Malti Gilani recalls Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was as good a cook as he was a guru
The finer things of life appeal to veteran vocalist Malti Gilani. So when she walks into Dakshin, the South Indian speciality fine dining restaurant in the premises of WelcomHotel, New Delhi (Sheraton New Delhi) in Saket, she is all admiration for the restaurant's quiet décor, with its doors in carved wood and its matching menu with wooden covers resembling the portal of a temple.
Well known as a vocalist of the Kasur-Patiala gharana of Hindustani music, in which she specialised under the legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, she began her career in the holistic art environs of Santiniketan. There she learnt dance, music as well as painting.
In her youth she used to create batik works for a boutique, she relates, until she realised the fumes from melting wax were inimical to a career vocalist. It is a bitterly cold day and Maltiji is wrapped in a warm if exquisite sari whose sheen belies its decades-old history. When the boutique wanted to pay her for the work, she recalls, she asked them to gift her this artistic sari instead!
“In Santiniketan we had to wear Indian clothes, everything was Indian,” she recalls. Beauty and indigenous crafts bring effulgence to her dignified demeanour.
But Dakshin's menu cannot be merely admired. It has to be tasted. Trying out the starters and a steaming cup of rasam, she says though she hails from Rawalpindi (in today's Pakistan), where non-vegetarianism was the norm, her grandfather, being an Arya Samaj follower, prompted the family to be vegetarian.
From Dakshin's spread representing the four states of South India appear fish moilee and two kinds of chicken, besides vegetarian stew and appam, and four delicious chutneys. The veteran artiste is all praise for the food, remarking how limited the common perception of South Indian food is, with its stress on iddli and dosai.
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had two great passions, she says: “Gaana aur khaana (singing and food).” He was a great and fond cook, though when she began learning advanced vocal music from him, he was already paralysed and could no longer cook. However, he retained his zest for life, was a generous host and instructed his wife, Allah Rakhi, in matters culinary.
As sambar and toran, with an array of vegetables, stews and the delicately done fish moilee create a sumptuously colourful platter, she regales us with tales of her guru's love of good food. In his earlier years, a canister of ghee was always a part of his luggage when on concert tours. “When it (the ghee) was finished, he would say ‘Chal Naitha, ab ghee khatam ho gaya, waapas chalein. (The ghee is finished, let's head home.)' His tabla player was named Naitha — he was a great cook too,” she relates.
Khan Saheb's photographs show him as a formidable presence with a handlebar moustache that hides the seemingly soft heart his disciples speak of. He even resembles a traditional wrestler. “He was short and very well built,” concedes his disciple. “He used to do a lot of kasrat (exercise) and he was very particular about his food. His wife would make something special every day, like karela gosht, or kachnaar gosht.”
When food was cooked in the house, it was never less than a large handi full that would feed whoever came to visit.
As his disciple she not only has his cherished compositions but also a recipe or two. “I used to cook a lot, but now I don't really go into the kitchen much,” admits the founder of the Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Yaadgar Sabha. “I used to make taazi gobhi, matar — not very rich food.” Then she recalls her special hara murgh — fresh coriander and chicken — which she learnt from her guru's wife, Allah Rakhi.
There is art of then and art of now. Tasting a spoonful of the badaam halwa, Maltiji casts her vote. “But I must say, today's meal is one of the nicest I've had.”
That's a compliment worth treasuring, from one who has tasted the best!