There have only been a handful
of musicians whose legacy has stood strong over the course of time and
represented by the future generation of musicians. One such individual was
the late Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan whose name is synonymous with the Patiala
gharana. The contributions made by the maestro over the course of his
career totally revolutionised Hindustani classical music and helped to
establish the Patiala gharana as a major proponent of khayal gayaki.
Born in Patiala during the last
decade of the 19th century, Ashiq Ali Khan, was the son of
Patiala gharana co-founder Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan
along with Ustad Ali Bukhsh Khan formed the basis of the Patiala tradition
of khayal singing. The duo, popularly known as Alliya- Fattu were awarded
the respective titles of General and Colonel by Lord Elgan, Viceroy of
India during the mid 19th century.
Having lost his father during
childhood, Ashiq Ali Khan could only learn the basic elements of classical
music before being placed under the guidance of Ustad Ali Bukhsh Khan.
This apprenticeship did not last long either, as the young Ashiq Ali Khan,
deprived of the watchful eye of his father ran away from home. He spent an
extensive period wandering from place to place before being persuaded by
Sardar Bai, a senior disciple of his father, to stay with her.
Sardar Bai adopted the young
boy and imparted the musical knowledge she had gained from her mentor.
Ashiq Ali Khan stayed with Sardar Bai for seven years before spending a
considering period travelling in the regions of Punjab and Sindh. It was
during his stay in Sukkur, he fell into bad company and developed a liking
for opium, hashish and alcohol. His addiction to opium was so extreme,
that it resulted in his vocal chords being severely damaged.
Even during his teenage years,
Ashiq Ali Khan was not seriously inclined towards music and would perform
light music occasionally solely to feed his opium addiction.
The real change to his musical career came when he overheard
sarcastic comments from a number of musicians mocking him for singing
ghazals and kafis despite being the son of the great Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.
These comments acted as an impetus for Ashiq Ali Khan to pursue music on a
serious note. He sought the guidance of his maternal uncle Ustad Amir Khan
of Multan and the prolific Patiala gharana composer Ustad Alladiya Khan
alias Meherban Khan, both senior disciples of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Both
maestros provided him with rigorous training including a number of rare
compositions of the Patiala gharana. The maestro is also said to have
consulted Ustad Natthu Khan Patialawale and Imam Din Khan of Sialkot.
Through a dedicated period of arduous practice lasting approximately five
years, Ashiq Ali Khan began to perform classical music and created a storm
amongst musicians and listeners alike, establishing himself amongst the
top most vocalists of the Indian sub-continent.
Ashiq Ali Khan performing on All India Radio
In describing Ustad Ashiq Ali
Khan’s performance style, one has to look towards one word
“mushkilaat” or complexity. He is widely regarded as the ultimate
statement of “tayyari” and “layakari” by most of the vocalists of
the Punjab region. Due to the deformity in his voice, Ashiq Ali Khan
concentrated on the rhythmic elements of classical music. His style was
extremely difficult, marked by the heavy usage of complicated taan
patterns coupled with fast sargams. He introduced the concept of layakari
within the khayal performance by employing tihaees into his performances,
commonly starting from any point in the rhythm cycle and sharply ending on
the sum. This performance style created a flurry in the regions of Punjab
and Sindh and became the normal style of khayal presentation, so much so
that even vocalists considered as Ashiq Ali Khan’s rivals adopted this
difficult style. Apart from the khayal, the ustad was a master at singing
the Multani Kafi, a genre he adopted due to his extensive stay in Sukkur,
Multan and Bahawalpur. Although Ashiq Ali Khan had a vast repertoire of
raags, he is considered to be a master at rendering Bhairav Bahar, Multani,
Madhuwanti, Puriya Dhanasri and Darbari.
to hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan perform Multani Kafi
On Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan’s
mastery over rhythm, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana, recalled
a mehfil he attended where the ustad performed Puriya Dhanasri accompanied
by Ustad Inayati Khan on tabla. The khayal was set to the twelve beat rhythm cycle of
drut Ek Taal. During the course of the performance, Ashiq Ali Khan
unexpectedly arrived on the sum on the 12th beat, realising the
shocked reaction of the audience, the ustad made the 12th beat
the sum and kept on showering tihaees on the final beat of the rhythm
Despite his addiction to opium
and hashish, Ashiq Ali Khan led a life of simplicity. The
maestro had a religious bent and strong inclination towards Sufism,
spending five years during his youth at the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar in
Sehwan, Sindh. He was never interested in material gains and enjoyed
travelling, never remaining in one place for any great length of time. The
maestro had a sharp taste for clothes, often preferring to wear a suit and
tie during performances. Although there were many offers for him to become
a court musician, he preferred not to attach himself under the services of
a Maharajah or Nawab. Apart from a brief period of employment under the
services of the Maharajah of Patiala, Ashiq Ali Khan preferred to perform
in informal mehfils and baithaks, rather than the plush settings of
The maestro was a man of strong
principles when it came to music and believed in retaining the integrity
of the Patiala style. He would always respond to a challenge brought upon
by rival vocalists and actively took part in musical dungals (form of
competition between musicians). Senior citizens of Lahore can still recall
his performances at the Takia Meerasian in Mochi Gate, Lahore and
memorable dungals with the likes of Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan, Ustad
Pyare Khan and Ustad Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan.
Former advisor to the Classical
Music Research Cell, Radio Pakistan, M.A. Sheikh had many opportunities to
hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and recalled a memorable mehfil taken place at
the famous music director Khurshid Anwar’s residence featuring the
maestro and his protégé Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Ashiq Ali Khan
started the afternoon performance with a thumri in raag Khamaj with Bade
Ghulam Ali Khan providing vocal support. During the course of the
performance Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan became emotionally overwhelmed and
excused himself from the performance, explaining that the exquisite manner
at which the maestro was rendering the thumri he was no longer able to
perform with him. Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan followed the thumri with a splendid
presentation of raag Multani.
Bade Ghulam Ali Khan spent a considerable period learning from Ustad Ashiq
Another interesting anecdote
concerning the maestro recalled by a number of senior Lahoris is the time
when there were rumours circulating of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
contemplating on becoming the disciple of Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan, the
celebrated vocalist of the Kirana gharana. On hearing this, Ustad Ashiq
Ali Khan is said to have become very angry that a disciple of his gharana
was contemplating on shifting loyalties. So much so that he went to Abdul
Waheed Khan’s residence in Lahore and openly challenged him to a duel.
Ustad Abdul Waheed Khan being a complete gentleman is said to have calmed
the situation down.
In an era when most classical
musicians were against lending their voice on radio and the recording
industry, Ashiq Ali Khan actively broadcasted on All India Radio and
recorded for the major gramophone companies. His gramophone records are
now considered collector’s items and his duets with Ustad Umeed Ali Khan
featuring raags Lalit and Shyam Kalyan are regarded as historic pieces of
recorded Hindustani classical music.
to hear Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Ustad Umeed Ali Khan perform raag Lalit
Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan was also a
fine teacher and responsible for grooming some of the great names of
Hindustani classical music who have become standard bearers of their
respective fields. Amongst his numerous disciples, notable names are of
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha, Kabul’s
Ustad Mohammad Hussain Sarhang, Mukhtar Begum, ghazal singer Farida Khanum,
Zahida Parveen, Ustad Hussain Bukhsh Dhadhi and Chotey Ashiq Ali Khan.
Apart from the above, vocalists of the calibre of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan,
Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Hussain Bukhsh Khan have openly
acknowledged that they are strongly influenced by Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan.
Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan passed
away childless in Lahore on 10th of March 1948 and is buried at
the Takia Meerasian in Lahore. However, there is some disagreement from
certain sources claiming that the actual year of his death was 1958. Even
though it has been over fifty years since his death, the name of Ustad
Ashiq Ali Khan is still remembered with great fervour and regarded as the
ultimate statement of khayal gayaki amongst the vocalists of the Patiala
Ali Khan's grave at the Takia Meerasian