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Tribute to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

by Mohan Nadkarni

First Published in: The Times of India, Bombay on April 25, 1968

Few luminaries may have shone so brightly on the musical horizon for more than a generation as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who passed away in Hyderabad at 66 on April 23, 1968. Fewer still are the artistes who could combine, so remarkably, tradition with imagination, technique with grace and classicality with popular appeal. It is indeed rare to come by another virtuoso with such finesse for aligning his music to the moods and tastes of his mixed audiences. His clear and mellifluous voice, which had both depth and range, was his fortune, and he had admirably adapted his medium to render fluent khayals, sprightly thumris, erotic ghazals and soulful bhajans with an artistry all his own.

The Ustad was born at Kasur, now in Pakistan. That he was a genius was evident from his early childhood. This scion of a family of musicians would always assert that by the time he started talking, he had a fair idea of the swara saptak!

Inspiration and hard work combined to shape him into a genius. His music received its magic touch from his father, Ali Baksh, and his uncle, Fateh Ali. To this masters' touch he added an unstinted industry and an unequal determination. The result was such perfection of technique and presentation as would belong only to veterans.

Bade Ghulam Ali's performance at the darbar of the Prince of Wales, in Delhi, in the early' twenties, was the beginning of his rise to fame. Since then he came to give hundreds of performances all over India and many other Eastern countries. He drew appreciative audiences in South India - a covetable distinction for a Northerner-and he always spoke with gusto of the ``large and discerning audiences, perfectly disciplined in behavior'' he witnessed wherever he went.

While the success of his technique of musical expression can well be judged from the large following he commanded among our up-coming stylists, the characteristic exuberance and freedom of Bade Ghulam Ali's music provoked as much criticism among his detractors as it evoked admiration from his ardent fans. The profound influence of the sarangi, so much evident in his sargams, and in the sudden execution of difficult but exceedingly fluent, sonorous taans led many into doubting the very authenticity of his vocal tradition.

Then there are others who frowned on him for the relatively short time he devoted to the exposition of classical melodies and the three-tier (or even four-tier) treatment he accorded to a single theme comprising a vilambit, followed by a another drut and finally a tarana!

This temperamental and moody maestro, however, never hesitated to admit his fondness for sarangi-like finesse in his vocalization. But he vehemently denied having ever begun his career as an instrumentalist. He justified his brief presentation of classical themes and the sudden switch-over to lighter varieties by asserting that he was always in a better position to sense the boredom among his lay listeners than his critics.

That the Ustad loved India more than his native state was reflected in his frequent concert visits to this country, and in his readiness to accept Indian citizenship. From then on he came to be showered with awards and honors, including the Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Genial and gay, big-built and puffy-faced Bade Ghulam Ali was a composer of high merit. Scores and scores of cheezas (songs) composed by him under the pen-name, "Sab-Rang", are a rich contribution to the heritage of Hindustani music.

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