Ghulam Ali could compose a protest ghazal for every time he has been denied permission to sing in India. Instead, the renowned singer is expected to attend the music release function of a film called Ghar Wapsi (Homecoming) in Mumbai at the end of January, in which he has sung a patriotic song.
Will the paid goons acquiesce or not, following the recent success of his concerts in Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram? All it might take Ali to soothe their nerves is a spirited rendition of his most famous ghazal, “Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” (What’s the fuss about?).
Born in December in 1940 in a village in Punjab that is now in Pakistan, Ali hails from a family of musicians. His father, a sarangi player, named him after the renowned vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. When Ali was fourteen, his father took him to Kabul to be trained by the vocalist. Ghulam Ali learnt music in the Patiala gharana from the senior singer and his three brothers. Ghulam Ali soon began singing for Pakistani Radio.
His first composition was “Shyam Ko Subah-E-Chaman,” written by poet Ahmed Nadeem Qazmi. Ali’s control of his pitch even when he is singing higher notes and his ability to balance the tonality without getting shrill, regales listeners tuning in for such nuances.
In the 1982 Hindi film Nikaah, Ghulam Ali sang “Chupke Chupke Raat Din”, written by Hasrat Mohani and composed by Ravi. The track further cemented his name and made him even more popular across the subcontinent, where the ghazal was being revived by such singers as Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Penaz Masani, Chitra Singh and Talat Aziz.
Ghulam Ali has another feat to his name. He has sung ghazals in Nepali with Narayan Gopal for the compilation Narayan Gopal: Ghulam Ali Ra Ma (Ghulam Ali and I). The tracks include “Gajalu Ti Thula Thula Aankha” (Your big kohl-lined eyes), written by the late Nepalese king Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and composed by Deepak Jangam. One can question the adaptation but not its sincerity.
Apart from Hindi and Urdu, Ali also sings in Punjabi. In India, he collaborated with lyricist Gulzar on the album Visaal (2004). The ghazal “Khusboo Jaise Log Mile” got plenty of air-play and re-introduced Ali to a new generation of listeners.
His other collaboration with playback singer Asha Bhonsle, Meraz-E-Ghazal (1983), is considered a seminal work.
An anecdote that Ali never tires of narrating, probably because it mirrors his own predicament whenever he plans to visit India, is how he met playback sing Mohammed Rafi in 1980.
“I was staying at the Taj in Mumbai and in the morning I got a call,” Ali said. “Rafi bhai used to talk very softly. So, there was this soft voice saying ‘Hello’. I was sleeping and so I was a little dazed. He said that it was Rafi speaking. I asked him ‘Rafi who?’ He said ‘Mohammed Rafi’ and began speaking in Punjabi. We are both from Punjab, you know. He invited me for breakfast to his house and we spent four hours together. I told him ‘Rafi bhai, the whole world listens to you’. And he told me ‘But I listen to you!’”
The misra-e-sani (second line of the couplet) of Ali’s most requested ghazal “Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, "Daaka toh nahi daala, chori toh nahi ki hai" (I have not attacked or stolen anything). About time his detractors listened to him and allowed him to sing freely.