A rendezvous with Ustad Raza Ali Khan

December 23, 2018

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When Raza Ali Khan sings, he keeps Surmandal in his lap just like his grandfather Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did, and goes on in the trademark style of Kasur-Patiala Gharana, without distorting the contours of his face and a high-pitched clear voice.

Grandson of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Raza is well-versed in diverse genres of music, including khayal, thumri, ghazal and geet, a rare feat to achieve in the contemporary music world.

Settled in Kolkata, Ustad Raza has been active in India in various music genres, singing as well as composing. Among others, he has composed an album of ghazals for Ghulam Ali. However, he is not very hopeful about the state of ghazal singing in India.

“In India, there is a problem, especially on TV channels. Producers say classical, semi-classical and ghazal forms are not watched,” he bemoans during an informal sitting where his admirers and shagirds from Lahore had got together.

To a question whether the state of ghazal singing in India was different from Pakistan’s, he says ghazal is seeing a constant decline.

“The singers don’t know even the language. Once there was a programme on Begum Akhtar where the singers, despite being talented, could not pronounce Urdu words. I objected to it, which offended the participants as well as the judge. In ghazal singing, the first criterion is the language. Due to this, ghazal has limitations there. Even the late Jagjit Singh faced issues with pronunciation.”

For Raza, the benchmark in ghazal singing is Ustad Barkat Ali Khan (his granduncle). “If there was any ghazal singer after him, it was Mehdi Hasan who never sang any substandard ghazal and had a meticulous selection. The singers who came after Mehdi Hasan were low in quality.”

Ustad Raza, who has spent years in Europe, has his own views about fusion of Indian and western music.

“The western musicians and singers are clear about their music, while the ones here are confused. Fusion is not just about changing instruments like playing guitar instead of sitar. If I am singing pentatonic, the instrumentalist should also play pentatonic in his own style. It means if I am singing Raag Bhopali, he must play Bhopali along with me. But Western musicians can’t stick to Bhopali.”

The Ustad urges the people in the industry, who have a hold over the music platforms, to commit to the legacy of music, saying they should not promote kitsch. “There’s nothing wrong with western music, but there should also be continental and Indian touch to it. Guitar and piano are also played in 12 surs. Initially, Bollywood kept the tradition of Indian music alive, but later it lost the track.”

Despite being disappointed with the current situation, Ustad Raza is optimistic about the future of classical and semi-classical music, especially thumri and ghazal, in the region. “The generation that’s lost in western music now is bound to come back to Indian style of music; it’s just a matter of time.”

About learning classical music, he says it demands commitment.

“Once Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was asked how he rated himself, he said there was an ocean (of music) out there. ‘I can’t see or smell it, but I know it’s there’. He used to say that for music, one needs a 500-year life, 150 years for listening, 200 for learning and the remaining for singing.”

When asked how the legacy of music could be preserved, he said only the state and state institutions could not do it.

While sharing his views, Ustad Raza starts fiddling with his Surmandal and starts singing, signalling tabla player, Sajid Ali. After a couple of alaaps, he signals his young shagird to follow him.

Ustad Raza speaks Punjabi, the language that’s spoken at his home in Kolkata. His ancestral houses are still intact in Mochi Gate, Lahore, and Kasur and he goes there whenever he visits Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018