India’s highest-paid singer sang only 2 film songs, still charged 100 times as much as Lata, Rafi; moved to Pakistan

India’s highest-paid singer sang only 2 film songs, still charged 100 times as much as Lata, Rafi; moved to Pakistan

This singer sang only two Hindi film songs but commanded a fees 100 times as much as Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar

It’s hard to imagine but there was a time when playback singers in Indian film industry were no particularly well paid. In today’s times, when big names like AR Rahman can charge up to Rs 5 crore per song, a throwback to the era when top singers were getting only Rs 250-300 per song seems like a different world altogether. But this was only 60 years ago. And while the likes of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, and Kishore Kumar did a lot to change this status quo, one other name also deserves some credit – the man who had the stature and audacity to charge 100 times as much as the biggest singers of the day.

The highest paid singer ever in India
In the 1950s, filmmaker K Asif was working on his magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam. The biggest and most ambitious film ever made in India also had the most ambitious and grandest soundtrack. Composer Naushad had been tasked to compose 20 songs for the film for a fees of Rs 3000 (around Rs 3 lakh in today’s terms). The soundtrack included two classical tracks picturised on Tansen, considered the finest vocalist in the history of India. Asif and Naushad knew they needed a singer with a golden voice and strong command on Hindustani classical music to sing them. Hence, instead of engaging regular playback singers, they approached classical maestro Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The vocalist considered film singing beneath him and he refused. When the makers persisted, to dissuade them, Ustad Khan quoted a fees of Rs 25,000 per song. To his surprise, not only did Asif agree but he paid 50% advance then and there.

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Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

This is how Ustad Bade Ghulam Khan came to be engaged for the only two film songs he would ever sing. He earned a princely Rs 50,000 for it (a little over Rs 50 lakh in today’s terms). Even today’s top singers like Sunidhi Chauhan and Arijit Singh don’t charge this much per song. In fact, in those days, the most popular singers – Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar – charged Rs 250-300 per song. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan charged almost 100 times as much, an unthinkable feat.

The life and legacy of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan

The Ustad belonged to the Kasur Gharana of Hindustani classical music and came from a family of musicians. Born in 1902 in undivided India, he grew up in Punjab. After the Partition in 1947, his hometown Kasur fell in Pakistan and the vocalist moved there. However, he longed to live in India and a decade later, he returned to India. The then Chief Minister of Bombay State Morarji Desai helped him acquire Indian citizenship and the vocalist bought a home in Mumbai. He lived in Calcutta later and eventually in Hyderabad where he died in 1968 at the age of 66. A master of raga-based singing, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan is credited with popularising public consumption of Hindustani classical music in India. He used many light ragas that are easy on the ears as he believed in taking his music to the masses. The Indian government issued a postage stamp in his memory in 2003.

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