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Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the ‘Tansen’ who demanded & got Rs 25,000 per song for Mughal-e-Azam

On his 51st death anniversary, ThePrint traces the journey of classical vocal legend Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who took the Patiala gharana to new heights.

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New Delhi: The most common epithet used to describe Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan is ‘Tansen of the 20th century’. Often referred to as Bade (older) Ghulam Ali Khan to differentiate him from other maestros of the same name, the genius musician was one of the most legendary thumri vocalists of all time, who took the Patiala Gharana, one of the schools of Hindustani classical music, to new heights.

Born in undivided Punjab, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan found his home in India many
years after Partition — he lived in Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad, where he eventually passed away.

Many of today’s youngsters may not be familiar with his heritage, but those
who know their music hail him as one of the greatest vocalists in modern
Indian history.

ThePrint traces the journey of the maestro on his 51st death anniversary.

Starting young

Born on 2 April 1902 in Kasur (now in Pakistan), Bade Ghulam Ali Khan belonged to a family of musicians. He received his early training in vocals from his uncle Kale Khan
— who had been a court singer in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. He also familiarised himself with the sarangi.

Subsequently, he was trained by his father Ali Baksh Khan.

His musical might first became evident when he found an audience for his “all-night riyaaz” in Kasur. His brothers Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Ustad Bharat Ali Khan and Ustad Amanat Ali Khan were also well-known contributors to the Kasur-Patiala gharana.

He got married to a woman named Ali Jiwai, but she died at a young age in 1932.

Also read: Ustad Bismillah Khan, a Muslim who reveled in the sound of shehnai in Varanasi

‘Not been equalled since’

In his book Thumri in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives, scholar Peter Manuel wrote of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as an artist whose “vocal range and technique were extraordinary in themselves, but his greatest virtue was his brilliant sense of melody and nuance; combining these assets, he was able to take thumri to expressive heights which, in the opinion of many, have not been equalled since”.

Manuel said Khan was able to integrate essence “from different styles and genres in his thumris, giving them a distinctly eclectic flavour”.

The Ustad was known to have mastered the art of perfecting music, keeping in mind the audience before which he delivered majestic performances.

In a piece for The Hindu, journalist Jyoti Nair wrote that the Ustad’s trademark was the exceptional emotional work in his singing marked by “romance striking a dominant note”. Those who are familiar with the intricacies of Hindustani classical music rave about his
clear rendition of words in his songs.

Such was his grasp over the form that he kept words undistorted even when on higher pitch levels, speaking of his “well-coordinated voice production”, wrote musicologist Ashok Ranade. He did not lose his quality of singing and melody even when others would have during instances of executing a complex arrangement of consonant sounds in a piece of
music, wrote the musicologist.

“Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib’s gayaki (the art of vocal music) is the synthesis of four gharanas — Agra, Jaipur, Kirana and Gwalior. The transcendental and extensive expansion of the swaras in alap was something divine in his gayaki. He further augmented it with meru khand taans of Kirana, two swar danas of Jaipur and voice structure and voice akaar of Agra and Gwalior,” wrote Nair in her article, quoting vocalist Pt Shantanu Bhattacharayya.

In popular art

While he captivated listeners and viewers at personal and social gatherings, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan never accepted offers to sing in films, until he made one historic exception.

Filmmaker K. Asif approached him to lend his voice for some songs for his epic period drama Mughal-e-Azam (1960), starring the celebrated on-screen duo of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. The Ustad sang two songs for the film after much cajoling — ‘Prem Jogan Ban Ke’ and ‘Shubh Din Aayo’.

This exception came at a tremendous cost — an exorbitant price of Rs 25,000 per song. In comparison, mainstream playback singers like Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar used to be paid Rs 500 per song in those days, as sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan revealed in his book Master on Masters.

The Ustad’s grand daughter-in-law, Samina Ali, once said that he charged the amount so that no one else could approach him for future film projects.

Also read: Ustad Alla Rakha, whom the world hailed as ‘Einstein’ & ‘Picasso’ of the tabla


In 1962, four years after he took Indian citizenship, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was conferred the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

He died on 23 April 1968 in Hyderabad’s Basheer Bagh Palace. He was buried in Daira Mir Momin graveyard in the city, which is known for the burials of some prominent Sufi saints.

For the past three years, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has been organising birth anniversary celebrations in Hyderabad along with the maestro’s family, INTACH’s Hyderabad convener Anuradha Reddy told ThePrint.

Grave of late vocalist Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan
The grave of Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan at Daira Mir Momin in Hyderabad | Anuradha Reddy/INTACH Hyderabad convener

One of the Ustad’s disciples, vocalist Malti Gilani, set up the Bade Ghulam Ali Yaadgar Sabha in his memory soon after his death, looking to provide musicians with financial assistance and also to promote Indian classical music.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of her organisation, Gilani recalled how fond renowned
painter M.F. Husain was of the Ustad. In an article in The Hindu, she wrote: “Husain said, that’s why I like him so much. He sang from the heart.”

Gilani also revealed that Husain and Khan began a music-and-art collaboration when they met in Bombay (now Mumbai). But the Ustad still didn’t have a “hint of ego”, said Gilani, “and that is what makes him live on in our midst so fondly”.

The Ustad’s son, well-known Hindustani classical singer Munawar Ali Khan, carried on his father’s legacy until his death in 1989. His grandsons, Raza Ali Khan, Mazhar Ali Khan, Jawaad Ali Khan and Naqi Ali Khan, have kept the heritage going.

Even composers like A.R. Rahman pay tribute to the Ustad in their mainstream work — for instance, in the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra-directed 2009 film Delhi 6, singer Shreya Ghoshal, along with Rahman, “sang and arranged a beautiful composition of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in Raga Gurjari Todi, called Bhor Bhaye,” Ustad Amjad Ali Khan wrote in his book.

“Thanks to the miracle of technology, a new generation had the chance to hear him too!” the sarod maestro said.

Also read: Pandit Ravi Shankar — the sitar maestro who introduced ragas to the West

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  1. I genuinely have a doubt though, who could possibly have written those lyrics in which he gave vocal life, especially the pieces like Kakaru sanji aaye na balam?
    I’m really concerned

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