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Sham Chaurasi: How a Punjab village got global fame on heritage map

Salamat Ali Khan at a concert.

July 11 is the 20th death anniversary of Salamat Ali Khan. A look at the Hoshiarpur-born classical vocalist’s career that became particularly unparalleled after his 1947 migration to Pakistan:

Travelling 450 kilometres southwest of their village in Punjab, the Khan family reached a riverine urban centre famous for its Sufi mystics since the start of that millennium. Only, they had in the process crossed over to another country altogether.

For, this was in 1947. Pakistan was just born after Partition. Salamat Ali Khan was 13 when his household shifted that August from Hoshiarpur area to Multan. Leaving a pastoral belt, they got down at what had been a trading hub of medieval Islam by the banks of the Chenab in the Indian subcontinent. Along with the early teenager was his brother Nazakat Ali Khan, a couple of years older and equally talented in classical vocal.

Just six years before that migration had the siblings made a mark at the world’s oldest music festival. Salamat was merely seven in 1941 when he debuted with Nizakat at the 65th edition of the annual Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar. A little over 30 km north of that city along the arterial Grand Trunk Road were the boys’ native place Sham Chaurasi, which was a village back then and is now a town with a municipal council in Hoshiarpur district.

Housing mosques, gurdwaras and mandirs of varied vintage amid a cluster of houses surrounded by sprawling wheat fields, Sham Chaurasi today may appear nothing more than a speck along the fertile Doaba region. But this belt between the rivers of Beas and Sutlej continues to enjoy eminence in Hindustani music since the age of Akbar. The third Mughal emperor had his reign spanning half-a-century till his death in 1605 at the age of 63.

Not surprisingly in Multan, the Khan brothers were constantly reminded that their Sham Chaurasi gharana was already close to four centuries old. Akbar’s most renowned court musician Tansen (1500-86) had colleagues in Chand Khan and Suraj Khan. These two brothers (Sudhakar and Diwakar respectively before converting to Islam), who were disciples of spiritual poet Swami Haridas (1478-1573), are believed to be the founders of Sham Chaurasi school of music.

Lahore to Calcutta

After eight years of life in Multan, the Khan family chose to resettle. They headed 350 km north-eastward to Lahore. Pakistan’s cultural capital infused a fresh spirit in the household. They now sensed better chances of scaling up the popularity graph the way they did manage in undivided India.

The Sham Chaurasi style of music had fundamentally evolved from its thrust on Dhrupad, revered for a thoroughly meditative approach. Down the generations, its practitioners grew stronger in Khayal. This novel offshoot permitted more liberty and ornamentation in musical expressions, making Sham Chaurasi effectively another fountainhead of Khayal rendition.

Even so, the father of Nizakat and Salamat was more a Dhrupad maestro. Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan had another three sons, but none of them excelled the eldest two in music. The two brothers had chosen to specialise in Khayal. In Lahore, soon they got invitations from Radio Pakistan. The duo performed at the nascent nation’s first broadcast station under the mass-media corporation founded on August 14, 1947.

It didn’t take long for the brothers to show up at the other side of the new international border. In 1955, the year the family settled in Lahore, Salamat was called to perform along with Nizakat at the All India Music Conference in Calcutta.

Among the VIPs in the audience was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. So impressed were the listeners that the organisers invited the brothers consecutively for ten years. And if the sequence broke in 1965, it was only owing to the India-Pakistan war that April-September.

The annual journeys to the Bengal capital functioned as a pilgrimage of sorts for the brothers, bringing in a sense of nostalgia. As children, the eastern parts of undivided India were venues that had groomed their musicianship. Salamat and Nizakat were pre-teen boys in 1943 when the Maharaja of Champanagar in Bhagalpur region of present-day Bihar called them to perform. The boys even lived in the palace for three months. While returning to Shamchurasi, they gave concerts at Allahabad, Gorakhpur and Gwalior.

Back in Lahore from Calcutta, Salamat had already cut two gramophone records, which art-lovers welcomed with both hands. The 1960s saw the brothers peaking in popularity. They became celebrities outside South Asia, winning the hearts of buffs in the West and East of the globe. For instance, at Scotland’s three-week Edinburgh Festival of August 1969.

Then happened a string of tragedies.

Setbacks and ailments

Personal differences began to crop up between the brothers, leading to their eventual split in 1974. The immensely talented Salamat, by then with three decades of concert experience, didn’t find it tough to flourish. If anything, he shone even brighter now — featuring in several festivals across Europe, America and oriental countries.

Just as he became a globetrotter, Salamat suffered a stroke. He was only 44 and was singing on a London stage when the mishap occurred. The lips tweaked leftward since, but the ustad went on to be tenacious. Five years later, in 1983, Nizakat Ali Khan died (aged 52). Towards the end of that decade, the younger brother began to develop blood-sugar complications. Into the early 1990s, Salamat was further diagnosed with a heart ailment. The ustad’s career waned slowly and ended in 1998, three years ahead of his death owing to kidney failure.

For all his marked international presence, Salamat Ali Khan (1934-2001) seldom found fusion music an interesting endeavour. “Their (western) concept of notes doesn’t suit ours,” he used to say. Hindustani musicians sharing stage with maestros from down the country, though, wasn’t that impractical an idea, the ustad would add, expressing admiration for Carnatic icon M Balamuralikrishna (1930-2016).

Salamat’s Pakistani life spanning half a century contributed a lot to enlivening classical music in the nascent nation. Even as the Islamic Republic suffered a major erosion in its Hindustani tradition, the maestro checked the trend by guiding no less than a thousand pupils. The government in Islamabad conferred him with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the third-highest civilian state honour. Among the ustad’s four sons, Sharafat Ali Khan (1955-2009), Latafat Ali Khan and Shafqat Ali Khan further enrich(ed) the legacy.

The acquired nativity apart, memories about formative years would well up every time Salamat spoke of Punjab. “At the Harvallabh Sammelan in 1941, none other than Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahib came on to the dais and blessed us after performance,” he would trail off, referring to the Patiala gharana virtuoso (1902-68). Incidentally, 2021 is the 80th year of that path-breaking incident.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Thrissur, Kerala.)

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