Be it a small gathering or a huge event, whenever late Ustad Ghulam Muhammed Qaleenbaf had to perform, he would just close his eyes and start the Sufiyana Kalaam. It is said that sometimes for more than two hours he wouldn't open up his eyes and still perform flawlessly his favourite Maqam or Raga.
"He would have performed whole night but then after hours he would open up his eyes, he would have pity on our tired hands," says Ustad Muhammed Yaqub Sheikh an ace Sufiyana Musician and also grandson of Qaleenbaaf. "No one else performing with him would have any energy left after playing tirelessly and at this moment Ustad would gradually end his kalam," remembers Yaqub who also performed number of times with Qaleenbaaf.
His expertise was that he would start with a big taal followed by sequentially smaller taals and ending with the smallest one. He is known to be unique in maintaining the flow of music while his singing has always been appreciated.
Born in 1902 at Khanakah-e-Maula, Qaleenbaaf, as the name suggests was from the family dealing with carpet industry. They had number of handlooms running for them. "Everybody thought that he would also end up being a businessman but destiny had some other plans for him," said Yaqub. "He lost his father Muhammed Siddiq Bhat at a young age and it was his grandfather who took charge of his upbringing. The grandfather was a great lover of Sufiyana Kalam and would often invite the musicians to his place where Qaleenbaaf began to get familiarised with the kalaam."
With very passing day Qaleenbaaf became interested in the music. "During one such mehfils, famous saint and lover of Sufiyana Kalam Khwaja Usman Sheikh put a hand on the head of Qaleenbaaf. He told him that from now on you will have to not only sing but play various musical instruments too," said Yaqub who was told of the story by his grandfather himself. "That became a trigger, the earlier interest in music became a rage. He would simply get away from carpet business and go to mehfils and work on his music. His grandfather was the greatest support and he never stopped him and in fact encouraged him to follow heart. Because once you do what you love then sky is the limit for success and same held true for him."
Qaleenbaaf went on to become one of the greatest Sufiayana Music artists of Kashmir. His first teacher was Muhammed Sultan, the youngest of brothers, from famous sazandar gharana of Jamalatta. As the age-difference between teacher and student was not much, the learning became fun. Later on Sultan's elder brother Ustaad Muhammed Sidiq Saazandar also taught Qaleenbaaf after seeing his passion for music. But his biggest influence remained Khala (Khaliq) Joo, a renowned musician of those times. At many times Qaleenbaaf has said that 75 percent of entire music he has learnt was from Khaliq Joo, who was a rare combination of Ustaad and a saint. Khaliq used to perform at shrines too, a tradition that has been lost for a long time now. Together with Qaleenbaaf, Khaliq would perform at the shrines of Mirza Akmal Sahib (RA), Khwaja Habibullah Nowshehri (RA) and Zaindar Wali (RA). It was at one of these shrines that Khaliq gave few pennies to Qaleenbaaf and told him that this will be your income. After shrines the famous place would be Takiyas, which would see unique combination of music, mysticism and poetry.
As most of the Sufiyana Kalam is in Persian, Qaleenbaaf would explain to his audience what he is singing and describe it for them. This would captivate the audience and they would rejoice Hafiz, Jallauddin Rumi, Jami, Omar Khayam, Amir Khusro, Rasul Mir, Neame Seab and others. Qaleenbaaf used to say that only Kashmiri Classical Music is suited for Kashmiris and Indian Classical Music is not according to our taste. His compositions when rendered into soft music became hit proving his point that people love sufiyana kalaam in their hearts.
He still holds a great influence in Kashmiri music and almost all major artists vouch of learning from him.
Opportunity knocked at Qaleenbaaf's door when Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, during one of his visits to Kashmir, after hearing about the sufiyana artist, decided to meet him. During his interaction Nehru told Qaleenbaaf that New Delhi has decided to establish a radio station in Kashmir. "We are establishing this radio station for you so that the great art which you possess will spread and flourish," Nehru told Qaleenbaaf. Thereafter when Radio Kashmir was established Qaleenbaaf became the first artist to be appointed there. At Doordarshan Kendra Srinagar too, the first ever recorded Sufiyana Kalam was by Qaleenbaaf. He worked at Radio Kashmir till 1971 and during this time he sung thousands of hours of Kalaam. Radio became one of the means of spreading the particular genre of music which was earlier confined to elites and lovers of music.
Radio Kashmir has a huge archive of his kalaam and they get regular demands for playing them.
When Qaleenbaaf retired, the then Chief Minister of Kashmir Ghulam Muhammed Sadiq concerned over the fate of Sufiyana Music, introduced the subject Kashmir Classical Music at Women's college. Qaleenbaaf was given the responsibility to teach the music.
One of the most revolutionary steps taken by Qaleenbaaf towards the Kalaam was his decision to introduce women in the field. He taught Sufiyana Kalaam and playing of instruments to women. "Never before in our history had women performed in a Sufiyana Kalaam. He had a vision that if we have to save this music we need to bring in women. He was an advocate of change," said Yaqub. The introduction of woman gave a new lease of life to this music that was already been taken over by light music and music from mainland India. Besides teaching at Womens college, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages started a music class at Tagore Hall taught by Qaleenbaaf. The class became very popular as boys and girls would converge in large number to learn the intricacies of classical music from the great master.
Qaleenbaaf had three daughters and among his progeny he selected one grandson each from his daughters. The three went on to make their own mark in classical music. Besides Yaqub, the other two included late Mushtaq Ahmad Dar and Shakil Ahmad Lala.
His students did a great job in preserving the Sufiyana Kalaam. "In that era the Sufiyana Kalaam was passed on from generation to generation orally. There was no written record. But when he stressed on its preservation students took the mantle in their own hands," said Yaqub. One of his students Ustad Sheikh Abdul Aziz wrote four volumes of Kashir Sargam that documented the un-written work of Sufiyana Music. Aziz also brought to life many Maqams that had been lost. The first three volumes came out in 1966 and the fourth was published in 1990s. His student grandson Yaqub established Qaleenbaaf Memorial Sufiyana Music Institute at Kralpora that continues to produce trained boys and girls in the field. Till date the institute has produced around 70 boys and girls trained in this genre of music.
Qaleenbaaf had performed almost all over Kashmir, New Delhi and Lahore too prior to partition. His fans included Nehru, Rajindra Prasad, Abul Kalam Azad, Gyani Zail Singh, Indhira Gandhi, Sheikh Abdullah, Maulana Masoodi, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammed, Sadiq and almost all the mighty ones in the power corridors.
Qaleenbaaf was highly respected and often treated as a Sufi Buzarg rather than Sufiyana artist. People from all faiths used to come to him to listen and learn. Some would just ask him to put his hand on their head or ask for shirini. He had two disciples from USA too one among the two was a woman who ensured visit to Qaleenbaaf every year.
He continued to perform till his demise in 1996. His last performance was held at Madin Sahib by Academy on the anniversary of great Sufi Poet Mubarak Shah Fitrat. He received numerous awards for his work that included Sangit natak Academy award by president in 1982. Every year on 23rd April, the day is celebrated to commemorate his tremendous work.