A man who lives for his music
Hussain, one of Pakistan's most revered artistes, tells
only someone who is pure of heart can play the flute
His shapely fingers danced on the flute. He blew
carefully, eyes smiling as he looked at me. First, a
soft, single note. Pause. Then a full raga. The clear,
haunting notes filled the functional meeting room,
taking us away into a very different world. A world
dedicated to the pursuit of excellence. In music.
When he finished playing the raga Bhairavi (in praise of
dawn), there was a silence. He put down his favourite
beige-brown-golden flute, smiled and asked, "Did you
like my music?". I could only nod, not having the words
to describe the magic.
And I knew why Ustad Salamat Hussain is Pakistan's most
revered flautist. He makes his flute(s) sing, cry,
laugh, dance. He makes his audience become one with his
Hussain is in Dubai on a private visit. He is a youthful
66 who talks little and smiles more and would much
rather play his flute than answer questions. But as he
talked, slowly, thinking often, a portrait emerged: A
contented man who lives for his music.
"I have always been fascinated by the sound of the
flute, right from the time I was a little boy," he said,
touching his flutes lovingly. "There is a sweetness and
a purity in the notes of the flute. Only someone who is
pure of heart can play the flute well. I feel the bamboo
reed cries when it sings, trying to get closer to God. I
cry with it."
Born in 1937 in Rampur in the Indian state of Uttar
Pradesh, Hussain grew up in the ruler's estate where his
father was a soldier. He was just a child when he heard
Pandit Pannalal Ghosh's flute for the first time.
Today, he acknowledges Ghosh - whom he never met but
whose music he always heard - as the inspiration behind
his own vocation. He was also taught by Ustad Mushtaq
Hussain and Ustad Guchan Khan.
"The music of the flute attracted me. Wherever I would
hear it being played, by the roadside, on the radio, I
would stand and listen. I wanted to spend the whole day
listening to the flute," Hussain remembered.
His family moved to Pakistan in 1951. At 14, he could
already play some popular tunes on the flute. "I bought
a flute for one or two annas in Sadar, Karachi, and
The girls of a neighbour, he said, loved the sweet film
songs he played. He got requests to play one or two
favourites and he obliged. A few days later, their
mother complained to Hussain's mother and said she would
break his legs if he dared play his flute again.
Hussain's mother, in turn, hit him with a broom, hoping
to beat the music out of him. She couldn't.
"I would hide under a thick quilt and practise softly
till late, late at night. But I could not give up my
music," he said.
A man heard him play one day by chance and he was taken
to the radio station. Here he got his first break.
His association with Radio Pakistan began in 1952 - it
was long and fruitful for both. Hussain's music reached
the people and he was presented the Pakistan
Broadcasting Corporation Super Star Award on November
30, 1999, a fitting acknowledgement of his contribution
to classical and modern music.
In 1960, Hussain started playing his flute for films.
Some of his best songs are Noor Jehan's Lutt uljhi
suljha jaray baalam, Suraiyya Multanikar's Baday
bemurrawwat hain ye husn walay, and Zubaida Khanum's Kya
huwa dil pay situm.
He has the rare gift of being able to play perfectly by
the ear. He has to just hear a song, on any instrument,
and he can pick it up on the flute. One of his best
teachers was Ustad Hamid Hussain - a noted sarengi
player who could not even play the flute!
"Once I hear a song it goes right into my head. I have
played folk songs and national anthems of various
countries before visiting heads of state (including
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and then U.S. President
Richard Nixon) in Pakistan. I have also done concerts
with visiting artistes from other countries with very
little rehearsal time," he said.
He has also performed all over the world and continues
to do so. He was in Sri Lanka before visiting Dubai and
is scheduled to host a summer concert in London.
"There is a demand for flute music, but unfortunately
very few world-class flautists are coming out of
Pakistan now," Hussain said.
"I have many students, but not all persevere. Perhaps
because playing the flute is very difficult, you need to
control your breath, practise and show great patience.
Perhaps also because there is no money in the early
stages of a career. "But we need more good flautists.
Every note of classical music is invaluable. We need to
preserve the tradition. How will we do that if no new
flautists come forward?"
He stopped. Chose a 2.5-foot flute from his set of five,
put it to his lips and blew. The notes flowed out again,
pure, golden, mellow. He closed his eyes and sank into
Clearly, the tradition so dear to Ustad Salamat Hussain
is safe in his strong, supple, capable hands