A few months back I stumbled upon a Wikipedia article about Ustad Fateh Ali Khan—the patriarch of the Patiala Gharana of the Indo-Pakistani (Hindustani) classical music. After mentioning ‘Fateh Ali Khan does not sing anymore because of bad health’, the entry notes that ‘after Fateh Ali Khan, there is no notable classical music singer left in Pakistan’. A related Wiki article states that Ustad Fateh Ali Khan’s younger brother ‘Ustad Hamid Ali Khan is considered by many to be the last of the great Patiala legends’.
The Wikipedia is factually wrong of course but reading the above was extremely disconcerting—till I walked into a concert in Florida few days ago. The band performing there goes by the name Raga Boyz and comprises of Ustad Hamid Ali Khan’s three sons Nayab Ali Khan, Wali Hamid Ali Khan and Inam Ali Khan and performs fusion music, blending the aesthetics of the traditional Khayal singing with the western beats. Listening to the brothers Nayab, Wali and Inam it was simply impossible to miss the signature voice of the Patiala Gharana—an enthralling blend of sensuous and sweet—coming from all three pairs of vocal cords. The Raga Boyz displayed a range of voice that is the sine qua non of the Patiala tradition with control that is simply outstanding for their young years. It is clear that the legend Ustad Hamid Ali Khan has passed the stylistic baton of the Patiala music—as well as his unassuming manner—to his sons.
We were extremely fortunate that the Raga Boyz agreed, in fact offered extremely graciously, to visit us for an evening of classical music. And were we in for a treat! To see and listen to them perform at our place was like capturing not just 65 years of music rendered by the late Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and his younger brothers Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Hamid Ali Khan, but going back a few hundred years in time to the founder of the Patiala Gharana, Mian Kallu sahib and the pioneers Jarnail (general) Ali Bakhsh Khan and Karnail (colonel) Fateh Ali Khan, while looking at the future. The first minute of the opening alaap by Nayab and Inam of their first rendition of the evening, the Raga Puriya Dhanashri, was perhaps enough to announce that they have arrived.
The Puriya Dhanashri performance was a vintage Patiala Khayal, originally composed in jhaptala by Jarnail Ali Bukhsh Khan, with lyrics ‘Sultan-e-alam Nizamuddin Auliya’, an homage to the Sufi saint Hazrat Mehboob-e-Ilahi Nizamuddin Auliya, that is said to have been performed originally by the Patiala pioneers in the presence of the Sufi master himself. The duo developed and improvised the raga in the finest tradition of their uncles, father and grandfather Ustad Akhtar Hussain Khan, whose lines ‘khush reh sanam mora’ formed another asthai of the raga. Nayab’s looks, body language and voice range is reminiscent of Amanat Ali Khan while Inam’s control, taans, bol-taans and interaction with the instrumentalists remind one of Fateh Ali Khan. Hamid Ali Khan is blessed with the voice range of both his older brothers and he has successfully handed on the gift to his sons. The Raga Boyz display the Patiala flair for actually showing that the progression of the raga from the low melodic density of alaap, to bol-baant and then the complex taans to the fast-tempo of a melodic tarana is not just linear but logarithmic and evolutionary. Amazingly for the music connoisseur the height of the raga’s complexity is the pinnacle of understanding. And as Carl Sagan noted: understanding is a kind of ecstasy.
The association of the early Patiala masters with the Chishti Sufis is reflected in lyrics of their many compositions but perhaps most clearly, in what to me is their magnum opus, the raga Ram Saakh. The legend has it that performing the Khayal ‘piya tore nain’ in the elaborate, ornate and highly complex Ram Saakh, the Patiala pioneer Ali Bakhsh Khan beat a sarangi player Mirch Khan—so named for his fast pace—at the Maharajah’s court. The words pleading with Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti ‘karo mo pey karam Ghareeb Nawaj, meiN dukhiyari aaee sharan tihaar, rakhiyo mori laaj’, make the mystical component of this raga, which the Raga Boyz delivered in the fine tradition of their Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan.
The raga Ram Saakh is unique in that it has a clearly sensuous theme as well as an unmistakable Sufi leitmotif. A contrast can be drawn with the Qawwali music where not only the theme is overwhelmingly mystical but also the lyrics are in abundance and usually consist of Sufi poetry written to drive home the point. The raga performance has very few words and the end result depends on the imagination and improvisation of the vocalists as they lead the listener on a trajectory that leads to not only the raga taking its full form but also imparting the desired effect. The panoply of melodic tools deployed from their marvellous vocal repertoire, by Nayab and Inam, duly assisted by Wali, evoked emotions for both divine and temporal to the fullest. I do not have any hesitation in saying that after their father, may Lord bless him with a long life, the Raga Boyz are now the foremost exponents of Indo-Pakistani classical music in Pakistan.
The Raga Boyz were at equal ease in performing ghazal, Kaafi, as well as, of course, their fusion version of the Puriya Dhanashri ‘Khush reh sanam mera’. They are also making strides in the Bollywood film music. I for one would be really keen to see them develop a contemporary version of their vintage Dadra, the deeply romantic ‘more angna suhaag barsan laga’. Such diversity as the Raga Boyz display is simply a virtue of their absolutely impeccable foundation in the classical music, which was display in their masterful Khayal rendition of raga Darbari culminating in the melodious ‘nain so nain milaiy rakhney ko’and then in the raga Mian ki Todi.
Ustad Fateh Ali Khan had told me once that on one occasion he and the late Amanat Ali Khan were flying from Dacca to Nepal to perform at the King’s court there. As the plane flew over Guwahati it hit really bad turbulence. He said that Amanat Ali Khan was sitting across the aisle. Fateh Ali Khan looked at his brother, who was humming almost in a trance-like state, and asked him “Khan sahib, tuhanoo dar naeeN lagda?” (Khan sahib, are you not scared?). Amanat Ali told Fateh Ali to hush up and just listen to what he had written and composed as they flew through the tumult. It was the Thumri ‘kab aavo gey tum’ in Bhairvi. The Raga Boyz did perform their uncle’s masterpiece flawlessly. But they also displayed individuality in their choice of compositions and in improvisation that is the essence of Khayal singing. I just have to say that may their ascent be smooth and may there be no turbulence in their flight on the horizons of classical and contemporary music. For us, the listeners, just knowing that the saga of the raga continues is sheer delight.
Dr Mohammed Taqi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at http://twitter.com/mazdaki