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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan

Saqib Razaq writes on Patiala gharana's Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. The legendary vocalist who made a lasting impression on the khayal gayaki of the Indian sub-continent.

There have only been a handful of musicians whose legacy has stood strong over the course of time and represented by the future generation of musicians. One such individual was the late Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan whose name is synonymous with the Patiala gharana. The contributions made by the maestro over the course of his career totally revolutionised Hindustani classical music and helped to establish the Patiala gharana as a major proponent of khayal gayaki.

Born in Patiala during the last decade of the 19th century, Ashiq Ali Khan, was the son of Patiala gharana co-founder Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan along with Ustad Ali Bukhsh Khan formed the basis of the Patiala tradition of khayal singing. The duo, popularly known as Alliya- Fattu were awarded the respective titles of General and Colonel by Lord Elgan, Viceroy of India during the mid 19th century.

Having lost his father during childhood, Ashiq Ali Khan could only learn the basic elements of classical music before being placed under the guidance of Ustad Ali Bukhsh Khan. This apprenticeship did not last long either, as the young Ashiq Ali Khan, deprived of the watchful eye of his father ran away from home. He spent an extensive period wandering from place to place before being persuaded by Sardar Bai, a senior disciple of his father, to stay with her.

Sardar Bai adopted the young boy and imparted the musical knowledge she had gained from her mentor. Ashiq Ali Khan stayed with Sardar Bai for seven years before spending a considering period travelling in the regions of Punjab and Sindh. It was during his stay in Sukkur, he fell into bad company and developed a liking for opium, hashish and alcohol. His addiction to opium was so extreme, that it resulted in his vocal chords being severely damaged.

Even during his teenage years, Ashiq Ali Khan was not seriously inclined towards music and would perform light music occasionally solely to feed his opium addiction. The real change to his musical career came when he overheard sarcastic comments from a number of musicians mocking him for singing ghazals and kafis despite being the son of the great Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. These comments acted as an impetus for Ashiq Ali Khan to pursue music on a serious note. He sought the guidance of his maternal uncle Ustad Amir Khan of Multan and the prolific Patiala gharana composer Ustad Alladiya Khan alias Meherban Khan, both senior disciples of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Both maestros provided him with rigorous training including a number of rare compositions of the Patiala gharana. The maestro is also said to have consulted Ustad Natthu Khan Patialawale and Imam Din Khan of Sialkot. Through a dedicated period of arduous practice lasting approximately five years, Ashiq Ali Khan began to perform classical music and created a storm amongst musicians and listeners alike, establishing himself amongst the top most vocalists of the Indian sub-continent.

Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan performing on All India Radio

In describing Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan’s performance style, one has to look towards one word “mushkilaat” or complexity. He is widely regarded as the ultimate statement of “tayyari” and “layakari” by most of the vocalists of the Punjab region. Due to the deformity in his voice, Ashiq Ali Khan concentrated on the rhythmic elements of classical music. His style was extremely difficult, marked by the heavy usage of complicated taan patterns coupled with fast sargams. He introduced the concept of layakari within the khayal performance by employing tihaees into his performances, commonly starting from any point in the rhythm cycle and sharply ending on the sum. This performance style created a flurry in the regions of Punjab and Sindh and became the normal style of khayal presentation, so much so that even vocalists considered as Ashiq Ali Khan’s rivals adopted this difficult style. Apart from the khayal, the ustad was a master at singing the Multani Kafi, a genre he adopted due to his extensive stay in Sukkur, Multan and Bahawalpur. Although Ashiq Ali Khan had a vast repertoire of raags, he is considered to be a master at rendering Bhairav Bahar, Multani, Madhuwanti, Puriya Dhanasri and Darbari.

Click to hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan perform Multani Kafi

On Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan’s mastery over rhythm, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, recalled a mehfil he attended where the ustad performed Puriya Dhanasri accompanied by Ustad Inayati Khan on tabla. The khayal was set to the twelve beat rhythm cycle of drut Ek Taal. During the course of the performance, Ashiq Ali Khan unexpectedly arrived on the sum on the 12th beat, realising the shocked reaction of the audience, the ustad made the 12th beat the sum and kept on showering tihaees on the final beat of the rhythm cycle.

Despite his addiction to opium and hashish, Ashiq Ali Khan led a life of simplicity. The maestro had a religious bent and strong inclination towards Sufism, spending five years during his youth at the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh. He was never interested in material gains and enjoyed travelling, never remaining in one place for any great length of time. The maestro had a sharp taste for clothes, often preferring to wear a suit and tie during performances. Although there were many offers for him to become a court musician, he preferred not to attach himself under the services of a Maharajah or Nawab. Apart from a brief period of employment under the services of the Maharajah of Patiala, Ashiq Ali Khan preferred to perform in informal mehfils and baithaks, rather than the plush settings of nobility.

The maestro was a man of strong principles when it came to music and believed in retaining the integrity of the Patiala style. He would always respond to a challenge brought upon by rival vocalists and actively took part in musical dungals (form of competition between musicians). Senior citizens of Lahore can still recall his performances at the Takia Meerasian in Mochi Gate, Lahore and memorable dungals with the likes of Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan, Ustad Pyare Khan and Ustad Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan.

Former advisor to the Classical Music Research Cell, Radio Pakistan, M.A. Sheikh had many opportunities to hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and recalled a memorable mehfil taken place at the famous music director Khurshid Anwar’s residence featuring the maestro and his protégé Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Ashiq Ali Khan started the afternoon performance with a thumri in raag Khamaj with Bade Ghulam Ali Khan providing vocal support. During the course of the performance Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan became emotionally overwhelmed and excused himself from the performance, explaining that the exquisite manner at which the maestro was rendering the thumri he was no longer able to perform with him. Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan followed the thumri with a splendid presentation of raag Multani.

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan spent a considerable period learning from Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan

Another interesting anecdote concerning the maestro recalled by a number of senior Lahoris is the time when there were rumours circulating of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan contemplating on becoming the disciple of Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan, the celebrated vocalist of the Kirana gharana. On hearing this, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan is said to have become very angry that a disciple of his gharana was contemplating on shifting loyalties. So much so that he went to Abdul Waheed Khan’s residence in Lahore and openly challenged him to a duel. Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan being a complete gentleman is said to have calmed the situation down.

In an era when most classical musicians were against lending their voice on radio and the recording industry, Ashiq Ali Khan actively broadcasted on All India Radio and recorded for the major gramophone companies. His gramophone records are now considered collector’s items and his duets with Ustad Umeed Ali Khan featuring raags Lalit and Shyam Kalyan are regarded as historic pieces of recorded Hindustani classical music.

Click to hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Ustad Umeed Ali Khan perform raag Lalit

Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan was also a fine teacher and responsible for grooming some of the great names of Hindustani classical music who have become standard bearers of their respective fields. Amongst his numerous disciples, notable names are of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha, Kabul’s Ustad Mohammad Hussain Sarhang, Mukhtar Begum, ghazal singer Farida Khanum, Zahida Parveen, Ustad Hussain Bukhsh Dhadhi and Chotey Ashiq Ali Khan. Apart from the above, vocalists of the calibre of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Hussain Bukhsh Khan have openly acknowledged that they are strongly influenced by Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan.

Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan passed away childless in Lahore on 10th of March 1948 and is buried at the Takia Meerasian in Lahore. However, there is some disagreement from certain sources claiming that the actual year of his death was 1958. Even though it has been over fifty years since his death, the name of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan is still remembered with great fervour and regarded as the ultimate statement of khayal gayaki amongst the vocalists of the Patiala gharana.

Ashiq Ali Khan's grave at the Takia Meerasian

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