Shaukat Ali

Musab Bin Noor was kind enough to pen an essay for Hamnawa, in celebration of Shaukat Ali, upon the request of friend of the show Omer Tariq. I want to express my deepest gratitude to Musab, for what is truly a heartfelt note to an artist that truly deserved it.

Shaukat Ali died on April 2. For his many millions of admirers across the globe, he was “Shaukat Ali”; beloved singer who embodied the sound and spirit of Punjab. For me and my family, he was always “Shoki”, a voice that permanently resided in our home. My Nani Amma had endearingly called him Shoki ever since I can remember, and whether visiting us, traveling with us in the family car, or selecting tapes for her 1970's cassette deck, her musical tastes were simple, "Play something by Shoki". As a result, along with a select few stalwarts of Punjabi music such as Zahida Parveen and Pathaney Khan, his wonderful voice has always rang in my ears.

Shaukat Ali was born in 1944 near Bhaati Gate in the Walled City of Lahore. His father died when young Shaukat was barely a year and a half old, and his family was forced to relocate to his maternal village near Malakwal, Gujrat. Facing financial insecurity since childhood, Shaukat was a hardworking and resourceful student. His family once ran out of funds to pay his primary school fees, so instead of asking help from his elder brother who lived and worked in Lahore, Shaukat applied for one day leave from school, spent the leave hawking 'Chana-Chaat' outside the school gate and paid his school fees the next day from his earnings. His elder brother Inayat Ali was a singer who regularly performed at Lok Melas and festivals, and who gave young Shaukat his first break at Radio Pakistan in the mid 1960s. After that, there was no looking back for the young, mustachioed singer with the long, shoulder-length hair.

Blessed with a vigorous voice that could easily glide across two-and-a-half octaves, Shaukat Ali was an instantly recognizable presence on the Radio and was signed as a recording artist by EMI soon after. During the 1965 war, his patriotic songs became instantly famous, including this rousing anthem performed alongside Masood Rana. The timbre of his voice was so well-suited to patriotic songs that he rendered a large number, including this rendition recorded to celebrate the 1970 General Elections (with a young Bushra Ansari in the chorus), and this rendition from the late 1970s where his powerful high-notes in the first chorus earn him a wonderfully shady side-eye from Masood Rana. 

Due to its versatility, Shaukat Ali's voice appealed to a large swathe of listeners. He imbued ghazals with a remarkable virility and verve that set him apart from Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, and gave him great popularity among discerning listeners. He gave hit after hit in Punjabi, rendering songs that became popular in the Punjabi speaking population on both sides of the Radcliffe line, and were reintroduced to subsequent generations by remixes, covers and new arrangements. As a playback singer for Pakistani films, he sang superhit songs for leading men as well as comedians, including the tragicomic lament of the Punjabi immigrant to the UK, "Main Vilayat Kahno Aa Gya" - "Why Did I Come Abroad?".

Shaukat Ali's forte, and his everlasting contribution to subcontinental music, was his rendition of the legendary Punjabi Sufi epic "Saiful Malook" penned in the 19th century by Mian Muhammad Bakhsh (RA). Traditionally sung for decades across the Punjabi / Potohari / Pahari speaking regions in Raag Pahari, Shaukat Ali revolutionized the telling of this epic in 1965 by composing it in Raag Bhairvi, arguably the most popular Raag in the Hindustani classical music system, This shift perfectly suited the stately, wistful and melancholic tone of the kalaam and significantly enhanced its emotional heft, even for those listeners who were not familiar with the nuances of classical music. As a result of Shaukat Ali's innovation, the Saiful Malook achieved widespread acclaim and gained its rightful place among the legendary folk-epics of the subcontinent.

An ever-popular artist, Shaukat Ali was lauded with prizes and awards since the very early days of his career. He was awarded the title of ‘Voice of Punjab’ by the government of the indian province of Punjab in 1976. A Pride of Performance from the Pakistani government followed in 1990, while 2013 saw him awarded the title ‘Pride of Punjab’. Perhaps his greatest source of pride were the millions of fans across the Punjabi speaking world, including famed singers such as Muhammad Rafi, Gurdaas Mann, Harbhajjan Mann and others in India, as well as almost every Punjabi folksinger in Pakistan. He had been suffering from Liver Failure and complications from Diabetes for the last 06 months, and breathed his last on 2 April, 2021. His three sons are all renowned singers in their own right. 

For me, Shaukat Ali's passing is specially poignant because his death has robbed me, and indeed my parents – of a vital link to our childhood; a voice that used to ring clarion-clear across our home, proclaiming:

Dushman marrey te khushi na karriye, sajnaan vi marr jaana
Orhak te din hoya Muhammad, deegar te chhup jaana

Do not rejoice when enemies perish, for friends and lovers too shall taste death
Muhammad Bakhsh, the afternoon sun is at its zenith, before long, it shall set