THE passing away of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan on Wednesday is a setback for classical music in Pakistan. Some would say, not unjustifiably, that his death is one more nail, if not the last, in the coffin of classical music in the country. After all, the genre of music here has been struggling perennially on the three counts of identity, patronage and competition from newer, more popular genres. The ustad was loved for his many compositions infused with the gentle caressing of notes, a tradition of singing that the Patiala gharana spawned even as it gave the world a range of singers across South Asia. Great musicians are not averse to learning from any treasure of talent. The Kirana gharana’s Hirabai Barodekar for example, may have been the inspiration behind Ustad Fateh Ali’s delectable slow composition in Raag Durga — Sakhi mori room jhoom.

Where the legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khan embraced the purity of the Patiala grammar, which he wove deftly into thumri and khayal gayaki, Farida Khanum widened the aperture to include ghazal-singing in the traditional repertoire. This innovation is sometimes derided as the murder of classical music. When Mogubai Kurdikar from the Jaipur-Atrauli line of great musicians chided her daughter Kishori Amonkar for singing a film song albeit composed in a classical raag, she retorted that she needed to earn her keep, implying it wasn’t possible to live by rarefied music alone. The peerless Roshan Ara Begum endured a similar rebuke. She recorded a film song and was shown the door by her mentor Abdul Karim Khan. There are less traumatic examples. Ghulam Ali Khan lent his voice even if grudgingly to the movie Mughal-e-Azam. He is more famous for the two songs in Raag Sohini and Raageshri than for his entire magical collection. Even though his many awards were hardly a means of livelihood, it was brave of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan to maintain, “I would live my life exactly the same, if I had another life”.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2017

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