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Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan

Updated: May 31, 2023

Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind, Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres Of sky and sea It was his voice that made The sky acutest at its vanishing – Wallace Stevens

After some tumultuous years of incessant political wrangling, the subcontinent was cruising towards attaining Swaraj and getting rid of the foreign throne. Concomitantly, there was someone who was ascending the throne, along with his brother, on the spatial lawn of a Mughal-era building in Lahore. It was an awe-inspiring royal evening arranged by a connoisseur of classical music Pandit Jeevanlal Matoo. People flocked to attend the coronation ceremony, and when Ustad Amanat Ali Khan swirled a taan of Bhairvi in the air, the crowd came to its feet, and a tremendous uproar of appreciation and enthusiasm lost itself in the high-pitched vocals of Khan sb; only the notes of Ustad's repertoire were scattered in the air. The finesse of the master of Patiala Gharana announced itself to the world on a large stage.

Amanat Ali Khan was born in 1922 in a small town near Hoshiyarpur in Undivided Punjab. Patiala Gharana is among the most revered eight gharanas of Indian classical music. This house traces its lineage back to when Ali Bakhsh General and Fateh Ali Colonel earned their mark in the darbars of 19th-century British India. The Viceroy Lord Elgin conferred the titles of 'General' and 'Colonel' (1862-1863).

Ustad Amanat took initial education and training under the tutelage of his father Akhtar Ali Khan. He was trained along with his brother Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, and this pair is still dubbed one of this land's finest classical duos. Ustad Sahab joined the court of Maharaja of Patiala Yadvindra Singh in his teens and recorded electrifying performances, earning him a huge audience and fame later. The Amanat-Fateh duo also performed before Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and secured invaluable tips and colossal praise from the maestro.

Ustad Amanat immersed himself in the learning of the classical tradition of ‘Khayal’ (a Persian word which means imagination and thought. Sultan Hussain Sharqi founded this peculiar style of singing) and 'Thumri' (derived from the word Thumknaa which means "to walk with a dancing gait in such a way that the ankle-bells tinkle"). He was saddled with this humongous responsibility to carry the rich tradition of his family.

Ghazal gaiki (singing) was not appreciated in those times by classical giants, and anyone venturing into ghazal gaiki was considered a deviant; hence, he was destined to lose his reputable status in the family. Khan sahab started with Khayal gaiki but with the advent of film music and dwindling numbers of classical music devotees - Khayal gaiki was (still is) a luxury not afforded and appreciated by everyone - the classical giants started yielding to the whims of market forces.

Before the partition, the scenario was different. Princely states effectively and efficiently ran patronage systems that nourished art and music, and many gharanas flourished in that era. The shahi darbars (royal courts), like the court of Kabul under King Zahir Shah, and Kathmandu operated not only as centers of musical performances but also sanctuaries for such artists. Such avenues kept classical music alive for decades, and with them vanishing due to the 1947 partition, the drawing of borders sprang up a plethora of challenges for musicians.

As Sarwat Ali writes, “The compulsion of the cultural identity of a new state drove implicitly the carriage of crafting a separate identity than that of India.” This quest for a separate identity forced some alterations in the music genre of Pakistan. Faced with the dried-up resources of appreciation and a dearth of devotees, Amanat Ali Khan turned to ghazal gaiki and other light forms of singing. It was the decade when a range of vocalists was touching new heights of popularity. Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Parvez Mehdi, Ghulam Ali, and Mehdi Hassan were the dominant voices in the genre of ghazal singing. In the words of Meer Taqi Meer,

Ishq ik Meer bhaari pathar hai Kab yeh tujh na-tawa’n se uthta hai (Love is a real burden, Meer, it is a heavy stone how can it be lifted by a weak person alone?)

Nevertheless, Amanat Ali Khan was determined to lift this heavy stone. He carved a mark of himself in this domain with poignant ghazals like "Dil me Meethe Meethe Dard ke Phool Khilay," penned by Razi Tirmazi. He sang with a serene voice, as with close eyes one goes on a pilgrimage; the harmonium notes intertwined with the melodious vocals possess the enormous power to hypnotize the audience. And when he intoned Zaheer Kashmiri’s “Mausam badla, Rutt gadrai,” the Majnuns must have torn their collars apart in the madness of love. His vocals behind Ghalib's verses "Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat" infuse a dose of melancholy in the air as one glide through the never-ending torment of Hijr (separation) and victoriously sacrifices oneself at the altar of fate.

The mellifluous rendition of "Meri Dastan e Hasrat Woh Suna Suna ke Roye" fills tears in the eyes as Ustad Ji narrates the tale of defeat in love, punctuating it with the notes of Surmandel. "Kabhi sarr jhuka k roye, kabhi mou chupa k roye”

His enthralling recitation of "Yeh Aarzu Thi, Tujhe Gul k Ru-baru Karty" is forever etched as a wish which would remain unfulfilled for eternity. He possessed unparalleled skills in the renditions of thumri, khayal, tarana, and ghazal. He was an artiste in the traditional mold who belonged to the generation of magicians whose spells are now the memory of the bygone glorious days. Muhammad Taqi writes, “At highest, Ustad would merge his pitch with the harmonium like a high-flying seagull soar and then eventually dives into the water.”

Ustaad Amanat Ali Khan intoned Patiala gharana’s signature raga, “Ram Saakh” with pure devotion to Khawaja Moinuddin Ajmeri, claiming an unmatchable finesse. The national song "Aye Watan Pyare Watan" has carved a permanent place in the annals of history, and the coming generations of this land will continue to hum it on their lips. During his twilight days, depression descended upon him. Not long before his misery continued to evolve and death approached, that too in his zenith. As “Insha ji, utho ab kooch karo is shehar me ji ko lagana kya” echoed in our ears, we lost him in his prime in the autumn of 1974.


This blog has been contributed by one of our favorite regular contributors, Punnu Khan.

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