I remember having conversations with A Kanan in the 1990s about musicians we admired. This was at a time when I’d make weekly visits to his house in the expansive ITC Sangeet Research Academy properties, and he’d pass on traditional khayal compositions to me.

I brought up the brothers Nazakat Ali (1928-’84) and Salamat Ali Khan (1934-2001) during one of these exchanges, and A Kanan recounted a story about when he’d gone to visit Bade Ghulam Ali Khan at a time when the musician was presumably living in Park Circus in Calcutta. He portrayed the Khan as an innocent, as great artists can be, grumbling to him about this upstart duo from Pakistan – the younger brother, Salamat, especially – about whom extraordinary claims were being made. “Who are they?” he asked A Kanan. “Is he really that good?”

A Kanan had to reassure him that he wasn’t. Bade Ghulam Ali had a specific status in India, as the khayal’s greatest virtuoso, and it was Salamat Ali’s virtuosity that had prompted that second question.

I recount A Kanan’s story not for its truth-value (memory can be deceptive) or insight, but because it conveys something of the force of Salamat Ali Khan’s impact when people first heard him in India. The brothers first visited it as young but mature performers in 1953 and then performed here throughout the 1950s and ’60s – so one can guess at an approximate date for Bade Ghulam’s urgent enquiry.

But when I started to learn Hindustani classical music in 1978, they were no longer really part of the conversation about khayal, in a way that Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, and Kesarbai Kerkar were, or as were the principal living vocalists of the late ’70s: Kishori Amonkar, Pandit Jasraj, Bhimsen Joshi, Parveen Sultana and Kumar Gandharva. The odd elision continues to this day. Nazakat and Salamat Ali are acknowledged by other musicians, but they don’t inhabit our general awareness. I have also heard them dismissed casually with: “Mere virtuosity isn’t enough.”

“To ask the hard question is simple,” said WH Auden, just as it takes little effort to make light of an incredible amount of hard work.

Salamat Ali and Nazakat Ali Khan. Credit: Salamat Ali Khan via Facebook

I myself heard of them from my teacher Govind Prasad Jaipurwale’s brother-in-law, Hazarilal: he was besotted with their singing. I paid them half a ear but discovered them properly in London as an unsociable undergraduate after I got myself a recording they’d done in Holland, of ragas Gujri Todi and Rageshri.

This record was sudden proof to me that, as a virtuoso and artist, Salamat Ali Khan had no peer in Hindustani classical music, and that (since Hindustani classical music is the most complex of any vocal tradition), as a virtuosic singer, he had no equal I knew of.

Why isn’t it de rigueur to speak of Salamat Ali Khan every time Hindustani classical music is mentioned? It could be because the brothers moved to Pakistan in 1947, although they were born in Hoshiarpur, a town in Punjab that lay, after Partition, on the Indian side. It could be that Salamat Ali’s unbelievable capacities provoked the kind of envy that the remark about “mere virtuosity” hints at.

When I use the word “unbelievable”, I do so literally. Indian classical music anyway asks the human voice to do things in khayal, especially when it sings taans, or the quick, complex succession of note-patterns, that leave the listener (which includes musicians) incredulous. The speed, beauty, and accuracy of Salamat Ali Khan’s taans leave the most accomplished singers shaking their heads in disbelief.

‘Nazakat Salamat’

“Mere virtuosity” is true of some singers I hear today, but doesn’t apply to the mix of abandon and control in Salamat Ali’s feats. Another reason for a relative lack of acknowledgement could be that the brothers form a duo, and the khayal is weighted towards soloists. Yet Salamat’s separation from his older brother Nazakat in the 1970s caused a strange dilution in his performances – another reason for the receding reputation. Still, there are enough recordings of the two for us to marvel continually.

I’ve made the subject of this retrieval Salamat Ali Khan, but there’s a reason why the brothers are mentioned in one breath as “Nazakat Salamat”. The older sibling has to be the responsible one in families in order to absorb the younger’s anarchy. This principle is on display in their performances right from their first recording onwards, of ragas Darbari and Kalavati, when Salamat was 25 and his older brother 31.

Nazakat’s role has to do with laying the groundwork and then cultivating increasing self-effacement to make possible Salamat’s miraculous phrases. Nazakat gives, in the slow alaap, a conventional, solid treatment of the raga, not by expanding on it at length, but by stating certain notes and progressions. Salamat’s creative contribution to alaap in khayal is to be a dismantler; not to add to his brother’s musical statements but to destroy and refashion them.

You’ll see this process at work in the Kalavati recording below. Salamat isn’t a builder; he’s a demolisher and rebuilder – that’s where his genius in alaap lies, well before he’s embarked on the virtuoso phrases of the drut or fast khayal. He couldn’t do this without the older brother. Left to himself, he is always less compelling, because the task of building – conventionally, brick by brick, as in a realist novel – is not for him; it bores him slightly. Both brothers sing in short bursts, but Salamat’s bursts in alaap are afterthoughts rather than considered proclamations. He is, in a fundamental sense, an improviser.

Once the alaap is done come the sargam or named notes, the deep gamaks, and the astonishing, airborne taans. Nazakat’s singing, until at least the middle of the duo’s career, is reliable in another sense besides its interpretative solidity: it’s in tune. Salamat’s singing becomes melody, as is the case with great singers. This is not an exaggeration. You can hear the tension in the voice, as it whispers, buzzes, and occasionally becomes aggressive and voluble. It’s stretching itself, like a string.

Salamat Ali Khan. Credit: worldmusiccentral.org

The marvel of what Ustad Vilayat Khan did with the sitar – that is, develop a style called the gayaki ang or singing style, based on astonishingly complex bent notes arising from a string being pulled sideways – is there for the eye to see as we watch him and other sitar players, like Shahid Parvez, perform.

The vocal cords are invisible. But the singing voice’s extraordinarily tensile capacity to produce bent notes, a succession of notes being pulled or gliding out one after the other, is audible in Salamat Ali’s singing, in his profusion of the twanging sapaats or entire scales, or the zamzama taans that were his favourite, comprising a cluster of sequential notes that the sitar player, say, can hit away from one string to another: in the Kalavati recording, for instance, sa ga ga ga, ga pa pa pa, pa dha dha dha, dha sa sa sa, and so on, the voice stretching itself infinitely, but with delicacy.

Inspired no doubt by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the two brothers sought to touch the sa or tonic three times in the ascent at least once in their performances – the lower and upper sa of the middle octave, and then the high sa of the upper. Salamat would do something that seems normal only in his universe – execute a sapaat scale twice over that length, covering the three tonics and all the notes in between in a lightning flash, as in the Marwa recording below: sa re (flat) ga ma (sharp) dha ni sa, followed by the same notes in the upper octave.

This is not “mere virtuosity”; this is not even incredible. It’s a demonstration of how precise and beautiful the unimaginable can be.

Here’s the khayal in Kalavati from 1959, possibly the brothers’ first studio recording together.


This is the recording I discovered in London, of Gujri Todi.


Towards the beginning, you have to listen closely as Salamat Ali sometimes whispers his elaborations. These bits are a reminder that Indian classical music is not about volume but detail. Later, as the khayal gathers pace, so do the resounding dhrupad-style gamaks (deep undulations) and the perfect tidal waves of layakari (the play with the rhythmic cycle, of which Salamat was a gifted practitioner). Listen also to Ghulam Mohammad on sarangi and Shaukat Hussain on tabla for their energy and mastery as they respond to Salamat Ali’s acceleration.

In this sublime version of Mohankauns (one needs to ignore the strange video) – a raga created by Ravi Shankar but performed by few others – Salamat Ali almost needs no prompting from his brother to initiate his departures in alaap.


Finally, here’s the three-minute exposition of raag Marwa.