Ustad Faiyaz Khan Sahib, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others
RootsWorld: Home Page Link RootsWorld: Home Page Link

Ustad Faiyaz Khan Sahib
Golden Shadows

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
Regal Resonance

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay
All titles Felmay/Dunya (

There is little agreement among the cognoscenti of Hindustani singing; arguments have been sustained for decades about the precise usage of particular notes, the admissability of certain ornamental passages, or other such minutiae. But amid the welter of dissension, there is a broad general consensus that the music reached an extraordinary peak of artistry in the first half of the twentieth century, just in time for the recording industry to document some of the world's finest and most expressive singing. The three items under consideration in this review encompass some seventy or eighty years of Indian musical history, from the heyday of 78 rpm discs to the modern world of digital video.

The 78 rpm disc imposed a number of limitations on Hindustani performers, most importantly that of time: the three-minute running time of the ten-inch gra mophone record called on singers to accomplish miracles of condensation: a common full-length performance could run anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours! Some artists prepared themselves for the challenge by practicing their short-form performances rigorously for months prior to recording, while others seem to have understood the nature of the medium intuitively, unleashing brilliant miniature after brilliant miniature with no more than a few minutes' reflection between items.

cd cover Ustad Faiyaaz Khan (1880-1950) was most at home in the darbar halls of emperors; his regal presence is vividly recalled by older listeners. He seems utterly relaxed in this set of recordings from (I believe) the 1930s; his invention is palpably spontaneous, which means that the music continues to be surprising and fresh after multiple reissues on cassette and LP in India. Even people who already have all the material on this disc will enjoy this reissue, though. Nicely remastered with a warm reverb, from clean originals, it's a fine introduction to an artist whose singing is considered a pinnacle of traditional artistry.

Highlights abound. Among my personal favorites are "Tadpat hoon jaise jal bina mina" ("I am distressed, a fish out of water") in the morning raga Lalit; Faiyaaz Khan's mastery of melodic variation is evident from the first flourishes, and his repeated ascent to the upper tonic is a marvel of intonation. While not particularly fast, his rapid melismatic passages are presented with a power and grandeur that present-day singers can admire but never duplicate. The beautiful romantic song "Chalo Kahe" in raga Bhairavi is an excellent example of Faiyaaz' handling of lighter material, full of conversational lyricism and tenderness. Oddly, the liner notes state that on this and several other items, "a suggestion of yodelling" is heard. Nothing of the sort occurs. While Faiyaaz Khan was indisputably a master vocalist, yodelling is not part of Hindustani vocal technique. "Jhan Jhan Jhan Payal Baje" in raga Nat Bihag is one of the most famous of Faiyaaz Khan's recordings, and justifiably so, his rhythmic variations are incredibly exciting. I could go on, but really, it's absurd to select individual items when the entire corpus is so magnificent. Absolutely delightful; they don't make singers like that anymore.

cd cover When the LP record arrived in India in the 1950s, it became possible to record at greater length, and the requirements of brevity became less stringent. While he had recorded a great many 78 rpm discs, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's singing was well-served by the new medium. Ghulam Ali, younger than Faiyaaz Khan, was in many respects less of a hard-core traditionalist. Known for virtuosity, speed and lyricism, he was sometimes criticized for playing to the gallery, sacrificing canonical constraints on raga development for the sake of applause. Less euphemistically, he was a bit of a showoff. This disc, a documentation of a live performance, was released on LP in the 1960s. Ghulam Ali's exhibitionistic tendencies are somewhat muted; the performance of the night raga Behag is relatively restrained. That said, the operative word is "relatively," as this performance is still loaded with the rapid-fire "taan" passages and complex note combinations which typified Ghulam Ali's style. Accompanied with great understanding by his son, the underrated Munawwar Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali (the prefix "Bade" is an honorific meaning "great," a reference both to his brilliance and his size) gives Behag a detailed exposition which is cut short after just under thirty minutes; a typical performance would include a fast song in the same raga, but we get a fade-out instead.

The lengthy treatment of Behag is followed by a "thumri" (romantic song) which is described as being in "Mishra Behag" (a variant in which other notes and raga phrasings are included). This is a misprint, it's a perfectly nice thumri in the popular raga Desh. The liner notes describe the thumri as "revealing shades of Desh," an understatement if ever there was one; there is not a shade of Behag to be heard anywhere on this piece. If my memory serves me, the original LP did include a Mishra Behag thumri, but it's nowhere to be found on this disc.

This CD is pleasant listening, but an inadequate introduction to the artistry of one of Hindustani music's great singers. I would recommend one of the compilations of Bade Ghulam Ali's 78 rpm discs currently available from the Gramophone Company of India for those seeking a good first exposure to this brilliant artist.

cd cover Finally, we come to a contemporary singer with close ties to the lineage of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay comes from Calcutta, where she learned with Pandit Chinmoy Lahiri and Ustad Munawwar Ali Khan, noted above as the son of Bade Ghulam Ali. This package is more than just a CD; it includes a video disc with almost an hour of concert and interview footage. The music is fine. Chatterjee plays straightforward tabla patterns with little variation (a great help for vocalists), and Saibal Bandyopadhyay, the singer's husband, provides understated harmonium accompaniment. The whole production is a family affair; Chatterjee is also credited with the liner notes and his contact information in Europe and India is listed on the back cover.

Bandyopadhyay also sings a long rendition of raga Behag, and gives it the same leisurely treatment it received from Bade Ghulam Ali several decades before. Her voice is clear and well-modulated, though occasionally strident in the highest register. She handles the glacially-paced "bada khyal" (slow song) with aplomb, developing the raga carefully before moving into rapid improvisations in open vowels and the Indian solfege syllables. The fast composition which follows is revealed to be a composition of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (possibly the one we missed from the truncated LP reissue described above) by the incorporation of his nom-de-plume "Sabrang" in the final lines of song text. Many of the note patterns and improvisations show a great debt to Ghulam Ali. This is both a blessing and a curse; this heavily flourished style is so attractive that many singers have chosen epigonization as a career path rather than finding their own approaches. Whlie Bandyopadhyay is not a slavish imitator, I have the sense that she finds the master's shadow a long one. Some of the rapid taan passages, while admirably executed, seem so at odds with the timbre of her voice in the slower improvisations that one wonders for a second who the other singer is. The following items include a short khyal in the compound raga JogKauns and two devotional songs. The JogKauns is lovely; the singer's voice is at ease and the emotional shades of the two ragas Jog and Chandrakauns are evoked, contrasted and synthesized. The taan passages seem more unified and stylistically consistent. There is a startling change in the ambient reverb less than a minute before the end of the piece which suggests a digital edit. The two bhajans are nicely sung with careful attention to text and expression. Bandyopadhyay composed the music for both, setting lyrics by Guru Nanak (in the intervallically tense raga Sohini) and Saint Mirabai.

The accompanying VCD fleshes out the performance and gives insights into Bandyopadhyay's training, the meaning of some of the song texts, and Indian musical culture in general. A substantial part of the video shows Sankhen Chatterjee demonstrating and discussing tabla solo; we watch a tabla-maker building one of the tuned drums, there is a clip of Sangeeta singing another devotional song, and we finish with an unanticipated bonus: Chatterjee accompanying the marvellous sitarist Manilal Nag. As far as I know the combination of CD and VCD is a new one in the relatively conservative world of Indian classical recordings. This is welcome material, a nice concept and a nice execution.

It's unfair in some ways to combine these three CDs into one review; the monumentality of Faiyaaz Khan's singing is overwhelming to the others. Bade Ghulam Ali has been better represented elsewhere, and Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay is early in her career in a performance culture that has changed immeasurably since the days that Faiyaaz Khan's voice made the lanterns flicker in the courts of princes and maharajas. Would that we could see and hear that on a video disc! - Warren Senders

CD available from cdRoots

Comment on this music or the web site.
Write a Letter to the Editor

Looking for More Information?

return to rootsworld

© 2005 RootsWorld. No reproduction of any part of this page or its associated files is permitted without express written permission.

World Music: