate situation at home. They got their early training from their father Vilayat Ali Khan and probably also benefited from the tutelage of Mubarak Ali Khan, the Jallandhari qawwal.

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan now sings with his son Faizan Ali Khan to keep the tradition alive. Shafqat’s virtuosity cannot be doubted and his taan, palta and laikaari is to be appreciated. At times, probably due to the lukewarm response from a diverse audience, he crosses the limit and exerts his virtuosity more than in its more desired embedded form. This generally has been the response of classical musicians when faced with an uninitiated audience. The stress on virtuosity, with sheer display of craftsmanship, is overplayed which does impress the lay audience.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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