Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan
"Following a gorgeous classical Indian alap sung by Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan over a rumbling bass drone, the first 21 cells made for a splashy, variegated opening."
- New York Times


If there could ever be an embodiment of beauty in Indian Classical Music, then no gharana could probably make a more righteous claim than the Kirana. The word gharana may require enunciation before proceeding further. It has been derived from the word ghar, meaning home and is infact an abode (not necessarily in the physical sense), but one which enshrines the essential character traits of a gharana (a school of thought).

Reflections on the Kirana Legacy

When we speak of the gharana of a traditional musician, we mean the family traits of the music he practices and owes allegiance to.  The concept of musical gharanas is physically comparable to that of families or clans in general, but in reality is far more extensive and complicated.  It signifies not only the physical characteristics, temperamental leanings and attitudes of the founder, in the same way as it would in the case of the ancestral line of a family, but much else that is contributed by all the talent that has come to drink at the fount of the master.  A musical gharana invariably grows around the genius of a creative master whose achievements automatically attract a collection of aspirants, admirers, and disciples.  Traditionally, these masters command the kind of unqualified reverence that is associated with religious gurus.  This small nucleus grows and widens as the style associated with the master gains prestige and acceptability among music lovers.  Each gharana has a temperament since it reflects and carries within itself the seeds of the personality of the master with whom it originated.  The outstanding khayal gharanas today are Gwalior, Agara, Kirana, Jaipur-Athrauli, and Patiala, each named after the original place of residence of the ustad of family of ustads around whom closely guarded musical guilds grew and flourished.

The Kirana gharana traces delicate three-dimensional arcs, and draws from silence deeply searching spirals.  The true Kirana musician believes that each jagah or ‘place’ in the scale of a raga is not a point but a musical area that must be explored anew each time and brought to life in the living moment.  This introspective approach is also reflected in their style of raga development.  The base of the edifice they build up, that is the sa and the mandra saptak, claim the greatest attention.  Once the foundation is laid, the angles of the rising structure are gently indicated while the apex is often left to the imagination of the listener, in deference to the underlying philosophy that a mere human does not have the ability to perfect or complete anything, including the portrait of a raga.

The origins of the Kirana gharana go back a long way and include the contributions of luminaries like Bande Ali Khan, the legendary master of the been.  Kirana is the name of a town near Saharanpur in UP where the emperor Jehangir is said to have resettled many families of musicians after their homes were destroyed in a flood.  Many sarangi and sitar players also trace their ancestry to this town.  But the gayaki as we know it today is the product of two great musical minds – that of Abdul Karim Khan, and of his nephew Abdul Wahid Khan.  Together they are considered the pillars of this musical legacy even though no two temperaments or personalities could be more different.  While the uncle’s forte was emotional appeal and delicate lyricism, the nephew’s music was celebrated for its intellectual vigour, purity of raga and relentless sense of structure.  Abdul Karim Khan overwhelmed the listener with feeling, while Abdul Wahid Khan challenged his mind to its limits.  Both are capable of miraculous musical feats in their separate ways.  The manner of these two masters was followed by their respective disciples, thus giving rise to two distinct sub-streams of musical practice within the Kirana school.

The Two Streams of a River

Despite the seemingly wide differences in the musical manner of these two pillars of the Kirana gharana, their approach and concerns had much in common at a deeper level:  an almost exclusive preoccupation with raga development.  Both considered a sincere and penetrating search for swara more important than presentational aspects such as taal and ornamentation.  Both chose depth over variety, suggestion over statement, quality over quantity, and the subtle and sophisticated over the overt and the obvious.  Both shared the same concept of the unbroken melodic line which in the case of the Kirana gayaki arises from silence, stretches and gains body in an arc and fades back into silence, without any abrupt breaks, angles or jerks.  For both the masters it is an article of faith that the exact place of a note in its surrounding aura has to be searched for and discovered anew every time a phrase is attempted.  Both masters are more attracted to slow tempo than to the drut since the leisurely pace affords the opportunity to explore the contours of the raga in greater detail.  Both demonstrate in their practice that concentration on a small musical area, whether it is a single raga, or three notes in it, is more rewarding.  In deference to this conviction, both prefer to present serious ragas that have a rich development potential and are not usually attracted to sweet-sounding or popular ragas that do not seriously challenge the mind.

This tendency can be seen in all singers of the Kirana school who specialize in profound creations like Todi, Yaman, Shuddha Kalyan, Puriya and Darbari.  They tend to treat even the light raga with so much depth that it acquires new characteristics.  Abdul Karim Khan’s Abhogi Kanhra is a case in point.  The original Karnatic raga that was the inspiration for it is beautiful and lyrical, but nowhere as profound and majestic as the conception of the raga as envisioned by singers of the Kirana gharana.

Supremacy of swara

The Kirana gharana developed in response to a deep urge for personal self-expression.  Masters like Abdul Karim Khan concentrated their entire attention on the poignancy and nuance of the swara and did not make very active use of rhythm in creating the desired effect.  The luminosity and exact placing of the swara in the raga became so important to the practitioners of this style that they laid themselves open to the charge by other gharanas of neglecting the tala and the bandish.  In this sense the Kirana gharana was an unorthodox, even in some senses an erratic development.  In order to give the utmost latitude to the aalap element, which is the most evocative and emotive part of raga delineation, both Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan reduced the tempo of the bada khayals to the slowest it had ever been in the history of the khayal.  It was their conviction that the meditative, contemplative and emotional aspects of the music, which attracted them most, could not possibly be coaxed out of music at a brisk pace.  This development resulted in impressive feats of musicality at a very high level, and began to be imitated by other gharanas as a necessary condition for evoking feeling from a raga.

The melodic line and sense of structure

One outstanding feature of the Kirana gayaki is the refined sculpting of the melodic line.  The practitioners of the Kirana style tend to regard the entire scale as a continuous flow of musicality and not a series of separate notes.  Conceptually, every phrase in a raga is represented by a flowing line, which passes smoothly through all the gradations of the participating notes without revealing the joints.  The extremely fine tuning of the intonation of the line conveys the emotional intention, subtly and enduringly, as though it were not using a string of notes but a single musical sound with a distinct expression. This gayaki abhors angles and abrupt breaks so that the continuity of the spirals that the voice traces is maintained. Attention is given not only to where the melodic line originates and ends, but also its thickness or thinness at any given point.  This type of detailed and delicate calligraphy lends the music a third dimension of physical depth, which is palpable to the ear.

Another specialty of the Kirana approach is that the raga is conquered not by treading relentlessly up and down its scale but by locating and controlling the crucial pressure points in its structure.  For instance in most sampoorna ragas, an understanding of the function of the nishadh and the madhyam, or of rishabh and dhaivata, or of any two notes and their mutual relationship holds the key that could open the doors to the raga’s innermost recesses.   As a corollary to this way of looking at the raga, the typical Kirana singer fashions even his fast taans from a structural rather than an ornamental point of view, that is to say he takes into cognisance the vital organs and anatomy of the raga with a view to capturing its distinctive flavor and essence. The progress of the perfect Kirana taan thus satisfies the connoisseur’s sense of structure as much as and sometimes even more than, his melodic expectations.

Restraint as a musical value

Another area of subtlety is the use of silence as well as understatement as an effective musical element.  The comparatively low-key sensibility of the Kirana singers is also expressed in their leisurely but meticulous attention to the mandra saptak.  As we have already seen, the raga is developed note by note in the manner of a pyramid.  The tempo of the music also rises as the structure progresses.  When the apex of the pyramid, the taar shadaja, is reached, it is not punished overtly and repeatedly but merely suggested as though the music was being completed in the mind rather than physically.  An example of this is found in the music of Amir Khan who adopted this attitude from the Kirana principles and carried it to an extreme because it admirably suited his introspective and meditative nature.

The cursory treatment of the antara in a bandish can be seen in the music of Abdul Wahid Khan.  This indicates a preference for under-statement and gesture over physical completeness.  A mere pointer to the taar saptak which finally reveals the face of a raga can sometimes be more aesthetically satisfying to an evolved musical taste that an overt and detailed treatment of that area.  Abdul Wahid Khan never repeated the antara on principle and preferred to position it in such a manner that it did not occupy the whole space of the vilambit taal cycle, usually the fourteen beat jhoomra, but accommodated itself within ten or eleven matras.

All singers of the Kirana gharana share this conviction in their different ways and to varying extents.  And yet each has an emphatic individuality. The gurus of the Kirana gharana pride themselves on their ability to transmit the technique of the art so that their followers can distinguish their own musical urges from the mannerisms of their masters and still express them through the traditional idiom they have been taught.  The success of their efforts is borne out by the fact that the music of each singer of the Kirana gharana reflects an original individual personality and not a stereotype.

Kirana lineage

Among the disciples Abdul Karim Khan groomed are Roshanara Begum, Ganesh Ramachandra Behere, Balakrishnabua Kapileshwari, Firoz Dastoor and Sawai Gandharva who in turn trained Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsen Joshi.  Each of these artists has a distinct style even though they adhere to the same principles.  This also applies to Abdul Wahid Khan’s star pupil Hirabai Barodekar, a daughter of Abdul Karim Khan, who in her turn became the idol of singers like Manik Verma and Prabha Atre.  In the course of his stay in Lahore, the master also taught Jeevan Lal Mattoo, his son Jawaharlal Mattoo and his daughter-in-law Madhuri Mattoo.  Another faithful pupil was Pran Nath who dedicated his entire life to upholding and popularising the style and musical attitudes of his guru in the US.

Abdul Wahid Khan cast his magic spell over Amir Khan, son of Shahmeer Khan a sarangi player while still young. Though Amir Khan was not officially a disciple, he considered Abdul Wahid Khan as his manas-guru and his influence is clearly discernable in his music especially in his vilambit khayal. Amir Khan was also influenced by Rajab Ali Khan, another great exponent of the Kirana gharana and a contemporary of Abdul Wahid Khan. The Ustad also exerted his influence over the famous duo Faiyaz Ahmed Khan and Niyaz Ahmed Khan who were taught by their father Bashir Ahmed Khan. Abdul Wahid Khan also taught the nightingale incarnate of Indian music Begum Akhtar, though she was not a khayal singer but specialized in thumri and ghazals. The galaxy of disciples also included music director Firoz Nizami and the legendary playback and ghazal singer Mohammed Rafi.

The other most remarkable disciple of Abdul Wahid Khan was his nephew Shakoor Khan who certainly was one of the greatest virtuosos of the sarangi, not only of his age but of all times. He was the first sarangi nawaz to be honoured with the Padmashree (one of the highest civilian awards in India). Today his sons Mashkoor Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan, who received extensive talim from the great ustad their father, for fifteen long years, still carry on the tradition by imparting rigorous talim to promising youngsters at the I.T.C. Sangeet Research Academy Kolkata. Their nephew Arshad Ali Khan is the youngest in the lineage and also one of the most prodigious young musicians in the country.

Excerpts from: The Kirana Legacy by Sheila Dhar, disciple of Pt. Prannath and Ustads Faiyyaz Ahmed and Niyaz Ahmed Khan. (Updates in the end by Sounak Chatterjee)