There is always great sorrow when a human being departs from this world. What makes the grief even harder to bear is when that individual has made significant contributions and achieved excellence in his field of speciality. Inborn genius, creativity, individuality and sheer dedication are some of the attributes that make the individual irreplaceable. The late maestro Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was bestowed with all these qualities, distinguishing him from others. Widely regarded by fellow musicians and connoisseurs as one the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, Salamat Ali Khan had a huge impact on South Asian classical music, achieving worldwide acclaim for his masterful artistry and command over khayal singing.
Born in 1934, in the heartland of Punjab at Shamchaurasi, district Hoshiarpur, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan belonged to a family of traditional musicians representing the Shamchaurasi gharana. It is claimed that the gharana was founded in the 16th century by Mian Chand Khan and Mian Suraj Khan who were contemporaries of Mian Tansen at the court of Mughal emperor Akbar. Prior to the emergence of Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan as exponents of khayal, the gharana specialised in the dhrupad form of singing and was particularly renowned for its tradition of duet performances known as jugalbandi. Mian Karim Bukhsh Majzoob, Ustad Ahmed Ali Khan, Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami, and Salamat Ali Khan’s father Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan were some of the illustrious members of the Shamchaurasi gharana.
Salamat Ali Khan was initiated into classical music together with his elder brother Nazakat Ali Khan under the able guidance of their father Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan at the tender ages of five and seven respectively. They were initially taught the basis of dhrupad but later concentrated on learning khayal due to its increasing popularity. It was only after two years of training that they made their debut at the prestigious Harballabh Mela in 1941. They performed raag Mian ki Todi and were highly appreciated by both the audience and musicians present, these included Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan, Pandit Krishanrao Shankar, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Ustad Umeed Ali Khan, Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan, Ustad Malang Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan recalled the performance in his autobiography; “we were so small that we had to be lifted onto the stage”.
Following their stirring debut, the youngsters gave numerous performances in Punjab and Sindh and began to attract the attention of the musical fraternity who predicted a bright future for the pair. During this period, the brothers began to give regular broadcasts from All India Radio, Lahore and two gramophone records of the young Salamat Ali Khan were published. In 1944, the duo received their first official state invitation from the Maharaja of Champanagar. Their stay in Champanagar lasted a few months and was followed by performances at the Allahabad and Gwalior music conferences where they had the good fortune of meeting and hearing Ustad Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas who made a lasting impression on Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and was a major influential figure in his career. The All-India Music conference of 1945 in Calcutta saw Nazakat and Salamat being included in a musical line up featuring Ustad Faiyyaz Hussain Khan of Agra, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Ustad Rajab Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Ustad Allauddin Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. These music conferences were of great benefit as they provided both brothers with ample opportunities to hear and perform before great musicians. In 1946, the duo conducted a nationwide tour of India which included performances at the courts of Gwalior, Hyderabad and Patiala. The popularity of the child prodigies soured as their singing expressed maturity far beyond their years, it was the young Salamat in particular who impressed listeners for his dazzling “tayyari” and “layakari”.
Following the creation of Pakistan, the family settled in Multan and lived in relative obscurity for the next couple of years. During this period of anonymity, the brothers concentrated on rigorous practice and occasionally performed in Multan and the adjoining state of Bahawalpur. By 1950, the brothers had achieved fame throughout the country; they began to give broadcasts from Radio Pakistan and permanently moved to Lahore. The brief stay in Multan did have an advantage in that the duo became exposed to the semi classical genre of Multani Kafi. Kafi is a musical form with its origins steeped in Sufism; the lyrical content is devoted to mysticism and can be performed in both a classical and folk manner. The genre is extremely popular in the regions of Punjab and Sindh, mainly due to the poetry being in the regional languages of Punjabi, Sindhi and Saraiki. Both Nazakat and Salamat were greatly impressed by the beautiful poetry of Sufi mystics Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Abdul Shah Latif, Shah Hussain and Baba Bullhe Shah and decided to incorporate the Kafi in their repertoire.
In 1953 the brothers toured India and performed at the Harballabh Mela. This performance paved the way for the brothers to be regularly invited across the border. The Indian audiences lauded the young maestros and were highly appreciative of their art, Salamat Ali Khan particularly acknowledged the audiences of Bombay and Calcutta for their knowledge and patronage of classical music. In 1955, the brothers were invited to perform at the All India Music Conference in Calcutta which included musicians of the calibre of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Kesarbai Kerkar, Ustad Ahmedjan Khan Thirakwa and Ustad Habibuddin Khan. Their performance was highly acclaimed and had such an impact that they were given the honorary title of Ustad. Countless performances during the 1950s, particularly the Swami Haridas music conference in Bombay in 1957 and the All Pakistan Music Conference at Jinnah Bagh, Lahore in 1959 saw the brothers emerge as one of the leading vocalists of the subcontinent.
The success of the duo was a result of their dedication to practice, great understanding and a disciplined approach to their performance. Their singing style displayed shades of the Patiala gharana, particularly that of stalwarts Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. However both brothers contributed with their own individuality and made use of their initial training in dhrupad, which was most apparent in the alaap and vilambit (slow tempo) part of their presentation. The brothers were equally adept at performing in both the vilambit and drut (fast tempo) sections. The vilambit part of the presentation was clearly defined by their concentration on the development of the raag; Nazakat Ali Khan would create the general ambience of the performance and concentrate on building the aesthetic framework. He would act as a path leader to his younger brother who would dominate the drut half of the performance through thundering taans, cascading sargams and ingenious rhythmic interplay known as layakari. The greatest strength of the duo was probably their appeal to both the masses and connoisseurs. The brothers performed a wide variety of raags throughout their career but were known for their mastery over raags Rageshri, Abhogi Kanada, Gorakh Kalyan and Malkauns.
The path of success continued for both brothers during the 1960s. In 1961, the Government of Pakistan recognising their contribution to classical music conferred the civilian award of “Pride of Performance” upon them and in 1967 King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan awarded them with the “Tamgha-e-Hunar”. International acclaim for the duo followed in 1969 when they were formally invited to tour the United Kingdom and Holland. Following their performance at the Edinburgh Festival, the brothers became renowned in the West as the “Ali brothers” and began to regularly feature in International music festivals.
In June 1974, the career of the duo was rocked when they decided to split up due to personal differences. This ended one of the most successful vocal partnerships in the history of Indian classical music. Any hopes of a musical reunion were later dashed when Nazakat Ali Khan passed away in 1983. Following a short stint as a solo vocalist, Salamat enlisted his eldest son Sharafat Ali Khan to accompany him and fill the huge void left by Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan. In later years, the ustad was also accompanied by his youngest son Shafqat Ali Khan. Despite the absence of his elder brother, the maestro gave some memorable performances during the mid-1970s and continued to fly the flag of the Shamchaurasi gharana.
The maestro received another setback in 1978 when he suffered a stroke during a concert in London. The stroke affected his speech and doctors advised him to consider retiring. However, the maestro made a courageous recovery and continued with his rigorous schedule of performing. Even though Salamat could not recapture his form of earlier years, his performances still retained the vitality and vigour of previous years. The maestro was probably one of the few classical musicians who achieved popularity with both the masses and discerning audiences in Pakistan. Keeping this in mind, he published his autobiography titled “Main aur Mausiqui” which was well received by readers in Pakistan and abroad.
Mastery over layakari can probably be regarded as Salamat Ali Khan’s greatest contribution to South Asian classical music. He would commonly sing in time cycles regarded as difficult including Talwara, Ikwaai, Punjabi Dhamar and Soolfakhta. The audience would always be in awe with the ease at which Salamat would arrive at the sum through intricate tihais, sargams and bol taans. In addition to layakari, Salamat was renowned for his command over taan patterns, of which the choot and sapat variety were considered his specialty. The ustad also created a number of raags and composed bandishes under the name of “Man Rang”. His creations include Madhkauns, Shamwati, Thames, Nandeshwari, Jog Kanada, Madh Kalyan, Roopdhani, Roopawati Kalyan, Milan Gandhar, Abhogi Kauns, Lagan Kauns and Kanwal Bhairav. Salamat Ali Khan always retained a broad perspective on music and experimented with fusion music so that classical music could be appreciated by a broader audience, this is highlighted in his album “Princess of the Sea” as well as in a specially arranged piece in raag Pahadi which he named “International Pahadi”. Primarily trained by his father, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was always upfront to cite other musicians from whom he had received training, these were his uncle Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan, his father in law Baba Natthu Khan, Pandit Pran Nath, Ustad Habib Khan Beenkaar and the father of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal.
Despite being a musician of exceptional virtuosity, he was a human being of unmeasured compassion. He was always kind and considerate towards everyone he met which gave an impression of trust and intimacy. Blessed with a great sense of humour and wit, the maestro would always convey a mood of happiness and joy wherever he went. In spite of the recognition he received throughout his life, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was not an artist who was motivated by fame or wealth and did not seek opportunities which would promote his personal aspirations. He always displayed high regards for fellow musicians and would always encourage upcoming musicians. This is evident in the following sound clip, in which the maestro has composed a bandish in tribute to the late Qawwal, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The ustad was a great teacher and responsible for training the next generation of musicians including his sons Sharafat, Sakhawat, Latafat, and Shafqat Ali Khan who are trying very hard in becoming worthy successors to their father’s tradition. He also trained his grandson Shujaat Ali Khan and other family members such as Hussain Bukhsh Guloo, Imtiaz Ali Khan, Riaz Ali Khan and Rafaqat Ali Khan. Other shagirds include Abida Parveen, Taj Multani, Nazir Afridi and Aqeel Manzoor. Furthermore, Salamat Ali Khan took a brave decision in training and permitting his daughter Riffat to become a performing musician, who is at present one of the very few female vocalists hailing from a family of professional musicians.
The final years of the maestro were marred with ill health connected to the paralytic stroke and thus affecting his ability to perform. During the 1990s, Salamat Ali Khan was diagnosed with diabetes and a heart ailment which further weakened him and resulted him to restrict the number of performances he could do. Further complications related to diabetes resulted in the loss of his vision and thus he retired from classical music in 1998. The end finally came on the 11th July 2001, the world of classical music losing a musical genius whose life was wholly dedicated to the cause of classical music. There will be many other musicians who will achieve fame and glory in years to come but very few will ever attain the stature, greatness and excellence of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. The ustad remained to his last breath a teacher, a friend and above all a musician who left a lasting impression as a human being for whom music was not just an art but a way of life.