A man who lives for his music

Ustad Salamat Hussain, one of Pakistan's most revered artistes, tells Sonali Raha only someone who is pure of heart can play the flute well

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 music.
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 played it."
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.

First break

"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.

Summer concert

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 his music...
Clearly, the tradition so dear to Ustad Salamat Hussain is safe in his strong, supple, capable hands


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