“The India-Pakistan divide does not carry over to music”

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan, one of the living legends of classical music in Pakistan, talks to Ally Adnan about the fascinating origins of the Shaam-Chaurasi gharaana, his idyllic relationship with his father and the role of peace in a musician's life

“The India-Pakistan divide does not carry over to music”
The youngest son of one of the greatest vocalists of the twentieth century, Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan is the foremost singer of his generation in Pakistan today. Shafqat made his debut public performance at the age of seven in 1979 and has performed all over the world ever since, becoming one of Pakistan’s busiest musicians internationally. His performance at the Smithsonian Institute in 1988 and 1996 established him as an important performer of classical South Asian music. The New York Times described one of his performances this way, “exuberant complications, in which melodic gestures join hand-waving and synchronized finger-pointing to form an eloquent symbiosis.” Shafqat is known for his mastery of rhythm, a very large repertoire, a magnetic stage presence and his ability to connect with audiences. In an exclusive interview for the Friday Times, Shafqat talks to Ally Adnan about his father, the Shaam Chaurasi gharana of music and his life as a musician.

Shaam because of Raja Shyam and Chaurasi (eighty-four) because the duo's singing resulted in the return of eighty-four villages to the Raja

You are the foremost representative of the Shaam Chaurasi gharana of music. What is the history of this gharana and what are its unique qualities and characteristics?

The Shaam Chaurasi gharana was founded by two brothers, Sudhakar and Diwakar, in the sixteenth century. The brothers were Suriya Vanshi Rajputs and worked as farmers in a small village that was originally ruled by Raja Shyam. The brothers were disciples of a holy saint named Syed Feel Ali Sarmast who counted Emperor Akbar amongst his followers. They used to sing while ploughing their lands. Syed Sarmast Shah was very fond of their singing and asked them to give up farming in favor of music when they were in their teens. The saint provided initial training in music to the two brothers who later studied with Swami Haridas. Once Syed Sarmast Shah was satisfied with the singing of the brothers, he sent them to Delhi with a letter to Emperor Akbar requesting him to give the duo a chance to perform in his court. This resulted in a twenty-four hour performance in which the brothers are said to have performed all the raags known at the time. This pleased Akbar immensely and he asked the duo to join his court as musicians. As a reward, the brothers requested Akbar to return eighty-four villages that the emperor had captured from Raja Shyam. Akbar agreed. Subsequently, the brothers converted to Islam in Akbar’s court and came to be known by their Muslim names, Miyan Sooraj Khan and Miyan Chand Khan. Their style of music laid the foundation for the gharana which was named Shaam Chaurasi; Shaam because of Raja Shyam and Chaurasi (Eighty-Four) because the duo’s singing resulted in the return of eighty-four villages to the Raja.

Shaam Chaurasi was originally a gharana of Dhurpad (oldest style of music in practice in India and Pakistan) singers. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan added khayal (modern genre of classical singing), thumri (popular romatic genre of semi-classical music), dadra (genre of semi-classical music sung usually in cycles of six and eight beats) and kafi (songs using Sufi poetry as lyrics) to the repertoire of Shaam Chaurasi.

Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan with students
Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan with students

Musicians of Shaam Chaurasi employ all three octaves in their musical renditions and are known for elaborate and leisurely alaaps (introductory passages in a musical performance). They place a great emphasis on the systematic and progressive development of a raag (musical scale) and add complexity to their performance in a gradual and steady manner. They rarely repeat a taan (musical passages rendered at speed) in the performance of a raag. They have mastery over various types of taan. The sapaat taan in which notes are employed in order is a specialty of Shaam Chaurasi. Musicians of the gharana sing in a large number of taals (rhythmic cycles), both ancient and modern, and are known to be masters of rhythm and tempo.

In your opinion, what was your father, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan’s contribution to the Shaam Chaurasi gharana?

I do not consider Ustad Salamat Ali Khan to be a representative of the Shaam Chaurasi gharana. His music encompassed much more than the qualities of a single gharana. He had an unparalleled command over sur (musicality) and lai (tempo), an incomparable understanding of raag and taal, and an unmatched mastery over roohdari (spiritual component of music) and roodari (aesthetic beauty in music). His music had universal appeal. He was as popular in France and Canada as he was in Gujrat and Jalal Pur Jattan. He was able to connect with listeners of all origins, knowledge levels and backgrounds. His music moved everyone. Classifying it as the music of a single gharana would be grossly unfair and unjust.


There is some debate about the teachers of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. He is known to have learnt from his father, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan, and his uncle, Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami, but some people claim that he studied with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, as well. Did he indeed tie the ganda (thread tied around a student’s wrist by his teacher) with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan?

I have heard stories to the effect and am aware of the debate. The truth is that my father had immense respect for Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his music. He used to say that he learned something new each time he heard Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sing. He considered the maestro to be one of the greatest musicians of all times and revered him like his own Ustad. He, however, did not tie the ganda with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and never became his disciple. I have great respect and admiration for Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his family but I do not want to perpetuate a falsehood. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was not a student of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was in love with music and had an inexhaustible desire to learn as much as he possibly could. He retained the enthusiasm and eagerness of a young student of music till the day he died. Always willing and keen to learn, my father credited many musicians as having influenced his singing. He used to say that he learnt music by participating in music conferences and festivals, both by listening to and performing alongside great musicians. He respected a number of great musicians like his own teachers but did not tie the ganda with anyone. His singing was not like the music of any other musician. His style was unique, one he couldn’t possibly have learnt from any one Ustad. He did not sing like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or in the style of anyone else; but he was a respectful person and understood the importance of showing respect to senior musicians and acknowledging their influence on his music.


What are your favorite memories of your father?

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was not just a great musician but also a great human being and a great father. He would often say that in order to become a great musician one had to first become a great human being. He was living proof of the statement. He was kind, gentle and loving. He enjoyed the company of his family. He paid attention to those around him. He was generous. He had a sense of humor. He liked to entertain. And he had a humility one rarely sees in musicians of his caliber.

I was the youngest and his favorite child. The two of us were inseparable. A part of me died when he passed away in 2001. What is left behind, is a sad musician trying to carry forward the legacy of his father.
He asked me to compose a bandish in raag Adana describing the Battle of Khyber

My favorite memories are those of learning from him while on tour. He would devise games and puzzles to help me learn music. On long flights, he would explain the intricacies of raags and taals to me. He would give me assignments to help me develop skills as a musician. I remember a flight from San Francisco to London where he asked me to compose a bandish (musical composition) in raag Adana describing the Battle of Khyber. He sang an ancient Hindi bandish that described the war waged on the island city of Lanka by Raavan for me and instructed me to use it as a reference while composing my own bandish. Once the assignment was given, he went to sleep leaving me to compose on my own. I spent the next ten hours composing my bandish which was set to a cycle of five beats. The words were:

Ali Maula, Maula Ali Maula, Mushkil Kusha

Hyder Karrar Tum Ho Ali Maula

Khyber Ko Kiya Sar Ali Maula Tu Ne

Ali Ne Pukara Jab Allahu Akbar

Ali Maula, Maula Ali Maula, Mushkil Kusha

He woke up just before we landed at Heathrow and immediately asked me to sing what I had composed. He loved the bandish that I had put together and teared up while I sang it for him. He gave me duas and blessings and prayed that God shower me with Maula Ali’s blessings. Those are the kind of memories I have of my father. What better memories can a son have? I remember the duas and lessons, his innocent sense of humor, his soft touch and unassuming persona. There is so much that I remember about Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, not just his music.

Ally Adnan & Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan
Ally Adnan & Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan
Photographs by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

I do not have a single bad memory of my father. Not one

Not many people know this but Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was very fond of cinema and a fan of Hollywood. Marlon Brando was his favorite actor. He used to watch all of his films, often more than once.  I used to accompany him to movie theaters.  He used to enjoy films with themes of honor, morality and righteousness, and loved to discuss movies we had seen together.

I do not have a single bad memory of my father. Not one.

Your mother, Razia Begum, was a woman of remarkable strength and character. How do you think she helped the career of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan?

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan would not have had a career in music without my mother. Any and everything he accomplished in his life was because of his wife. She was intelligent, wise, tolerant, understanding and sincere. Sharafat, Latafat, Sakhawat and I would not have become singers without her support, guidance and blessings. My mother protected and shielded my father from a lot of what would have hurt and distracted him. She helped him maintain singular focus on music and took care of all other matters herself. She made sure that nothing distracted her husband from music.

My mother believed that, in order to grow, a musician needed peace and harmony. She made sure that my father had both in his life. Let me tell you a story which will explain what she did for my father. When my maternal grandmother passed away, my mother was informed of the death, late at night. She did not share the news with anyone at that time. In the morning, she prepared food for the whole day and, once the riyaz (practice of music) and breakfast were over, she told my father about the death of her mother. My father asked her why she had not told him and gone to her mother’s home earlier. “I did not want to disturb your sleep,” she replied. “And I wanted to make sure your riyaz was peaceful.” This is who my mother was.
If my father was one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, my mother was certainly one of the greatest chefs of her time

Your grandmother was known all over India for the quality of food she prepared and trained her daughters-in-law in the art of cooking. Did your mother teach your wife how to prepare food? 

My mother learnt the art of cooking from my grandmother. She was known all over India and Pakistan for the food she made. If my father was one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, she was certainly one of the greatest chefs of her time. Musicians who used to visit Lahore from India were as interested in eating at our home as they were in listening to my father sing.

As far as my wife’s cooking goes, I am going to be smart and say that she does very well. I need peace at home.


 How did your father train you?

My training was done more on stage than at home. Saleem Gilani, who was the Director General of Radio Pakistan, took an interest in my career right from the start. He advised my father to let me accompany him on stage and get my education during performances. My father took his advice and I started accompanying him as a young child. In the beginning I used to do very little singing but, as I gained more knowledge and confidence, I started participating in my father’s performances.  I learnt by listening to my father and by singing with him. I believe that I had a great education, more effective and interesting than the traditional style of instruction.

You perform regularly in both India and Pakistan. What are the differences between the practice, study and performance of Hindustani sangeet in the two countries?

The music of the two countries is identical. The theory is exactly the same. There are some differences in presentation between different towns in each country. The audience of each city has its own character. Some are more knowledgeable while others enjoy more interaction. Some enjoy emotionally charged performance whereas some focus on grammar and technique. Musicians, therefore, have to adjust their presentation accordingly but the base remains the same. One sings differently in Agra and Calcutta due to the nature of the audience in each city even though both are in India. The India-Pakistan divide does not carry over to music. There are no major differences in the practice, study and performance of music between India and Pakistan.


How do you prepare for a performance?

It is not possible to prepare for a single performance. It takes years and years of hard work for a musician to get ready to perform on stage but, once he is ready, he does not need to prepare for individual performances. He can perform any time.

What are the factors – audience, mood, accompanists and others – that contribute to a great performance?

A lot of things need to be right for a musician to give his best. First and foremost, the musician should be in a good mood. He should be comfortable with his accompanying musicians. The audience should be loving and interested in music. It is great if the audience is knowledgeable but it is more important that it is warm and loving. There should not be a great physical distance between performers and listeners. The sound set up should be good. And finally, the stage should be well-decorated. I enjoy performing on beautifully decorated stages.

Shaam Chaurasi is known for singing in rare and complex rhythmic cycles, such as Sul Fakhta, Faraudast and Ikwai. Why is it that musicians of other gharanas, unlike those from Shaam Chaurasi, stick to popular taals such as Teentaal, Ektala and Jhaptal?

Sul Fakhta, Nusrak, Faraudast, Dhammar, Talwara, and Ikwai are very complex and rare taals. We sing in these taals all the time. These rhythmic cycles present challenges to musicians because of their peculiar structures. Very few bandishes have been composed in the rare cycles. The taals are also difficult for audiences to comprehend. It is not easy to maintain tempo and identify sam (first beat of rhythmic cycle), taali (beat with stress) and khaali (beat with negation of stress), while listening to songs in these taals. My father used to enjoy challenges and, therefore, sang in a number of complex and rarely used taals. He was also very good at engaging the audience and ended up teaching the structure and divisions of rhythmic cycles on stage.

I am sure that competent singers of other gharanas know and understand these taals. They may not use them because of personal choice or because they want to make things easier for listeners.

Shaam Chaurasi musicians enjoy engaging percussionists in a competitive dialog during performances and are known to pose a challenge for even the best of tabla players. Who are your favorite tabla players?

A musician needs to have mastery of rhythm to be able to engage a tabla player. Vocalists tend to focus more on raagdari (knowledge of raag) than on laikari (rhythmic virtuosity) and are, therefore, unable to get into a competitive dialog with the percussionist. My father considered laikari to be as important as raagdari and was a master of both. He forced tabla players to participate in his performances. His on-stage battles, if you will, with tabla players resulted in legendary performances. My father’s favorite tabla players were Ustad Miyan Shaukat Hussain Khan and Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa. Incidentally, they are also my favorite tabla players. Currently, India has many great tabla players. Zakir Hussain, Swapan Chahudhury, Anindo Chaudhury are master percussionists. I think Ghulam Abbas plays very well. Rashid Mustafa is very good. Tafu and his son Ballu Khan have their own inimitable style. Haroon Samuel, Kashif Ali Dani, and Shabbir Hussain are all capable young tabla players. The art of playing tabla continues to flourish in both India and Pakistan.

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was a regular performer at the death anniversaries of famous musicians. His performance used to be highlight of the barsi (death anniversary) of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in Lyallpur each year. What were those barsis like?

The barsis were grand musical events. Musicians from all over the country used to travel to participate in the events. They would to prepare all year for performances at the barsis. The death anniversary of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan in Lyallpur and of Ustad Bhai Lal Muhammad in Vyam Shala were two of the most competitive platforms for musicians. A number of other barsis were held throughout the year as well. In my opinion, the best performances of our music have been on barsis. Musicians used to sing their hearts out at these events. Listeners flocked to attend the barsis. Sadly, the tradition has died during the last few decades. It needs to be revived. Musicians need platforms to prove their mettle and listeners deserve to hear musicians at their best.

Your father did not believe in teaching music to females. How come your sister, Riffat Sultana, sings?

It was not just my father but all Muslim musicians who were against teaching music to their female relatives. Unfortunately, singing is not considered a respectable profession for females in our country. That is the reason musicians are reluctant to teach their daughters. Riffat was given permission to sing because she lives in the United States and not in Pakistan. She never sang publicly while in Pakistan. I have thought about this quite a bit and want to change this tradition. Females who have the potential of singing like Roshanara Begum and Noor Jehan should be trained and encouraged to perform.

What did you like about Noor Jehan’s singing?

There is a lot that I like about her singing. She was the best in her field. She had perfect pitch. Her delivery of lyrics was excellent. She projected her voice very well. And she sang with feeling. Her singing used to move my father to tears.

Who do you think are the greatest practitioners of Hindustani sangeet today?

There are a great number of talented musicians in both India and Pakistan today. Ustad Rashid Khan, Pandit Ajoy Chakravarty and Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan are very good. I love their music. Bade Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Hamid Ali Khan are great musicians. Pakistan is home to some very promising classical vocalists today. Chand Khan and Suraj Khan, Inaam Ali and Nayab Ali Khan, Shujaat Ali Khan, and Muslim Shaggan show great promise. I believe that both India and Pakistan will continue to produce good musicians. Our musicians are committed to teaching and transferring their knowledge to younger generations of musicians.

Who do you listen to yourself?

I listen to a lot of singers, both senior and junior but my favorites are Ustads Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, D V Paluskar, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan, Pandit Jasraj, Roshanara Begum, and Ustads Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan.
It is not possible to add to Shaam Chaurasi's music

Do you believe that you have added to the music of Shaam Chaurasi?

No, I have not.

It is not possible to add to Shaam Chaurasi’s music after Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. He wrote the last chapter of the book.

What will be Shafqat Salamat Ali Khan’s legacy in the world of music?

I think that my contribution has been in the field of education. I teach in institutions all over the world. I think I am a dedicated, gracious and sincere teacher. I believe in sharing all that I know with deserving students. Some of my students belong to families of musicians but most do not. I hold workshops in art galleries, in residences and in schools to teach music. I use both modern and traditional methods of instruction. I work very hard to engage with students. I love my talented students. I think my legacy will be a number of well-trained musicians spread all over the globe.

Ally Adnan lives in Dallas where he works in the field of telecommunications. He can be reached at allyadnan@outlook.com