Ustad Abdul Karim Khan


Einstein once wrote, "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are mere details." He was speaking of the physical universe. In the universe of the swara, Khansaheb Abdul Karim Khan could well have echoed similar sentiments. For in Khansaheb's music, it was the swara, its shades and aesthetic, that was paramount. The following feature on this MahaRishi is eloquent enough.

Khuda Hafiz,
Rajan Parrikar

[ Originally posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series. ]

Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan
In the early decades of this century, Khan Saheb Abdul Karim Khan dominated the world of Hindustani music for well over a generation, and he was a trend setter in this world in more than one sense. He created a new style or gharaana and gave an elan to the history of Hindustani music. He has been acclaimed as the "maestro who conceived, evolved, and popularised the Kirana gharana", and in fact, he changed the entire mood of Khayal and Thumri-singing. Dr. S.N. Ratanjankar wrote to me once about him: "In the late Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb's sweet, tender, and tuneful voice, the Hindustani melodies appeared in a role and mood quite different from those in which they presented themselves in other voices...It was like a walk in a cool, moon-lit garden of sweet-smelling flowers that one felt when listening to the perfectly tuneful, and dreamy cadences of Khan Saheb's music One was lifted up into a dream land. The dream haunted the mind long after the music had ceased. The Khan Saheb never sang a raga, but was in holy communion with it. It was the very divine world, as it were, which made you forget the opposites, and led you to the perfect unity with the Supreme spirit".

Those who have been able to hear the Ustad's music only through his gramophone records, become aware of many shortcomings in his style such as the nasal twang in the voice produced through "a deliberately constricted throat", lack of bol-alaaps, bol-tans, rhythmic play, variety and grandeur. But, his contemporaries who had the good fortune to hear him in person were completely hypnotised by the sweetness of his music and his aesthetic emotion-filled rendering of ragas. Late Prof. D.P. Mukherji who was a reputed music connoisseur, wrote: "Abdul Karim Khan would invite us to enter into the sanctum of music where he was the high priest. He was not an orthodox singer. He would not even sing a composition through. His asthayi was not always true to form. He would make unexpected permutations and combinations. . . . . , But who cared when Abdul Karim Khan was on the dais ! This unorthodox man was a genius. ...Some of the finest exponents of Khayal today are either his pupils or his pupil`s pupils. "

His shishya-parampura includes a long array of celebrities such as Sawai Gandharva, Baharebuwa, Sureshbabu Mane, Balakrishnabuwa Kapileswari, Dasarathbuwa Muley, Roshanara Begum; Hirabai Barodekar and many others who in their turn, have groomed another generation of reputed singers like Bhimsen Joshi, Feroz Dastur, Gangubai Hangal, Manik Verma, Saraswati Rane, Prabha Atre and others.
Ud. Shamshuddin Khan accompanying the legendary Ud. Abdul Kareem Khan

Ud. Shamshuddin Khan accompanying Ud. Abdul Kareem Khan

Abdul Karim Khan was born in 1872 in Kirana near Kurukshetra in the Punjab. Subsequently the style or Gharana that he evolved was named after his birth place, Kiraana. In his perceptive book, "Indian Musical Traditions", Sri Vamanrao Deshpande rightly says that "each gharana has its origin in the distinctive quality of the voice of its founder and it is this quality which broadly determines his style." To this I would also add that the temperament of the founder also plays a considerable role in moulding the style of the gharana.

Abdul Karim Khan was perhaps the first North Indian musician to study Karnatic ragas and incorporate several of them into Hindustani music. His records of songs in "Kharaharapriya", "Saaweri", "Hamsadhwani", "Abhogi" etc. as well as his style of sargam-singing are proofs of his great admiration and love for Karnatic music. Perhaps no single classical musician in those days did so much for the promotion of mutual understanding between Hindustani and Karnatic music as the late Khan Saheb did. The greatest quality of his music was "emotion par excellence", and that was the reason why his classical music was able to move audiences everywhere, whether in the North or South of India. I know of many young men and women in South India who took to Hindustani music, charmed by the spell of Khan Saheb's music. The ecstatic tributes of a discerning western musician and critic after hearing the Ustad, prove how really exalted music overleaps all barriers and transports listeners into a transcendental world.

The critic writes: "I heard him melt half and quarter tones into one another with the effect of magic--- He was a conjurer of sounds...Who that has heard him can forget him. . . ! He not only sang sounds but he became every turn and twist in the song. The atmosphere became surcharged with a musical magic I have contacted nowhere else!".

The Kirana musical lineage came mostly from instrumentalists--chiefly Sarangiyas. After receiving his training from Kale Khan and Abdulla Khan, Khan Saheb went over to Baroda where he was appointed as a court-musician because of his great merit. After some years, he left Baroda for Bombay, and then went to Miraj. Wherever he went, his sweet voice and captivating style of singing won for him numerous admirers. From there, he proceeded to Hubli and Dharwar and stayed with his brother Abdul Haq. The two brothers often used to sing together. A notable pupil he acquired at this time was Rambhau or Sawai Gandharwa who later on, became one of his best disciples by sheer dint of practice. The Ustad was very punctilious about his early-morning daily practice, and Rambhau unfailingly practised with his conscientious guru every morning. A true "pilgrim of melody engaged in his eternal quest of swaras", Khan Saheb was constantly on the move. When he went to Patna, Roshanara's mother became his pupil.
© 1996 - 2024 David Philipson
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