One morning, groggy from sleep, when I picked up the newspaper, all that I expected to find in the headlines were the usual statements from the powers that be and news about the same beaten down politicians – the customary rubbish about capitalists, feudals, industrialists, bureaucrats and the rest of them. So, I thought that I should update myself on world events and happenings and also pick up a few topics of discussion to impress my cronies that evening.
But the newspaper had other tidings for me. The meaning of a couplet that I had read when I had just begun paying attention to Urdu poetry hit me with full force. I had almost forgotten the lines. Perhaps one reason for this was my limited knowledge of Urdu poetry and the other was that I had until that moment not experienced something so profound as to be able to understand the real impact of that piece of poetry.
Blankly staring at a single headline, I was engulfed by an unending flood of sighs and tears. Time started moving in reverse as I recalled all that had ensued in the past weeks, months and years. My memories stopped at a point about seventeen or eighteen years back. It was the month of April. A street led from the Ghanta Ghar in Faisalabad straight past the residence of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and into blind alleys both to the left and right – perhaps replicating the artistic traditions of the city of Faisalabad and its artistes.
A two-day All Pakistan Music Conference was being held in memory of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. Leading lights of the world of music from all over Pakistan were participating. As is the tradition at such events, the lesser or younger performers come on stage first and are then followed by the senior ones. On the second night of the conference, when all others had performed, the name of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan was announced as the crowning piece of the musical gala.
The night had begun morphing into the early hours of the morning. Khan Saheb commenced by delicately strumming the strings of his sur mandal. Ustad Shaukat Ali Khan was also on stage to provide accompaniment on the tabla. After a few introductory remarks, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan commenced the alaap and laid out a musical profile of the raag he was planning to present. As he steadily refined and embellished the notes, Ustad Shaukat Ali Khan struck ek taal on his tabla. He did it so beautifully that it seemed as if the hearts of all those present that night were throbbing in unison with the magical beat. As the performance floated forward with each sur, Khan Saheb took bairaagi to the level of nikhad and, switching from sa, began playing with nikhad, rakab and panjam with such dexterity that I started trembling in an uncontrollable manner, completely fascinated by the magical spell that pervaded my senses.
The entire pindal was jampacked. There were leading luminaries from the world of music as well as smaller lights. One noticed real connoisseurs frozen in their tracks on hearing the beautiful notes wafting down the stage. Almost everyone was weeping and showering Khan Saheb with expressions of deep affection and good wishes. Seated where I was, I thanked Almighty God for His blessings and for the great performer that had been gifted to us.
The newspaper of July 12, 2001, had brought the sad news of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan Saheb’s passing away. It was then that I fully grasped what the poet said:
Badalta hai rang yeh jahan kaise kaise
Zameen kha gai aasman kaise kaise