The Ustad of Patiala-Kasur

‘Yaad Piya ki Aaye’, written out by Manorma Ahuja

I first heard Yaad Piya ki Aaye on a winter evening at the 2013 Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune, when Kaushiki Chakrabarty concluded her concert with this piece. This being my first time at Hindustani concerts, I wasn’t aware of the immense popularity of the composition. As she launched into its opening lines, a thrill of recognition and appreciation trembled through the audience. Seated on mats spread on the ground, Bhartiya baithak style as the festival calls it, it was perhaps the closest I ever got to a mehfil experience.

Over the years, through a few more Hindustani concerts, all of which I attended in Chennai, I realised what a staple Yaad Piya ki Aaye was. I heard Kaushiki sing it in a December season concert, followed by Ustad Rashid Khan at the same venue the next day. I’ve heard different artistes’ versions on YouTube, and perhaps one of the reasons for its enduring allure is its poignant story: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan composed it as he mourned the death of his wife. Outwardly a loud, avuncular figure, he poured his being into this thumri that is so well loved in Hindustani circles. He is perhaps the most famous singer of the Patiala gharana, and even his short recordings on YouTube, with his voice effortlessly weaving back and forth across different octaves, offer a window into the embellishments that are characteristic of this gharana.

I came across bits and pieces about this singer on different occasions. His girth, his healthy appetite and fondness for non-vegetarian food, his love of Punjabi, and his ready appreciation of young singers have been spoken of by various singers and writers. In her book Raga’n Josh, Sheila Dhar shares an amusing anecdote on Ustad’s hesitation to record a radio concert. Those were the early years of the radio, and like any innovation, there was resistance to working with something so unfamiliar. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan believed that singing for the radio drained the voice of its ‘juice’ and made several excuses to evade radio performances; however, years of persuasion later, he turned into an All India Radio regular.

My snatches of reading were piecing together an interesting, delightful character. Never did it strike me, though, that there might be a whole book on this singer who was so widely venerated. Scanning the biography shelves at the library on Sunday, I espied his name on the spine of a book and pulled it out in disbelief; it was his biography, written by Malti Gilani and Quratulain Hyder. It was marked as a ‘Reference’ copy, which meant that it shouldn’t be loaned out, and the librarian hadn’t been in a particularly good mood when I entered, but I was prepared to do any amount of grovelling to get my paws on it. As I flipped through the book, I saw several photographs — of him, the lanes of his birthplace Kasur, dargahs, various people associated with his life. Further in, the pages opened to writing in the Devanagari script —riches in the form of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s compositions written out by his disciple, Manorma Ahuja, followed by some notations. This brought memories of Hindustani classes in school flooding back. I needed this book.

After some convincing and a few promises that I wouldn’t abscond with the book, I managed to bring it home. I must confess I’ve been looking at it more than actually reading it, because there is such joy in simply opening it up randomly, looking at a photo of Ustad with his sur mandal, or reading the lines of a thumri or khayal. As Ajoy Chakrabarty said at a lec-dem at the Music Academy, the lyrical scope in Hindustani compositions is slightly limited and repetitive, but it evokes so many rasas and nostalgia for Hindi lessons at school, all the lovely imagery of the poetry we studied, that I can’t help but admire it. And it is a gift of the times we live in that I can put on his music on YouTube, his voice roaring into the room even through the weather-beaten recording quality, as his life and compositions unfold before me.

A woman from many places.