Shafqat Amanat Ali, classically trained Pakistani singer, talks about his journey to popular music and why he loves South Indian food

For a Delhiite, the prospect of meeting someone in Gurgaon always seems tiring. The routine and not-so-routine traffic jams reported day in and day out by one and all at the Gurgaon-Delhi toll plaza are at the root of this apprehension. On the day we are supposed to meet Shafqat Amanat Ali, however, fortune smiles, as the toll point gets dismantled after a settlement between the three stake-holders. And lo and behold, one reaches before time!

We are meeting at SEN5ES, the all-day dining area at Pullman Gurgaon Central Park, an amiable setting whose walls are adorned with art pieces and windows offer a pleasant view of the vivid greenery outside.

Shafqat Amanat Ali is a Pakistani composer, lyricist and trained classical singer of Patiala Gharana, which goes back many generations (starting with Ustad Jarnail Ali Baksh). He was encouraged to sing from the age of four. Having first been trained by his grandfather, Ustad Akhtar Hussain Khan Saheb, his tutelage passed on to his uncle Bade Fateh Ali Khan. Though the formal training was provided by elders, his grandmother ensured he did riyaz (practice), honing his voice and ensuring it did not fall to disuse. The matriarch also inculcated in him the sense of respect for elders, humility, “tehzeeb” and narrated stories about the forefathers. She drilled into him the idea that “you become famous to have your head in the cloud but with your feet firmly placed on the ground,” Shafqat recalls.

Having ordered chicken tikka, the artist settles down for a chat. He states that one has to take care of many facets in classical rendition, such as sur, tempo, shape and contour of the raga and time span of the composition whereas while rendering popular numbers one has to be melodious and ensure that the listener is entertained and his attention focused – with, of course, improvisations playing an important part. Admitting that the classical drill in his formative years made switching to singing melodies and non-classical songs easier, the singer says he did not find it difficult to switch back to the traditional style for the same reason. His first song was “Aakhon kay sagar”.

Did he have any inhibitions in changing his genre? “No, as film songs and popular numbers were never looked down upon in my family,” says Shafqat. Talking about classical style versus the popular songs, he says singers of a particular style tend to look down upon those hailing from a new style and elaborates his point by giving the example of how practitioners of Dhrupad style found Khayal singers unappealing to musical sensibilities.

The chef arrives with chicken tikka, which looks quite appetising. Shafqat takes small portions, relishing each bite. He clearly enjoys food — especially the home-cooked variety, he reveals a little later. Any favourites? “No, I like all types of cuisine and like eating local food of the place I am visiting.” He is all praise for the kadhai gosht, available at the famous Lakshmi Chowk in Lahore, where he resides with his family.

As a regular visitor to India, which cuisine does he prefer here? “Idli, dosa, sambhar….the South Indian cuisine…The food and the cooking style in the northern part of the India and in Pakistan are quite similar, like ingredients, spices, garnishing, cooking methods, etc, whereas the food from southern part of India can be enjoyed only when visiting this country.”

Describing the music scene in Pakistan as going through “a bad patch”, he attributes it to Talibansation, issues concerning security in the civil society, non-availability of platforms for new singers and of course the universal bane of creativity – piracy. “The music is still managing to survive with not many singers going for classical stream as it leads to frugal existence,” says Shafqat, adding that the popular genre “ensures fame and the moolah”.

Well, the conversation halts briefly with the chef serving premviera pizza layered with mozzarella cheese replete with bell peppers, mushrooms, baby tomatoes, snow peas, artichokes and asparagus. Savouring it, Shafqat reveals that he can make pizzas provided all the ingredients of his choice are available, and that at times he makes chicken steak too.

Settling with the black coffee served with cream on side, Shafqat remarks that cultural exchanges will ensure normalisation of relations between the two countries as people on either side love music and adore the artistes of both countries. When quizzed if he still gets butterflies in the stomach before a performance, he says: “No, I am relaxed but at the same time not laidback. I am serious about it and ensure that the show is good.” At that moment, he is gently reminded by a young lady that he is running late for his next appointment. With a warm handshake he bids goodbye, rounding off a pleasant evening.

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