Harking back: Story of a ‘classical music’ corner of old Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 24, 2015

It is embedded in some remote portion of my mind -- or better still in my mind’s eye -- that particular meeting with probably the greatest classical musicians of our ancient land. My father had taken me to Heera Mandi, the musical part, to meet these greats.

It must have been 1969 or 1970 for I was then a young student wishing to one day make a name, like my father, as a journalist. My father cautioned against following my dream. Testing times lie ahead, he would say. But of all the arts he wished we excelled in was classical music, for he himself was no mean connoisseur of fine sound, or ‘sur’, as he would explain. To understand music you must first listen, if you do not listen you will never understand the joy of ‘sur’. This piece emerged after for the last few days listening to video recordings of the great Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, the Kasur-born genius. In one such recording, he held his ears and said: “ Sur say, lai say, donon say darr aata hai.” The remark sparked me off to recall that meeting in Heera Mandi.

And so, we then walked through the Walled City emerging at Chowk Heera Mandi. From there, we walked towards an opening in the houses towards Roshnai Gate and towards a tall building among many and knocked at the door. A young boy opened the door. This was Hamid Ali Khan, brother of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, and now an ‘ustad’ in his own right.

My father asked: “Is the khalifa home?” This sent a wave of excitement through the boy who rushed up and announced: “Sheikh sahib has arrived”.

Before long, we were sitting in the company of Ustad Khalifa Akhtar Hussain Khan of the Patiala Gharana of classical music. Around us sat Ustad Amanat Ali, his brothers Fateh Ali and Hamid Ali. But my father was interested in the ‘khalifa’.

The Patiala Gharana emerged from the Punjab ‘gharana’ whose creator was Ustad Ali Bakhsh, also known as ‘Jarnail Sahib’. His son was Akhtar Hussain, who was born in Bazaar Hakeeman’s ‘Kabootar Shah Takiya’. Besides his sons, among his most famous pupils was Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, probably the greatest ever classical singer of the subcontinent. But Akhtar Hussain learnt his art from Mian Qadir Bakhsh ‘ dooham’ (the second) of Sialkot. He was the original ‘khalifa’ of the Punjab Gharana, and this ‘fakir’ by temperament passed on the ‘khilafat’ to Akhtar Hussain.

Yet that day so many years ago I sat on the carpeted floor with white sheets before this great man. His sons Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali had, thanks to a concert in Calcutta in 1945, established themselves as the future musical force of the subcontinent. But then 1947 and its horrors saw this great musical family cross over to Lahore from Patiala.

“That line split my heart and body into two,” he said. The great ‘khalifa’ had to resort to teaching people from the neighbourhood about the basics of classical music. From the meagre earnings he managed to survive with his large family, in the process keeping up an appearance of respectability.

It had a telling effect on the family. A bitterness was noticed in their mannerism, and I remember my father advising them: “To live happily in these times remember how Qadir Bakhsh lived.” All of them moved to touch his feet, after which they touched their eyes. To me, a young student, it was eerie, rather unreal, to say the least. But I appreciated the emotion involved.

During the conversation on the way back, at least the portions I remember, my father told me three things. First was that “Hamid Ali will one day emerge as the Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of his age. He has an amazing voice”. Then after much thinking, he said: “The world in which we live has no clue about the greatness of Akhtar Hussain.” Then as we walked out of Bhati Gate to head towards our house on Rattigan Road, he stopped and said: “We are Nilli Bar Jats, and we have a saying that ‘ pandit maulvi donon fakir’. I dread the day they will become rich and powerful based on alms, beggars that they are.” We walked the rest of the way home in silence.

The Patiala Gharana has since produced a number of greats, among them is Abdul Sattar ‘Tari’ Khan the ‘tabla’ player, who though from a ‘rababi’ family, learnt his art from Ustad Shaukat Hussain, himself a pupil of Mian Qadir Bakhsh. The list of the ‘greats’ who visited the house seems endless.

But that visit to Heera Mandi to meet the greatest of classical singers was left at that. It was many years later as a journalist, more so for being a food critic that I was to visit the place again.

Two years ago, when the opening of the Walled City Food Street took place, my editor asked me to cover the event. In the middle of the gaudy painted buildings, where once lived the great Ustad Akhtar Hussain Khan and his family, everyone took their seats. Imagine my shock when Ustad Hamid Ali Khan came and sat next to me. I looked at him, then at his old house, and then at the dais where the chief guest was the son of the Punjab chief minister. Ustad Hamid Ali whispered to me: “Sheikh sahib, we have moved to Mohni Road.”

I looked sadly at the old building now painted pink. Next to it is a purple one, and then a yellow one. The pandit and the maulvi had won.

Has it never occurred to our cultural planners to try to bring back the musical traditions that made this small ‘classical music’ square so famous? Some of the greatest thinkers, leaders and writers have visited this place over the last century to meet the great classical musicians of the subcontinent. Hamid Ali reeled off the names of people he had heard from his elders who had visited their house and other greats who once lived there.

Yes, times have changed, as change must take place. Do the pink, purple and yellow houses in that precious corner of our musical heritage deserve the treatment they ended up getting? It is ‘food’ for thought!



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