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Arunabha Deb | Updated on January 23, 2018

Sing a song: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan could find music in everything fromthe grunt of a buffalo to the whirring of a fan. Photo: Shutterstock

Arunabha Deb   -  BUSINESS LINE

A maestro who travelled with his own supply of ghee and insisted on meat for all his meals — remembering Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan



Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, my favourite singer, was born on April 2, 1902; he died on April 25, 1968. Here are a few anecdotes to commemorate both his musical genius and his idiosyncrasies.





Ghee

Khansahib spent an inordinate amount of time in Calcutta every year. Often, he was a guest at the house of the stevedore Ramchandra Banerjee. He was always accompanied by a person called Enayet. Enayet had a twin role. He accompanied Khansahib on the tabla and supervised Khansahib’s dietary requirements. A key aspect of Enayet’s job was to leave Lahore (for Calcutta) with three large tins of ghee and, once in Calcutta, to warn Khansahib when the last tin had been opened. Khansahib would then proceed to procure return tickets on the Punjab Mail within a week from the warning.

Everybody knew that he would stay only till his ghee lasted. It was unthinkable for him to consume ghee that did not come from his trusted merchant in Lahore and it was, of course, unthinkable that he would eat anything that had not been cooked in ghee.

Enayet’s warnings once slipped by Khansahib. When Khansahib realised, there was ghee left for just about two days. Ram Banerjee, the host, came back home to find that Khansahib was packed and ready to leave. With folded hands, he asked Khansahib if there had been any deficiency in his hospitality. Khansahib replied that it was his fault that he had not paid heed to Enayet about the ghee and that he was now compelled to leave early. Banerjee pleaded with him for two days, in which time he assured Khansahib that he would get the ghee from Lahore. Three local samples of ghee were brought before him. He smelt each and finally approved one as temporarily tolerable. The ghee from Lahore ultimately arrived in Calcutta three days later on an Indian Airlines flight from Delhi.





Meat

Sheila Dhar and Kumarprasad Mukherjee (who used to record his chats with Dhar at the India International Centre, Delhi) have recounted this anecdote:

Khansahib had gone to Delhi for a concert and was staying at Nirmala Joshi’s (of Sangeet Natak Akademi) house. Joshi’s was a vegetarian household. Silver thalis, with seven silver bowls in each, were placed before the guests. Khansahib plunged his thumb into each bowl, expecting to feel a piece of meat. When he didn’t he pushed the plate away and uttered the line that has become part of Hindustani music folklore: “ Yeh gana aur yeh khana! (My music, and this food!)” He told Dhar, who was present, that somebody once told him that every note he sings has the aroma of kebabs — could he possibly sing that way if he had to feed on grasses swimming in different fluid?

He said that he would cook his own dinner and handed his disciples a long list of ingredients, which included six chickens (for him and his two disciples). Since meat was not allowed in the kitchen, he set up a stove in the courtyard. He cooked, ate, belched and only then set out for the concert where, listeners had been waiting since the evening.





Fan. Buffalo

Sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta has recounted the following two anecdotes:

This happened at 25 Dixon Lane — a hallowed address in Calcutta, the residence of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. This house has several maestros, to say nothing of the many memorable concerts it hosted. Khansahib was a regular guest. The house had an old fan. (Bengalis call these ‘DC fans’; their speed of movement has also earned them the moniker ‘homoeopathic fan’.) Frustrated with its speed, Khansahib looked up at the fan and said, “ Thoda tez chalna, bhai (Go faster, my friend)”. When the fan did not oblige, he replicated its screeching noise and speed through a short taan in raga Multani and kept singing it in sync with the movement of the fan. That was his idea of ‘mocking’ the fan.

Again, 25 Dixon Lane. Khansahib was sitting with a group of people when a buffalo in the neighbourhood let out a loud grunt. Immediately, Khansahib responded with a meend from ‘dha’ to ‘ma’ in the lower octave in raga Malkauns. He told the group that his guru and uncle, Ustad Kale Khan, had once told him that if he wants to bring jawaani (youth) to his voice, he should try to imbibe the tone of a buffalo. Khansahib had not forgotten that advice. The outcome of his riyaz was evident that day.





Barber

Khansahib sang every waking moment of his life. This has been corroborated by several sources. He would not stop even while getting a shave. Once, he was singing regular taans while being shaved — the barber was probably accustomed to this — but suddenly he lashed out a three-octave taan. The barber stopped and told him that he was too scared to proceed. Khansahib assured the barber that his face wouldn’t move, whatever the taan. Kumarprasad Muherjee has used this anecdote to illustrate (in cricketing parlance) Khansahib’s ‘relaxed stance’ while singing.





Waves

This is a well-known anecdote from BR Deodhar’s Pillars of Hindustani Music:

Deodhar and Khansahib were on Bombay’s Marine Drive on a rainy day, which Khansahib found to be the ‘right’ place for doing riyaz. He began to sing Miyan ki Malhar. Deodhar says, “Whenever a particularly massive wave broke and water sprayed out Khansaheb’s taan rose in synchronisation and descended when the water cascaded. Water rose in a single massive column but split at the top and fell in broken slivers; so did Khansaheb’s taan in raga Miyan Malhar. Sometimes, if his ascending notes failed to keep pace with the surging water, he was angry with himself but tried again till it synchronised perfectly with the surging water. This went on for three quarters of an hour.”





Deathbed

Khansahib passed away in Hyderabad. In his last hours, he called his son Munawar Ali Khan and told him that if he takes the sound of the fan as the ‘sa’ (tonic), then the dogs outside were barking in ‘re’ and ‘ga’ of Miyan ki Todi.





Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer

shubhodeb@hotmail.com

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Published on April 17, 2015
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