K Asif's obsession forced Bade Ghulam Ali to sing for a Hindi film

The director who wouldn't take no for an answer faced an immovable mountain in the venerable ustad from the Patiala gharana. It would have been an impasse but for an outrageous concession from Asif. On Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's 115th birth anniversary, we look at the episode that forced him to break his vow never to sing for films.

Shriram Iyengar

Few directors in Hindi cinema have possessed a keener ear for music than K Asif. The man whom Sanjay Leela Bhansali is sometimes compared to was an avid listener of Hindustani classical, and well trained in the nuances of ragas. It was this musical inclination, and an attention to detail, that led him to choose composer Naushad as the music director for Mughal-e-Azam.

Though he was untrained in classical music, Naushad was a prodigy whose skill had already been appreciated by giants of Hindustani music like Pandit DV Paluskar. He was a natural talent who learned through interaction and practice, but never became a shishya (disciple) of anyone.

Naushad had used Paluskar in Baiju Bawra (1952), earning the great man's praise. For Asif, though, things had to be bigger, and better. 

Mughal-e-Azam director K Asif

Having created the Mughal court of Akbar the Great's era, Asif considered it sacriligeous to leave out any indication of the great singer Tansen. He indicated to Naushad that he wished to have Tansen sing at the celebration of prince Salim's birth. Happy to acquiesce, Naushad suggested Ustad Amir Khan for the task.

The composer had previously worked with the ustad in Baiju Bawra (1952) and was confident of getting him. But Asif was not keen. "Does he sing better than Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan," he asked. "No, it has to be Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan."

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was a living legend by then. His range, control and knowledge of ragas were such that his fans extended from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In an age devoid of social media, the craze that the ustad created among Hindustani music fans was unparalleled. From Noorjehan to Lata Mangeshkar, singers of the highest calibre waited upon the master whose speciality was the imaginative and versatile art of 'khayal gayaki'. 

There was one little problem, however. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan refused to sing for films. A student of the legendary Ustad Kale Khan, the singer considered cinema to be beneath the art of singing.

K Asif was not one to be easily dissuaded, however. He joined Naushad on a trip to visit the ustad at his home. In an interview, composer Naushad recalled the strange incident. He said the legend answered with a blunt no to the request. Asif countered by saying, "Gaana to aap ko hi gaana padega ustad [You must sing the song, sir]." For someone unused to such obstinacy, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan wondered if the director was a mad man. He was the not the first one to have that doubt.

While Bade Ghulam Ali might have been unfamiliar with Asif's obtuse character, Naushad was not. The composer had agreed to Mughal-e-Azam after a heated fight with his director. Asif had reportedly approached Naushad offering him a briefcase full of money for the film. A proud man who never created music for money, Naushad reportedly threw the briefcase out the window and refused to work with the director ever again. It took all of the diplomatic skills of Naushad's wife to bring the two together. 

Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the obstinate director, Bade Ghulam Ali agreed to sing, but on one condition. He told Asif he would charge Rs10,000 for one song. It was staggering. Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, the crown jewels of Hindi cinema's playback army, were charging Rs500 a song in those days. The ustad was asking for 20 times the going rate for the best.

Before Bade Ghulam Ali could consider changing his mind, Asif walked up to the table and placed Rs1,000 as advance and offered to pay the rest on the day of recording. The flabbergasted ustad was pinned down.

The ustad eventually sang not one but two songs for Mughal-e-Azam. 'Prem Jogan Ban Ke', composed in raag Sohni, and 'Shubh Din Aayo' in raag Rageshree.

The raags used for both songs are of particular importance. For 'Prem Jogan Ban Ke', Naushad used raag Sohni, a particular favourite of the great Tansen himself. A pre-dawn raag, Tansen would often sing it between 3 am and 6 am to welcome the rising sun. It was symbolic of the rise of prince Salim. Naushad had the ustad sing this number.

The second was a song that was the ustad's personal favourite. A master of the 'khayal gayaki' form, Bade Ghulam Ali embodied the free flow and vocals that dominated this song. Naushad let the magic flow, embellishing it with as little music as possible.

Yet, the final victory was K Asif's. His stubbornness, passion and craze for filmmaking immortalised him in cinematic history. While these songs by Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did not become popular, it was a testament to Asif's perfectionism that he had to get one legendary singer to be the voice of another, Tansen. The director would not have settled on anything less.