The Maestro of the Patiala Gharana


Ustad (Bade) Fateh All Khan (1935 -2017)

The pandits imbibed and assimilated these notes into their singing. The hymns of the vedas (religious text) were sung as samagoras. The Indians classical music was also enriched by the Persian, Chinese and Arabic musical practices


In 1968 when I was ten years old, my father invited Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharana to our place. I was naively excited that a musical evening was taking place in our home, little knowing what I was going to be exposed to.

Finally in the evening, the Ustads along with Shaukat Hussain (Tabla), Nazim Hussain (Sarangi) arrived at our place. The Ustads were accompanied by their Father Ustad Akhtar Hussain. My father had arranged a Farshi Mehfil. They sang four Ragas for about two hours (i.e Kedara, Bageshri, Bharaiv, Hemawati). In those times, nobody clapped; everyone praised by saying “kia baat hai”, “wah wah”. The audience were totally captivated and full of praise. Especially, Raga Hemawati captured the hearts of all. Nobody has sung this raga in Pakistan. The musicians were very conscious of their father’s presence.

Next day, when I went to school, all I could hear were the beautiful notes of the ragas and could hardly pay any attention to the class teacher. At one point during class discussion, when my teacher asked me what she had just said, I said ” kab aao gae, kab aao gae”.

From that year onwards, my curiosity for classical music grew immensely. I listened to many classical maestro and gurus but in particular Ustad Fateh Ali Khan inspired me tremendously. I write this article to acknowledge the genius of the great Patiala Maestro.

Classical Mausquee

The rendering of classical notes was practiced since Vedic Times (5000 BC). The gurus, pundits and sufis sitting in forest listened to the chirping and squawking of birds, whistling of wind, rustling of leaves, rumbling of water, etc. They absorbed the abundant energy of nature and internalised these sounds. The birds (sounds at dawn were smooth, light); in other words the “Komal” sur (notes) were in play. In the evening, the same birds chanted heavy notes (Teewar sur).

The pandits imbibed and assimilated these notes into their singing. The hymns of the vedas (religious text) were sung as samagoras. The Indians classical music was also enriched by the Persian, Chinese and Arabic musical practices. Today, it consists of classical genres like dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, tarana, sadra, thumb, and folk genres like kauri, chaiti, lori, dandiya, bihu, langa, Bhopal, jogi, lavani, etc. It also influenced other forms of Indian music including Tagore songs, film music, Indian pop, etc.

Patiala Gharanae

There were many prominent music Gharanas in the sub-continent. Significant amongst them were: Shamchaurasi, Gawaliar,Dehli, Jaipur, Riva, Kirana and Talwandi. There were many titles bestowed upon eminent musicians who exhibited their talent in the Court of Mughals Emperors and in the palaces of Rajas and Maharaja. Amongst the prominent titles were: (i) Kohe-e-Buland (High mountain of music) (ii) Sartaj-e- Mausquee (Crown of music) (iii) Baba-e-Mausquee (Father of Music) (iv) Ustad (v) Khan (vi) Khan Sahib (vii) Bade (viii) Mian (ix) General. The title “General” was the highest title in Music.

Patiala Gharana was inspired from four music schools of of thought i.e Dehli, Gawaliar, Riva, and Jaipur. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was, driven to perform at a very early the age due to the burden of a rich legacy. He was carrying the legacy of Mian Kaalu of Dehli Gharana, Ustad Fateh Ali (Popularly know as Ali-a-Fattu) Hattu of Gawalior, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Kale Khan Kesarwale and another great master Ustad Barkat Ali Khan. The Patiala Gharana was patronised by the royal family of patiala after the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Patiala style of Khayal was represented by two streams of the gharana. One stream gave the music world, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan [1932-1974] and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. The other stream originating from Kasur, (at that time a small village in  Punjab), produced Bade Ghulam Ali Khan [1902-1968] and his  brother Barkat Ali Khan [1907-1963]. It is now widely known as the Kasur-Patiala gharana.

The ancestary of Ustad Bade Fateh All Khan

The grandfather of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was Ali Baksh (1850-1920). He founded the Patiala Gharana in the 19th century. There is a very interesting anecdote recorded in the pages of history of how Ali Baksh was given the title of “General”. One evening the Maharaja of Patiala gathered all the musicians in his court and constituted a jury. The objective of the jury was to listen to Ali Baksh for twenty days and decide whether the young artist qualified for the title of “General”. After listening to him for more than a fortnight, the jury came to the conclusion that the young artist deserved the title. Thus, Ali Baksh came to be known as “General Ali Baksh”. He was from the fourth generation of musicians. Consequently, in 1863 the Viceroy gave the title of “General” to the young artist. The young General then requested the Viceroy if he could wear a gold anklet which was traditionally only worn by the Maharajas and Nawabs in those times. The Viceroy made an exception and conceded to the request of the singer.

Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan was born in 1935 in Patiala State. He started singing at a very early age of nine. The Ustad was also attached with court of Maharaja of Patiala for a period of two years. He started singing with his brother Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and it was a perfect duo (Jori) till Amanat Ali’s death in 1974. My father remarked that Fateh Ali Khan had mastery over “Raag” while Amanat Ali had the “Sur”.

The Partiala gharana tends to favour pentatonic crages for their ornamentation and execution of intricate taans. Ektaal and Teentaal are the most common taals chosen by members of this gharana

Characteristics of Patiala Gayekee

How does the Patiala Aung (style of rendering) differ from other prominent music gharanas? The Partiala gharana tends to favour pentatonic crages for their ornamentation and execution of intricate taans. Ektaal and Teentaal are the most common taals chosen by members of this gharana. Besides khayal, the singing of Thumri of Punjab “Ang” is also in vogue. The special characteristic feature of Patiala Gharana is its rendering of Taans. These are very rhythmic, vakra (complicated) and Firat Taans, and are not bound by the rhythmic cycle.

This was the profound legacy which Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan had to absorb. He had a distinct style. How he with the ease of a maestro, experimented and innovated the “Ang” of his forefathers? The following were the distinct characteristics of his Gayekee:

1.      A Raga evolves gradually: First the Alaap (the unfolding), the Madh-Ley (the medium beat) and then the Durrat (the finality). Without wavering from the Astaar (format), Khan sahib maintained the same energy throughout the Raga carrying it to its esctatic finale (Durrat).

2.      His Alaap (the beginning I un-folding I Mukhra of a raga) was undoubtedly the best in the sub-continent. It was mesmerising, all-encompassing and holistic in its rendering. To describe it simply, his Alaap was God-gifted. With such Divine Energy, his soul wandered instantaneously through the entire Astaar (the ambit of a raga), creating innovations with amazing ease. His Alaap transcended the boundaries of time and space. The rendering had an unlimited expanse. His whole energy was consumed in the Alaap but it never reflected on his face. Khan Sahib told me once that his grandfather admonished him whenever he made faces during his Gayekee and advised him to sit before the mirror while singing. Classical music is an expression of devotion and humility i.e submitting to the Divine Energy and Khan Sahib was a perfect example in this respect. In the end, his Alaap left the audience totally hypnotized.

3.      The Lagao (the mood of the raga) into which the maestro was lost while rendering a raga was distinct. He always took a long pause before he could immerse himself into another raga.

4.      Ustad Sahib maintained the continuity in music tradition (reet ke gaiki) by preserving the style or the ‘Ang” of his great ancestors. Then there was a subtle change in his style. He started experimenting with the “Ang” (style) while remaining within the bandish (format). It was his authentic expression as he latched onto new innovations and experiments in ragas. He also divulged in the “Afghani and Gawaliar Ang” (with heavy notes coming from the chest and belly) with great ease.

5.      He innovated and evolved the style of his grandfather and started treating the “beat” in a different fashion (Lae-kari). He would also innovate the “Astaar” — the format of the raga. He could hold on to one “sur” or note for a long time with superb energy. Some of his favourite ragas were: Drabber, Adaana, Shahana, Desi Todi and Vilas (or bilas) Khani Todi.

Classical music in contemporary times

I spent very precious moments with Ustad Sahib’s, son Rustam Fateh Ali Khan. He is a very promising Patiala artist carrying the rich legacy of his forefathers. He is the last one left in the Patiala Gharana. I empathised with him the heavy burden of responsibility that he was carrying on his shoulders. I asked him how he would continue the legacy and innovate the “Ang” (style) of his father? He shared that two things were the essential ingredients of classical music i.e. discipline and Riyaaz (practice). He disclosed that he was practicing (Riyaaz) for about 12 to 16 hours per week which is very essential for the tendering and nurturing of vocal cords. He is tutoring his son (Shameer) so that the Patiala Gayekee is preserved. He expressed his disillusionment about how our society was treating classical music. He was of the opinion that lot of commercialism has been injected by the sponsors and consequently our old traditional classical music was fading away. Consequently, only those who belong to the traditional gharanas have clung to classical gayekee however, a significant number have adhered to pop music. This is because this music appeals to the society and is also very rewarding financially. It is very courageous on Rustam’s part that he is still continuing with the rich legacy.

The government should be emphatically conscious of the fact that these artists are the dying jewels of our precious heritage. Music institutions like PNCA, National Council of Arts, etc, should patronise these artists by organising their music programs frequently and should also adequately fund them. However, the only institution which has substantially patronised the young artists is the “Classical Music Heritage Trust” (founded in 2002) -a private trust headed by Mr Iftikhar Rashid. They have so far recorded 18,000 hours of music of different artists which is commendable.