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An unsung maestro

Remembering Nawab Thakur Ali Khan and his exhaustive book on the subcontinent’s music

An unsung maestro

On the death anniversary of Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhathkhande it would be worthwhile to remember a close associate of his who wrote a seminal book in Urdu on the music of the subcontinent in the early part of the twentieth century.

Perhaps Nawab Thakur Ali Khan has been treated unfairly by historians and musicologists over the past century or so, for he has always been seen as a friend, junior partner or a sidekick to Pandit Bhathkhande who recast the rules of classical music in the light of the developments that had taken place in the Indian subcontinent since the coming of the British. Bhathkhande himself a shagird of Bhindi Bazaar gawaiyas had rightly pointed it out then that prevalent music or ‘murawwaja mausiqi’ be studied first and then a theoretical framework drawn from it rather than attempt to link it to the ancient texts that were written in the past; and to which the music as practised did not really synch in totality.

Known variously as Muhammed Nawab Ali Khan, Raja Nawab Ali and Thakur Nawab Ali, one does not know when he was born and when he died. Compared to Bhathkhande, he is not that celebrated even among the Urdu speaking and reading public, though his contribution is considered indispensable and of great value. It could be that music is not as valued as it should be; it is only heard and then forgotten about without recourse to its impact on the human mental and emotional structures. If music is only taken as entertainment, it is seen as not being important enough to waste much time on it. Only when it is more worthwhile does it calls for greater engagement. In Pakistan, by labeling what is essentially ours or Indian/ Hindu has resulted in greater cultural wreckage, with damaging effects that run much deeper.

Not much is known about Thakur Nawab Ali except that he was a friend or close associate of Bhathkhande. They probably met in 1912.

Perhaps Nawab Thakur Ali was more than a mere accomplice and should be seen as an individual who was deeply concerned about music, loved it so and was desirous of making it part of the discourse even among the Muslims of the region. The lavish patronage of music and the great masters who brought music to life were mostly Muslims but a prejudice remained then and it lingers on today.

Maraful Naghmaat has been a popular reference book, consulted from time to time by the musicians themselves since 1924 when probably it was first published. Many have seen it as mere Urdu translation of the works of Bhathkhande but it may not necessarily be true. Popularly known as Sangeet, it is advanced as a definitive version when disputes arise among musicians about a raga or controversies regarding the shrutis, vaadi samvaadi, thaat or the methods of barhat of a raag. Many books have been written in the past hundred years or so, some also in Urdu, but the undisputed status of Maraful Naghmaat has stayed unmatched.

Nearly all the knowledge about music in our tradition has been oral, having been transmitted from the father to the son or ustad to the shagird. As the lines of musicians has developed in many directions including that of gharanas as keepers of tradition, certain stylistic differences developed and these shades or nuances were appreciated as the distinguishing marker of a gharana or style. In case there was difference that became too acrimonious, the reference to which were often made through Maraful Naghmaat. Most were willing to swear by it.

Not much is known about Thakur Nawab Ali except that he was a friend or close associate of Bhathkhande. They probably met in 1912. Some say that he was a taluqdar, meaning a jagirdar, from Akbarpur in Setapur district from United Province, now called Uttar Pradesh and was not only interested in music as were the Muslim nobility in India but had actually learnt music, according to Sobhana Nayar from Ustad Kale Khan, Ustad Nazeer Khan and Ustad Muhammed Ali Khan. He was close friends with the eminent Munne Khan, Sadiq Ali Khan and Kalka Bindadin Maharaj.

According to Rashid Malik, he as the shagird of Ustad Kale Khan of Lahore (probably the uncle of Barre Ghulam Ali Khan) wrote the book Maraful Naghmaat probably as a series of articles when the All India Music Conferences were being organised by Bhathkhande and seminars were held to debate many of the sticking points that needed attention. It is said that he was coaxed by Bhathkhande to write a book in Urdu. Bhathkhande’s own writings have been in Sanskrit, Marathi and English but none in Urdu. Thakur Nawab Ali is said to have presided over the music conferences and extended lavish patronage to the entire enterprise.

It is said that he was a good harmonium player having learnt it from Ganapatrao Bhaiya of Gwalior, could play the sitar and sing dhrupad, dhammar and kheyal. It is said that most of the material that Bhathkhande had access to was due to Thakur Nawab’s friendship to the Nawab of Rampur and hence to the various outstanding musicians in the court there like Ustad Wazir Khan. The book is in two volumes, one discusses the theoretical side and the other a collection of cheeses (bandishes) which he collected with great deal of effort primarily from Barre Muhammed Ali Khan of the Senia Gharana. It appears that he was very close to Bhathkhande and was actively involved in the setting up of the Marris Music College in Lucknow, now elevated and known as the Bhathkhande University of Music. His financial support was seen to be critical for the establishment of the enterprise. When Aligarh College was established, the setting up of the drama club or society became a point of much heated contention and the idea had to be eventually dropped. Thakur Nawab Ali by throwing the dice in favour of a music institution must have been seen as sacrilegiously revolutionary.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • I don’t understand why the writer calls him Nawab Thakur Ali Khan. His given name was Nawab Ali Khan. Nawab was his name, not a title. And he was a Muslim Thakur; as was Shibli Nomani.

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