Ustadon ke Ustad: Meet the legendary music teacher Bollywood’s top singers swear by
The name Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan might not mean much to you – except for the fact that it was he who taught most of our music celebs to sing right.Updated: Apr 14, 2019 18:16 IST
In the green room at the studio, singers Shaan and Sonu Nigam are chatting over chai and sandwiches. But they shush each other often, so the person downstairs is not disturbed by their chatter.
Downstairs, an older man is tuning his sur bahar. He is supposed to just pose with the instrument, but the octogenarian won’t budge until the sur bahar is on the right pitch. Then he faces the camera. His son, Rabbani, suggests he take off his hearing aid. But without that he is unable to hear the photographer’s instructions.
Hariharan, who has just walked in, puts the flurried old man at ease. Soon his fingers strum the sur bahar and he breaks into a bandish. The mood is set.
Family before films
It is not every day that you get Sonu Nigam, Hariharan, and Shaan, three extremely busy singers, under the same roof. “But if Papa asks them to do something, they can’t possibly say no!” laughs Rabbani. Who is this man who makes India’s music celebs jump to his will?
“I had a greater responsibility in upholding and carrying forward the legacy of our gharana... Paisa bohut kuch hai, par sab kuch nahi” –Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan
Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, 88, is these three celebs’ music guru. His students also include Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, A.R. Rahman, and even Lata Mangeshkar. You would expect the person who has trained such great singers to be pompous. But Ustadji stumps you with his humility. When we mention Lata Mangeshkar, he says, “She was losing confidence. I just helped her out a little, that’s about it.” Prod him to share some anecdotes and all he says is: “Beta, gaana gaate gaate aur memories kahan reh jaati hai (When you are busy singing over the years, you lose track of memories)!”
In A Dream I Lived Alone, Ustadji’s biography written by his daughter-in-law, Namrata Gupta Khan, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain credits him for his first ever recording as a classical musician: “I remember going for the recording in my school uniform, carrying the tablas in my arms…,” he’s quoted as saying.
But all this praise, and even the popularity of his students, seem hardly of any consequence to this man. “I am a teacher and it brings me immense joy to see my students excel in their work,” he says.
He himself seldom sang playback. “I had a greater responsibility in upholding and carrying forward the legacy of our gharana,” says the Padma Vibhushan awardee. “I sang a few songs and some became rather popular but I had my family’s name to live up to. Paisa bohut kuch hai, par sab kuch nahi (money is important but not everything).”
His first playback was a Marathi song. “As I reached the studio I overheard someone saying: ‘You have called a classical singer and now see how much time he will take to do his warm up exercises’. I went in and promptly started recording. It was okayed in one take. Even the music director was surprised. I told him that mera gala hamesha garam rehta hai (my throat is always warmed up)!” He laughs and adds: “A good artist is always prepared.”
He also sang for a few Gujarati and Hindi films. “I got many offers but I am a traditional artist. My forefathers dedicated their entire lives to develop our gharana. It is my duty to maintain that tradition,” says Ustadji.
Born to sing
Born in Badaun on March 3, 1931, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan literally started singing before he started to talk. “The story goes that I was two years old and had still not spoken a word. I was supposed to carry on the legacy of the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana. The family had started fearing the worst.
“But my father Ustad Waris Hussain Khan sahab would put me on his chest, face down, and sing to me. Slowly, I started to sing back to him, although I would still not speak words!”
As soon as he started speaking, his parents started his classical music training. “My training was whatever my father and my tauji (Ustad Fida Hussain Khan) taught me, and the orders of my ustadji (Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan). Whatever field you are in, guru ka hukum maanna zaroori hai (it’s necessary to obey the guru).”
His parents were serious about his training. “My dad had standing instructions for our neighbours that if anyone saw me out and about, they were to drag me back home to do my riyaz,” recalls Ustadji. “My mom was also very strict. She wouldn’t hesitate to complain to my dad if I slacked in my riyaz.
“My teachers were stern as well. Once, my teacher, Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan sahab, saw that I was straining my eyes while singing. He threatened to lash me if I kept distorting my face while singing. He then put a mirror in front of me so I could keep a check on myself. Now when I sing, I sit in padmasan and don’t move at all. Now I realise how their strict orders helped me become what I am today,” he says.
Talk about it
But he could be quite a rebel. In those days, student musicians were part of their guru’s family, and were assigned daily chores. “I must have been about 14 when I ran away from home,” recalls Ustadji. “I was so consumed by my love for music that these other activities had started to really bother me.”
He took a bus to the small town of Sitapur. “The zamindar there was my grandfather’s disciple.” And he stayed there and practised music until he got a call from Radio Lucknow.
“I am a teacher and it brings me immense joy to see my students excel in their work” –Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan
In her book, Namrata meticulously records the eventful life of the maestro. “It took me five years to get all the material for the book!” exclaims Namrata. “Unlike other members of the family, I was not in awe of him. No one else in the house would ever dare to ask him about his girlfriends and affairs …which he never had! Papa knows very well that I have no reference points and I will not be judgmental. But I had to actually bully him into telling me stuff.”
The teacher, the student
Today Ustadji is one of the most revered classical music gurus in the country. But he says that an ustad is first and foremost a student. “The real teacher, the biggest teacher is Allah, he keeps imparting knowledge and that is what keeps you going,” he says firmly.
“She (Lata Mangeshkar)was losing confidence. I just helped her out a little, that’s about it” –Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan
His approach to teaching is similar to that of a doctor. “I diagnose who is lacking in what, and train them to fix that,” he says. He stresses that riyaz is the ultimate solution for every singing-related issue. “Jaldi ka kaam shaitaan ka kaam (haste makes waste),” he says. But he also points out that although training hones one’s voices, “learning is not about memorising the notes and the ragas, but reaching a better understanding of those.”
Unlike some classical musicians, Ustadji is open to all kinds of music. “I have sung in movies. I have sung for the radio. I have sung ghazals and bhajans. If your base is strong, you can do any kind of singing for any medium,” he says. “Any kind of music is music and I have no qualms about any form enjoying more popularity than another. I don’t object to film music at all.”
But he rues the fact that the audience for classical music in India is dwindling. “Outside India, the audiences are a bit more appreciative of Indian classical music,” he says. “I remember one concert in Paris where I had to come back to the stage 12 times on audience request! In India, attending a classical concert is becoming a status symbol. A major chunk of the audience is not composed of music lovers but musician lovers.”
“If you are capable of pulling off a classical concert, why won’t you be able to do fusion? Times change and one needs to change with time!” –Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan
In 2013, the ustad, along with his sons, Murtuza Mustafa, Qadir Mustafa, Rabbani Mustafa, Hasan Mustafa, and grandson, Faiz Mustafa came together for a Coke Studio session that was composed and produced by his student A.R. Rahman. “If a person can write a thesis but is not able to write a letter, then he must have cheated while writing the thesis! If you are capable of pulling off a classical concert, why won’t you be able to do fusion?” he exclaims. “Times change and one needs to change with time!”
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From HT Brunch, April 15, 2019
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