Like the tree that branches out as it ages, so too grows the fountain of wisdom. Ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali is one such man who despite being an icon in his trade, is humble to a fault. It seems fame hasn’t touched him. However, he sits uneasily when taking stock of the fare dished out by today’s generation. But even then he makes a rhapsodic note of his art — and its survival — with more than fleeting hope.
Sharing his views on ghazal, its nuances and the contemporary scene, Ghulam Ali started at the age of seven under the tutelage of his father. Soon he was at the feet of the trio, famed brothers, namely Ustad Barray Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan. He remained with Ustad Mubarak for 12 years, honing skills that formed the base of classical singing.
“Music is a vast ocean, you go in again and again and come out with as much as you can get. It’s never enough. It depends on the seeker, how much he or she wants to learn,” he explains matter-of-factly.
Ali sang for Radio Pakistan in 1958, his first ghazal came two years later, but the one that catapulted him into the limelight was Shaam ko subeh chaman yaad aaie, written by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. This was followed by the much-acclaimed Meray shauq da nai tenu aitebar in 1968. The singer has performed all over the world since then, first setting foot in the United Kingdom in 1974. He derives immense satisfaction from having been “blessed with the opportunity to represent my country” in the US, Canada, Europe, Far East, Middle East, China and Australia.
Ali makes compositions for his own ghazals and rarely sings ghazals composed by other people. His approach is methodical.
“I first consider lyrics before setting out on a composition. The feel of the words is very important. They are not words alone — emotion should spring from them, the more you understand the feelings, the better will be your understanding of the composition. In turn, it will give true voice to your vocals,” he says, laying threadbare the art and adds with a smile, “I have spent years ‘serving’ words and words have ‘served’ me in return.”
The maestro of ghazal is unequivocal about the state of the genre in a world where, apparently, serious singing has few takers — lost to the fare on satellite channels.
“Ghazal has its own place. It has been around for ages. Those who understand its essence will not tolerate anything else. This explains why ghazal is an alive and kicking art. I have no doubt whatsoever about its endurance. It’s here to stay. This hip, hop, jump that passes for music cannot harm the time-tested significance and value of ghazal singing. Ghazal soothes your mind. That’s what music is all about. You need to relax, it’s important for the soul. For happiness, contentment. And since we are all in need of it at all times, it (ghazal-singing) cannot wither.
“This hullabaloo, on the other hand, has no lasting effect. It’s like the storm which comes with great tidings but eventually passes by. After every storm, there’s a period of calmness. Ghazal is like that calmness, nay, sanity,” he says decidedly.
Ghulam Ali has no qualms about people
plagiarising his creations. He smiles and counter-questions when asked about it: “How can you stop them. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter.” I persist with the query, to which he then adds his view!
“Music is a forever learning process. Even we copy our Ustads, but we do so not by imitation. We do it by painstakingly learning, rehearsing and trying to perfect the art we set out to ‘copy.’ And when we do that we duly give them credit. For example, I’m inspired by Ustad Barkat Ali Khan and when I take cue from him, I religiously go through the credit lines. Sadly, that is not true of today’s generation of singers. You see, you have to accord the right sort of respect to people who you want to follow.”
People, says the singer, are selfish today, but he pointedly refuses to name names. On being reminded of the possibility that the ones he doesn’t want named may have quite a following, he retorts: “It is the fault of the listeners. If people know about them, they wouldn’t pay heed to them. It’s like someone selling rotten stuff. Why should anyone have to buy rotten stuff? In the ultimate analysis, people should be able to observe what is good, qualitative and genuine and what is not.”
He is scathing in his comments on contemporary poetry.
“Today it has become overly commercial. Anything commercial is chaloo and a chaloo thing does not survive. Only something substantive holds its own. There are ghazals sung over two and three decades ago which people listen to this day. This explains their originality, substance and above all, enduring value.”
Ghulam Ali’s prized possession, predictably, are his loyal fans and not mantelpiece awards. “I have had my share of spoils, winning the Pride of Performance in 1979 and other famed titles including the sobriquet of ‘king of ghazal.’ I also feel honoured to have performed before recognized audiences including heads of states but if there’s something I cherish it is the love of my listeners. They have been very supportive and encouraging regardless of where and when I’ve performed.”
Meeting the demands of his listeners, however, is far from easy. “Yes, it does get demanding at times. I was performing at this show in Montreal sometime back. A few people there got excited, with requests flying thick and fast. At one stage it was nearly impossible to so much as croon a note. Just then someone asked me, tongue-in-cheek if I had ever faced any problem with audiences. I replied: ‘Yes, this is it.’”
The singer, who happens to be extremely popular in India, shies away from recalling a Shiv Sena incident on a tour to India where his concert fell to hoodlums. On my insistence he merely puts it down to an “organizational problem” and says the trouble began because Shiv Sena supporters wanted a hundred passes for the show. The inevitable question on Indo-Pak tensions follows. He is reminded that the likes of himself and Junoon have had to face the brunt. He is philosophical about the shebang. “Music, I believe, has no barriers. We listen to their (Indian) music and vice versa. They can lock us up but not music.”
So how does he compare today’s ghazal singers with those of yore? The query is answered with such clarity that it is almost self-explanatory.
“Ghazal singing today is before everyone. I don’t think you can become a star overnight. It is a labour of love. I reckon it would take a serious artist 20 to 25 years to get there. When you sing Ghalib, you should first be able to understand the poet, his poetry as well as the genesis of that poetry because that is what will bring forth the true feel and expression to your voice.”
Ghulam Ali remains aware of keeping the art alive. He is teaching music to his son and scores of aspiring ghazal singers. He says he has students spread far and wide in the UK, USA, India and Pakistan. But how does he teach them, while he himself is constantly jet-setting?
“I send them recorded lessons on tape, when I’m away,” he explains. Among the notable ones, he mentions the names of Fida Hussain, Sajjad, Kausar and Naeem. With a smile he adds: “There are others but unfortunately I do not remember everyone’s name.”
Where Ali sets himself apart from other noted singers is in his approach to music. This is evident when he’s asked his priorities — does he please the audience or is it more important for him to measure up to his own expectations? “It is true that I cannot overlook the commercial aspects and that I have to perform to the demands and expectations of my audiences. But in all humility, I do not stop at satisfying my audiences. I set out to achieve my own standards. It is important for me to be able to rise to that level. When I’m able to do that, it only follows that the quality of music — voice, composition and all — improves. And when that happens, the audience too is able to appreciate it for all its worth.” Ghulam Ali counts Lahore as the pinnacle for all audiences. He says listeners there are so educated and learned that if there’s even a minute flaw, they show no interest in “putting up with us.” He also mentions Britain and the US, where expatriates enjoy his music with gay abandon.
However, it is for Indian audiences that he reserves the most glowing appreciation. “They truly admire and love musicians, according us great respect. When I was in Calcutta, I saw this affection turn into reverence. It was obvious that quite a lot of people couldn’t decipher the language (Urdu), yet, they went with the flow and rhythm. This makes one come to the conclusion that no matter how cliched the reference, music really has no boundaries and its reach is all-encompassing.”