I heard Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan for the first time at a concert in Bombay in 1948. He opened the concert with raga Kedara and, within seconds, he touched the mandra madhyama with such clarity, strength and sweetness that there was a spontaneous and overwhelming response.

Khan’s voice was unique. It had a wide range, it was flexible, and it moved with ease in all tempi. Without exception, his voice gave his music an unmatched lucidity. Perhaps it could be better described by a term from Sanskrit Sahitya Shastra: Prasad. This quality enables a work to express and convey import in an unobstructed manner. Khan’s voice made his music unambiguous. There was no need to reconstruct or imagine his musical design to enjoy or assess it, because it was perceived clearly and easily. The veil of a faulty voice production was totally absent in his musical endeavours.


The lack of musical ambiguity was also obvious in other ways. For example, his approach to the pronunciation of words was marked by an element of leisure. Even the joint consonants in words such as premaki (thumri in Sohoni), tatsat (in the bhajan Hari Om Tatsat), swami (in the antara of the khayal in Malkauns), were not glossed over.

What was more amazing was that he could maintain this same quality even when the words were pitched on high notes. The fact that he could keep them undistorted at higher pitch levels speaks of an extraordinarily well-coordinated voice production. This was evident in his tarana singing. Generally, the grouping together of unusual, rather prosaic and often unintelligible consonant sounds might have compelled other musicians to become forced and harsh. However, Khan could retain his singer-at-ease quality. The edges of the words were never lost or rounded off in his singing. They were carefully chiselled into un-blunted, individual shapes.


The Patiala exponent

Another instance of the essential unambiguity of Khan’s singing was the care he bestowed on the values of individual notes as tonal entities. Whatever the length and tempo of the taans and the proportion of the gamaks involved, the values of the individual notes remained intact. He was never slippery in his taans or merely sonorous in his gamaks. The melodic line was always clear in its entirety, the component notes were given their full value and the termination points were never allowed to appear abruptly. This was all the more surprising because in the Patiala gharana, which he represented, fast and intricate taans constitute a speciality.

It is difficult to describe the taans which played such an important part in the makeup of the Patiala gharana. But Khan has been extensively recorded, and it is possible to relate these observations to his recorded music. It is obvious that speed was given pride of place in his renderings. He excelled in satta taans (straight taans covering at least a range of one octave). But the distinctive feature was the use of speed in short, spiralling patterns, covering the whole range. The spiralling variety of Khan’s singing accentuated two elements: the shortened tonal space and the intricacy of the design involved. The tonal space was accentuated because the octave note or the termination point of the taan was approached with a decidedly gradual movement. And the intricacy of the design was brought into relief because the spiralling progression invariably repeated the basic pattern. The total effect is naturally one of surprise and exuberance.


The tappa in his taans

It is here that the influence of the tappa form becomes obvious. We know that this form is flashy and intricate in intent and fast in movement. Therefore it succeeds in producing the effect of an aural dazzle but not of any sustained power of music. Khan incorporated aspects of the tappa in his taans. Significantly enough, he did not sing the tappa. It would have been musically repetitious for him to render khayal with tappa-oriented taans and again present tappa as an independent musical item. His tappa-oriented sections were prominent in chhota khayals. His fast chhota khayals in Todi (Bhor bhai), Malkauns (Aye pi more) are good instances of how frameworks originally set in a fast tempo could facilitate effective emergence of fast and intricate taan patterns.

Khan was not, however, only known for his khayal singing. In fact, in the opinion of many musicians, his place as a singer of thumris is to be rated higher than as a khayal singer. It seems to me that in his case all the three forms exerted a reciprocal influence. Though he did not sing the tappa, curiously enough, it was this form – one that was not included in his active repertoire – which deeply impressed both the khayal and thumri in his music. His thumris borrowed the flashy contours of the tappa, and in spite of the musicological argument in favour of eschewing taans and intricacy in the interest of sustained emotional appeal, he did succeed in winning recognition for the twin elements of exuberance and emotionality in his thumri singing.


When he appeared on the Indian musical scene in the late ’40s, Benaras and Lucknow were the only established gharanas in thumri singing. Benaras with its seriousness and poise and Lucknow with its minute delicacies and ghazal-orientation had created types that were in danger of becoming too rigid. The thumri texts, the procedure of presentation, and even the norms to be followed by the accompanists, were achieving the status of stereotypes, and new interpretation was rendered difficult if not impossible. This impasse had to be met with musical ingenuity. For this task, Khan intuitively chose the way of impressing his thumri with a tappa orientation. He was the right person to do this successfully because his voice was ideally suited for the delicate balancing act that was involved. There was a cyclical influencing process operative in his music. His tappas influenced his thumris which, in turn, influenced his khayals. Perhaps, Khan also felt his contributions to thumri singing were indeed more original, because he has presented thumris even in ragas such as Sohoni. This attempt at extending the effective area of thumri to ragas traditionally reserved for khayal would have added a new perspective to the existing hierarchy of musical forms. The attempt did not take root, but that does not lessen the value of his explorations.


The eternal novice

Khan did not make any claim to be a learned vocalist. He repeatedly stated he knew only a few ragas, and this was borne out by his rather limited effective repertoire. He sang Prachalita and, in the main, mood-oriented ragas. Fortunately, most of his patent ragas have been recorded. It is also reported that he knew about 15 varieties of pahadi – a folk melody used copiously for lighter compositions. One wishes that these, too, had been recorded. More extensive recordings of his folk repertoire would have certainly shed better light on the creative process which helped him reinforce his insight into classical music with first-hand knowledge of folk expression in music. It appears he knew traditional compositions but not too many, and that could be one reason why he composed new compositions using the name Sabrang in them. It is, of course, possible that he felt that traditional compositions were not particularly suitable to his view of music. In effect, he sang what the listeners seemed to know and he may be said to have more belief in originality than in novelty.


When he arrived on the musical scene, the trend among musicians was to dazzle and puzzle the listeners. Khan did not follow this easy road to recognition and insisted on creating surprises within the area of the known – in matters of ragas, talas and the compositions. He never addressed himself to the connoisseur. In fact, his unspoken faith appeared to be that if you can move the layman, then the learned will also be moved. He also grasped one more truth about the ordinary music lover – this listener likes to have his ears filled while listening to music. Artistes can do this (as they have done) by using more volume, more tonal colour and swifter and more successive stimuli. Khan relied on continuous sweetness.

Khan used to say that music should be likened to playing, dancing or rhythmic movements of waves. The impressionistic attitude reflected in such remarks also indicated his inclination to de-ritualise music and, in a way, make it less serious and more enjoyable. It could perhaps be that he did not want to be serious about music all the time. He certainly justified this unusual approach by some extremely fresh, appealing and easy-to-digest music.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.