Mumbai then and now

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The city where Ghulam Ali cannot sing gave Bade Ghulam Ali Khan a home

If Ghulam Ali is refused a stage in Mumbai, the loss is not his. His forced absence is a huge blow to the capacious cultural space of the city that played a definitive role in shaping classical and popular music in India since the mid-19th century. When the protective performance space offered by the royal courts for musicians across northern India started shrinking, it was the emerging cultural milieu within the industrial urban spaces of Bombay that wholeheartedly welcomed these orphaned artists. The new city inherited the role of mentoring the musical lives of northern India. But for Bombay, the present-day music of the subcontinent would have been poorer.

The unruly and unpredictable forms of collective violence that the Shiv Sena threatens against visiting artistes from Pakistan go against the very ethos of Mumbai and its cultural past. The city that shut its doors on Ghulam Ali had been a generous host to Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the doyen of the Patiala gharana. The distance we have travelled in time is frightening. Memories are non-existent in the times we live in. It takes only a moment to forget history and hop across hyperlinks: a mouse click can erase the memory of a time when Ghulam Ali was disallowed to impart his magic to us. 

Our time cannot produce a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. It does not seek musical elaborations that invoke the reverberations of the ocean. It would be impossible for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to imagine hours of music compressed in a terabyte. But his genius could create an hour of music that contained the roar of the seas. 

When India was partitioned, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was marooned in Pakistan. Like Manto’s lunatic from the village of Toba Tek Singh, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan too could not make sense of the idea that his village, Kasur, now belonged to a new country called Pakistan. It is not at all surprising that a mind that only meditated on music could not fathom concepts such as nations, borders and nationalism. Like other musicians from western Punjab, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan too was confined to Pakistan. 

When Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was 45 years old at the time of Partition, ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali, born in Sialkot in Punjab, was only seven. Both Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was then at the peak of his musical prowess, and Ghulam Ali, who was in the infancy of his music education, were unwitting victims of Partition. Ghulam Ali’s father, Ustad Daulat Ali Jafferi, was a singer, a sarangi player and an ardent fan of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He named his son Ghulam Ali after Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and wanted his son to learn under the ustad. However, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was constantly travelling from stage to stage, gave taleem only to his brothers, who used to accompany the maestro. 

Post-Partition, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan needed a visa to visit India. Tied up in bureaucratic redtape, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan might have felt that his time would be better spent in exploring a Malkauns sitting in Lahore than chasing the visa. What his followers in India were set to lose was not a mere singer, but an entire continent of Patiala gharana. However, they would not let that happen. That’s when Bombay intervened, an intervention that ought to be an essential part of the Shiv Sena’s learning of the city’s history. 

In the early 1950s, before the birth of Maharashtra, the western province went by the name Bombay and was governed by a future prime minister, Morarji Desai. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s fans compelled Desai to seek then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention. Nehru offered to restore Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s Indian citizenship and invited him to take up residence in India. The Bombay government readied a bungalow in Malabar Hill as the ustad’s permanent residence. 

Decades later, the same city has closed its doors on Ghulam Ali. 

When we rewind further in history, we arrive in Benares, the city now represented by the prime minister in the Lok Sabha. In the ancient, funereal loneliness of the ghats on the Ganga, we hear a young Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing. The budding musician, who stayed in the congested gullies of the city, is at the ghats to do his midnight riyaz in peace. 

The writer works as content head of Radio Mango, Dubai. 

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