On 3 March 2021, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan would have turned 90: forty-five days shy, he passed away for his heavenly abode leaving the world of Hindustani classical music drowned in deep sadness.
A legendary vocalist, the Ustad belonged to the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana (in Uttar Pradesh) that had its roots traceable to the ancient period of classical singing and Mian Tansen. During his illustrious life time, he was studded with several laurels like Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan. However, it was his persona that brought glory to these awards rather than the other way around.
India should have the utmost regard for him as the brightest symbol of continuity of Hindutva. He belonged to a cluster of families and the lineage that were deeply engaged in shastriya gayeeki (classical vocal rendering) derived from the Sama Veda. In the Sanatana Hindu tradition the Sama Veda or "The song of Knowledge'' is one of four Vedas that had a rich compilation of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, mantras and verses intended to be sung in praise of gods and goddesses epitomizing knowledge or power.
This rich tradition was brutally ravaged by the Islamist invaders who brought much of Hindustan under their rule. The practitioners of Sama Veda, mostly members of upper caste Hindus who survived entirely on the material support given to them by the rulers, were forced to convert into Islam.
Now, notice the tenacity and genius of this class of scholar-musicians to which the forefathers of Ghulam Mustafa Khan belonged: Despite coerced into embracing Islam, they kept on practicing the Sama Veda. We find its expressions when Khan saheb renders several variants of raag Yaman or chants in praise of lord Shankar-Mahadev. His spiritualism hits home when he shows his absolute command over raag Saraswati or raag Durga.
If Khan saheb and his family had turned really Islamist-Muslim, he would have eschewed obeisance to the Hindu gods and goddesses since idol/image worship was the first thing strictly prohibited in Islam. In certain Islamic faiths and practices, even music or singing are forbidden.
Instead, he retained his Hindutva and blended devotional compositions or renderings of Muslim saints and fakirs also into the broad Hindustani classical music.
The maestro, therefore, embodied the real definition of Hindutva every Hindustani Muslim must appreciate and embrace. His life story carries a message to nearly 20 million Muslims of India that they didn’t have any reason to be alarmed or misled by the politicized and divisive interpretation of Hindutva.
Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan had deep ties with Bihar. He was consistently invited to Hindustani classical music events in different places of Bihar. He admired the taste of the listeners of Bihar and their understanding of classical music.
Bihar too was a seat of this tradition and contributed gharanas of musicians nurtured by and named after the former zamindars/maharajas. To point to a few spots, the Dhrupad gayeeki of Pundit Ram Chatur Mullick emerged from and came to be identified as Darbhanga gharana. Another Dhrupad tradition was associated with Bettiah gharana. The father of Ustad Bismillah Khan (shehnai) was a musician employed by the zamindar of Dumraon.
On a personal level, Khan saheb was a close friend and mentor of my eldest cousin brother from mother's side, Surendra Kumar. Himself a singer and a former Patna University Students Union leader, Surendra Kumar migrated to England in the 60’s and maintained his valued relationship with the maestro. As a family member, Khan saheb, on his visits to London, always stayed with Surendra Kumar. Our German-British bhabhi, Linda, would play host to him.
In the late 70's, I had a memorable opportunity to be among the front row listeners to Khan saheb’s vocal session in Patna. The venue was the Salimpur Ahra (Exhibition Road) house of Surendra Kumar and the occasion was the wedding of his younger brother. Coincidently, Khan Saheb had a concert in Ranchi two days after the wedding. Surendra bhaiya requested Khan Saheb to make his way to Ranchi through Patna and grace the occasion of his brother's wedding. Khan Saheb willingly obliged.
It was during this stay of Khan Saheb I had a memorable brief interaction with him. I was a delighted attendant designated in the service of Khan Saheb. One of the duties, I remember, I had was to hold a towel and a bucket of water with a jug as he came out of the outdoor washroom.
Early next morning, during his chat with Khan Saheb over tea, Surendra bhaiya pointed at me and remarked, "..aur ye bahut sureela bhi hai (..and he's very musical too)." I recall Khan Saheb flashed a sweet and graceful smile at me. The same afternoon we escorted him to the Patna airport for his flight to Ranchi.
Tall, handsome, dressed in a prince coat with the carry-on surmandal (the support musical instrument with strings) in his hand, he waved at us from the deck before boarding the plane. That’s the last lingering memory I have of him.
I had nourished a desire all these years to call on him, if I ever got to visit Mumbai. Alas, it didn't happen.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.