Daily Times: Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The artist with the perfumed moustache

By A Hamid

Siraj Nizami of Radio Pakistan, Lahore, once told me that famous classical vocalist Kalay Khan had the voice of a lion and there was no city in the subcontinent where he had not performed to the delight of his audience. He came from the Kalwant family of singers in Kasur. He was built like a wrestler and he wore a big moustache. He had a very special temperament. Once, it is said, while performing with his ustad, Khan Sahib Fateh Ali Khan, in the middle of the performance, he suddenly decided to try to get the better of his teacher. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, just looked at him and spoke three words, “Ja re paglay”, which would roughly translate to “Get away you silly fellow.” From that day on, Kalay Khan was a changed man, sometimes showing mild signs of madness. When singing the khyal or the tarana, he would roar like a lion in the middle of the night. Siraj Nizami said that once Kalay Khan was singing at a small gathering inside a baithak in Bhati Gate and he, then a student at the Islamia High School, Bhati Gate, could hear him loud and clear in the school ground, such powerful a voice he had.

Kalay Khan used to live in the old city’s Katra Nadir Shah facing Haveli Mian Khan. One day, he cooked a great mutton curry with generous helpings of ghee and then placed it in a cupboard, which he locked up. It just happened that a police party investigating a theft was in the neighbourhood at the time and one of the doors the policemen knocked at was Ustad Kalay Khan’s. He let the police in but parked himself bang in front of the locked cupboard, practically blocking it. The police looked here and there and then asked the Ustad to open the cupboard in front of which he stood like a colossus. “That’s one thing I am not going to do,” he declared. The police became suspicious, wondering if behind the locked doors of the cupboard were stacked the stolen goods being sought. Ustad Kalay Khan was asked to step aside and unlock the cupboard. “No way,” he replied, “you can look where you want, but not here. It is forbidden.” Finally, a couple of hefty constables stepped forward and after a short struggle pushed Ustad Kalay Khan aside. All they found inside was a saucepan with a fine smelling, perfectly cooked mutton curry. They put the saucepan back and burst out laughing. The Ustad was not amused. “You better take this curry now because it is no use to me. The evil eye has been cast on it which makes it unfit for my consumption.”

Every morning, Kalay Khan would cook the curry of his choice, the best cuts of mutton from the local butcher, place the saucepan in the cupboard, then walk out of the place to the corporation park outside Taxali Gate, carrying with him a bottle of oil, soap, a pair of desi-style boxer shorts and an umbrella. He would open the umbrella and ground it, put on his boxer shorts, rub oil on his body and begin his exercise, while singing snatches from some morning raga. Once this routine was finished, he would take a dip in the canal and then walk back to his place. Once there, he would lock the door from inside and sing for the next two hours to hone his voice. Sometimes, he would perform an entire morning raga and since his voice was very powerful, people from the neighbourhood would come and seat themselves in front of his door or stand in the street to listen to the maestro.

Once a well-known local figure organised a musical evening and requested Ustad Kalay Khan to be the principal vocalist. A sumptuous Lahori dinner was also out. The famous sarangi player of Kasur, Ustad Ghulam Muhammad, with whom Ustad Kalay Khan had not been on speaking terms for quite some time, had been invited to accompany him. Ustad Kalay Khan did not object and those who were present at the event swear that they never heard a more masterly performance either vocally or instrumentally. So powerful and so moving was the elucidation, improvisation and exploration of the raga chosen for the evening that by the end, tears were streaming down the cheeks of both men. When it was over, they rose, embraced each other and thus was buried one of the oldest hatchets in Lahore’s music world.

In pre-Partition days, Ustad Kalay Khan was once invited to a concert held in Lucknow. At the conclusion of the event, he was paid a handsome fee. The first thing he did was to walk up to the banks of the River Gomti and throw fifty rupees in its flowing waters with the incantation, “Accept this offering of mine, Khawaja Khizr.” Khizr is the object of a still surviving popular cult, common to Muslims and Hindus. He is venerated with lights and the devotees offer food to priests, both Muslim and Hindu. Also set afloat in a pond or river is a little boat that bears a lighted lamp. The saint is represented as an elderly faqir, clothed entirely in green and moving in the water standing on top of a fish.

After Khan Sahib Kalay Khan was done with Khawaja Khizr, he went straight to the famous house of perfume in Lucknow, Asghar Ali Muhammad Ali, from where he bought a large bottle of the most expensive perfume, some of which he sprinkled on his clothes and the rest on his moustache. The perfume merchants were puzzled, “Khan Sahib, what have you done?” they asked. “The clothes I am wearing will be left behind but my moustache will go with me to my grave,” he replied.

He died some days later, no doubt with a perfumed moustache.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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