The doyen of Patiala Gharana, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was born in Kasur, modern day Pakistan, to well known singer Ali Baksh Khan. He was initiated into vocal music as well as playing the sarangi under his famous uncle Ustad Kale Khan. In fact, he played the sarangi for a living before he shifted attention to vocal music.
While he played the sarangi for a number of concerts as accompanist to his father and uncle, his own debut on stage was as a vocalist. The debut concert was at Calcutta and anyone who attended it could see that the young singer had a great future in music. He was noted most for having a voice that could switch easily between three octaves and any kind of tempo.
Another quality that was quite visible in him was the fact that his music was a confluence of traditional Patiala-style, Dhrupad, Jaipur and Gwalior. He sang with equal ease Khayals, Ghazals, Thumris and Bhajans. He is also know for taking the middle-eastern musical instrument Qanun and modifying it into the instrument he is most associated with, the Swarmandal. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan is known also to have composed many a 'bandish’ under his pseudonym ‘Sabrang’.
Known for never compromising on his ‘riyaaz’ time, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, on occasions, talked about how his guru and uncle Ustad Kale Khan would make him pratice inside a large mosque on the outskirts of the city. He was made to practice in such a way that his voice and the echo that came back sounded identical. It was this very dedication that kept him away from singing for films for a very long time, fearing that his talent would be compromised. In fact, for the rare “Prem Jogan Ban Ke” and “Shubh Din Aayo” from “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960), K. Asif and Naushad had to persuade and coax him for months. It is said that, in order to dissuade the two, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan asked for a sum of twenty five thousand a song - an astronomical sum in those days. To his dismay. K. Asif agreed to pay him the amount and the Ustad was forced to keep his word!
Perhaps the one regret that Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had all his life was having to move to Pakistan after the partition of India. Since he often had to visit India a number of times for concerts and performances, he was constantly reminded of how much he missed being there. He claimed all life that the admiration he enjoyed in India was like nowhere else. He was one of the few Hindustani singers, who was popular even in the south of India. The Ustad and G.N. Balasubramaniam, one of the most famous twentieth century Carnatic musicians, greatly appreciated each others' music. It was this very closeness to what he called ‘Motherland’ that prompted him to request Morarji Desai, the then Chief Minister of Bombay, to grant him permanent Indian citizenship, allowing him to stay in India. Thus, from 1958 onwards, he stayed in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
During the peak of his career, unfortunately, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan developed a stroke of paralysis in 1961, and was bedridden for almost two years. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1962 and kept singing and performing for the next five years till his death in 1968. In his honour, the Bade Ghulam Ali Yaadgar Sabha was formed by his disciples to organise shows and concerts to help fledgling artistes and also to provide medical aid to ailing singers and musicians.