Tragic voice

September 18, 2022

Ustad Amanat Ali Khan’s life was cut short in its prime after a long struggle with depression

Tragic voice


stad Amanat Ali Khan died at the prime of his career. He was in his mid-forties and had a long career before him.He left everyone sad.

He was the elder of the two brothers that their father had paired up to continue with the legacy of the gharana through their kheyal rendition. The moment Pakistan was created it was clear that the musical tastes had undergone a sea change. The manner of patronage had changed as the princely states disappeared overnight and the more popular forms strengthened their hold by yielding to the market forces.

Kheyal, and to a lesser extent, thumri, were placed on the backburner and the ghazal, folk and film songs gained ascendency.

Without patronage, it was impossible for the hereditary musicians to survive and hold the banner of their venerated tradition high. The gharana had switched to singing the kaafi in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century and laced it with the intricacies of the kheyalgaiki but the more song-like kaafi singing gained popularity and the ghazal became an accepted form which the elite in the new country and society liked to promote and eulogise. The Patiala gharana, too, had a tilt to indulge in a bit of popular musical forms.

The compulsion of cultural identity of the new state drove implicitly the carriage of crafting a separate identity than that of India.

Amanat Ali is known more for his ghazal numbers and a few patriotic songs that he rendered rather than his immense contribution to kheyal and thumri forms. His younger brother, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, who survived him for thirty-seven years was a gawaiya in the traditional mould and unfolded the structure of the raga and then carried it further from the valampat to the drut song and tarana format. The two were trained to complement each other as probably had been the case with Ustads Fateh Ali and Ali Bakhsh, the founders of the Patiala gharana, about a hundred years ago.

Amanat Ali Khan sang the ghazal in full throated ease - a little different from the constricted throat method that made Mehdi Hasan very acceptable and popular and made him a household name in Pakistan. In singing the kheyal and thumri, Amanat Ali creatively exploited the range of his voice. The awaz lagana in the upper register was evocative and appealing - so much so that it was compared with Baray Ghulam Ali Khan.

In the ’65 war, the pair sang only one tarana, ayeshadeedan-i-watan tum par salaam but in the ’71 war he sang many more realising the popularity of the song format and the bols. All these became popular.

It was, however, considered beneath top gawaiyas to sing the ghazal. If one stooped ‘that low’they were looked down upon and described as a huge compromise on their family’s grand tradition. When Amanat started singing the ghazal, he was castigated for it. So was Fateh Ali Khan, who switched back to the kheyal after a couple of attempts after the death of his dear brother.

As long as East Pakistan was Pakistan, the classical vocalists, including the duo, spent months there, honouring the singing engagements as they went along. The darbars at Kabul and Kathmandu, too, were patrons of music and the doors to India were not that tightly shut. So the financial wherewithal was taken care of. It was survival but just that.With the dismemberment of the country the opportunities dried up and it became more difficult to survive. The ghazal and geet were one recourse and he adopted those.

Amanat Ali Khan was an artiste in the traditional mould. He was high strung and very temperamental.The shrinking avenues left him bereft and sad. He went into a long state of what is now called depression.In the attempts to come out of it he struggled and found ways which were probably more harmful. Fateh Ali Khan was made of different material; he struggled and found reliance and strength to see through the tough times while Amanat Ali Khan just wasted awayin agony.

In fighting the depression, he ended up deeper into it.Then came the news no one wanted to hear. People wanted to listen to him live as so much more of music was left in him but sadly it is only the recordings that we have to be content with now.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Tragic voice