In the Shadow of Greatness
Munawar Ali Khansahib, like a few other musicians, suffered from being sired by and nurtured in the shadow of a musical giant. The son of Khansahib Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, he was heir to one of the two prominent musical dynasties of the Patiala Gharana (1). I feel he was never given his due recognition as a great singer in his own right, invariably being compared to his father. Munawar Sahib’s voice was sonorous and with a gravitas that was the hallmark of the greatest Indian classical singers. In addition, his training in the traditions of his father gave him that perfect balance of technical perfection and musicality, which make his singing uniquely enjoyable.
Khansahib blossomed in the intimacy of private performances rather than on the stage. Unfortunately, recordings of private sessions are few and far between. In the two sessions that are presented here, Khansahib is accompanied by his son, Raza Ali Khan.
Khansahib travelled to Pakistan regularly. I suppose it was to maintain ties with Kasur, his ancestral home, and with Lahore where his father and family lived for some time in the 1950s, before Bade Ghulam Ali Khansahib decided to return from Pakistan to India. He sang at our house on one of his first return trips from India, in 1962 or so. It was my first experience of several magical musical concerts at home, immaculately organized by my parents. In track 4 of the 1982 session, Abba and he reminisce about that evening (among other things), in a dialogue seemingly resumed after twenty years.
I last met Khansahib in Delhi in 1988, a year before his death. It was at a luncheon organized by a mutual friend and patron of music. The delightful lunch served by our hostess was augmented by conversation on music, mutual friends and the various performing styles of the rich traditions of Indian classical music. I rose from the gathering altogether more educated and with the realization that Khansahib was another fountainhead of musical knowledge, in addition to being a performer of stellar quality. His deep knowledge of history and traditions were no less than those of Ustaad Amir Ali Khansahib, whose writings on music are essential to the study of North Indian Classical music.
The People — The Times
Both the sessions were held at the house of the late Rafi Muneer, scion of one of the leading Karachi Industrial families. Rafi was a dear friend of my father and mine, being about equidistant in age from the two of us. A man of extraordinary charm, humour, elegance and generosity, Rafi was a prominent feature of the Karachi social scene of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. His friendships spanned generations. His sense of humour was legendary — each of his friends had a few anecdotes of Rafi’s antics or his spontaneous quips that would inspire hilarity. Unfortunately, most of those stories are too bawdy for polite company ...
My favourite recollection of Rafi goes back to one of the most significant political events in Pakistan’s history. In the winter of 1966, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto resigned as Foreign Minister from the cabinet of President Ayub Khan and rode a crest of political restlessness in a Pakistan that was tired of Ayub Khan’s unending rule. Bhutto’s charisma and resignation from his position as Foreign Minister ignited passions of students and youth who saw, in him, the salvation of Pakistan and all the ills that seemed to plague it. So Bhutto decided to take a train ride from ‘Pindi to Karachi, being stopped and mobbed by students and the dispossessed at each major station along the way. He was scheduled to arrive at the Karachi Cantonment station and a large mob of adoring students flooded the station, waiting for Bhutto’s train which was delayed by four of five hours. Being an idealistic youth, I skipped school to go to the station and be part of the mob.
While standing in the swelling mob on the train platform, I felt someone prod me and point upstairs to the balcony of the station building. There was Rafi, beckoning me to come up. He was surrounded by a host of cronies, most of whom were to later become luminaries of Bhutto’s party. When I got upstairs, Rafi said “Vahaan kya kar rahay ho, Pyaray? Idhar ao mairay paas!” (What are you doing there, dear one? Come here to me.) And so, we had a bird’s eye view of Bhutto alighting from the train and being carried to a flatbed truck, which we rode along with Bhutto and his inner circle in a four-hour procession from the station to his house. Thus began the saga of Bhutto’s formation of a political party, the election of 1970, Pakistan’s break up, a military coup, and Bhutto’s eventual assassination at the hands of a military dictator.
That day I learned that Rafi was a dear friend of Bhutto’s — a younger brother rather than a friend, actually. But Rafi did not take up political office in Bhutto’s party or in his government. He had neither aptitude nor the wiliness required to enter or survive politics — he stayed as a rather cheeky younger brother to Bhutto, throughout, though. After Bhutto’s assassination, Rafi lost his lustre and was never the same again, despite showing some of his boisterousness on occasions such as these mehfils.
Such was Rafi’s loyalty and love for his friends that he visited Abba regularly during the last month of Abba's life, and he and Ardeshir Cowasjee drove all the 140 km from Karachi to Sujawal to bid our final farewells as we laid Abba to rest on his beloved farm.
Rafi was really fond of Khansahib and the two had a close relationship — Rafi addressed him as "Munnoo Bhai" — so it was natural that there was a mehfil whenever “Munnoo Bhai” was in town. I was at the 1982 performance.
Together the two performances present nine raagas that are amongst my favourites. The 1982 performance is somewhat lighter in style than the 1987 mehfil.
The 1982 Jaijaiwanti is rhythmic, sensual, and measured in its tempo. The bandish is a composition of Bade Ghulam Ali Khansahib and the musical provenance is unmistakable. It is followed by a Kamod that is melodic, romantic, flirtatious. I find it simply delightful as Khansahib gets into full stride. The Chayya is a languid follow up to the Kamod. Its expression is slightly different to conventional expressions of this raaga. The performance concludes with a lovely medley of Thumrees that were a central part of the repertoire of the gharana.
The 1987 mehfil is, as I mentioned, more deeply “classical”. The three raagas sung, Behag, Hameer and Chaya, are all lovely and it is hard to pick and choose favourites. Hameer is eternally close to my heart and I have yet to hear a rendition that I do not love. Khansahib’s rendition of this raaga has a special flavour that transports me. But the Chaya is extraordinary. The careful, unhurried, and complex expression takes one back to a remembrance of how Khyaal was sung by the Greatest of Them All.
In track 4 I never cease to smile at the conversation between Abba and Khansahib. In addition to talking about the past, the conversation turns to a discussion of Parween Sultana, an Assamese singer who claimed musical descent form Bade Ghulam Ali Khansahib. Abba, always a sucker for a pretty face, was bowled over by her looks and her undoubted musical prowess (which she overstretched at times). Parween Sultana was at her prime at the time. It is lovely to hear Abba’s adulatory comments contrasted to Khansahib’s more qualified and gently dismissive view.
So there we have it, dear reader.
I would conclude on a personal note. I am in the Last Act of my life and, frankly, I wished I did not have to witness the inhumanity, shrill anger and hatred that seems to surround us at present. Looking back at happier, gentler times and to the music of life seems to help me cope.
I hope that this collection of music will sustain, in some small way, the same sense of hope, beauty and humanity in you who visit this page.
It is the hope and humanity in each of us that will eventually overcome darkness.— Asif Mamu
- Jai Jaiwanti
- Kamod with Tarana
- Conversation between Abba and Khansahib Munawar Ali Khan
- Thumree Medley — Yaad Piya Ki Aaye & Maar Dala Najariya Milaike
- Chaya Chayanut
(1) The other great household of Patiala musicians was that of “General” Ali Bakhsh and Fateh Ali, who’s descendants Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali migrated to Pakistan and were stars that illuminated the Pakistani music scene in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. A recording of one of their performances is presented in an earlier post of this blog (link)