Swara And Its Purity: The Story Of The Kirana Gharana
While the Jaipur-style chose to express itself through the layakari-ang, there were other profound musical geniuses who gravitated to the other important aspect of music, viz. “swara”, purity, sweetness and the beauty of the musical note.
The foremost among these was founder of the Kirana Gharana, Ust. Abdul Karim Khan who came from Kairana, a sleepy hamlet in the present-day Shamali district of Uttar Pradesh.
If we attempt to plot the preferences of various gayaki gharanas in Hindustani music on a graph, giving weightage to “swara” on one side & “laya” on the other, we will probably find that the Gwalior style can be found at approximately the mid-point of the graph. The Jaipur Gharana gayaki, on the other hand, with its inclination to the “layakari” (playful experimentation with the rhythmic patterns in a meter) would gravitate to the “laya” end of the graph. This layakari style has also led to the Jaipur followers choosing a range of compositions set to a slightly higher pace of the meter and also choosing raags that are better suited to such presentation.
While the Jaipur-style chose to express itself through the layakari-ang, there were other profound musical geniuses who gravitated to the other important aspect of music, viz. “swara”. The purity, sweetness and the beauty of the musical note was emphasized.
The foremost among these came from Kairana (also known as Kirana), a sleepy hamlet in the present-day Shamali district of Uttar Pradesh.
The giant that was Ustad Abdul Karim Khan
Born to Ust. Kale Khan in 1872, Abdul Karim Khan’s family had musical roots that could be traced to Gopal Nayak of the 15th century. More pertinent, though, are the influences of brothers Mian Ghulam Ali and Ghulam Maula and their disciple Ust. Bande Ali Khan, the Rudra Veena player. Young Abdul Karim had received taleem from his father Kale Khan and uncles, Abdulla Khan & Nanhe Khan.
Gifted with a melodious and sonorous voice, Abdul Karim also learnt sarangi, tabla, veena & sitar. For a brief while, he also specialised in sarangi. However, the story goes that because being a sarangi player was considered to be below one’s dignity, he decided to concentrate on vocal music.
With his fame as a noteworthy singer spreading far & wide, Abdul Karim Khan started getting invitations from royalties across north India and began travelling frequently. During one such extended excursion, accompanied by his brother Abdul Haq, he stopped for a few days at the then respectable royal court of Baroda. It had a great tradition of forward-looking and benevolent kings from the clan of the Gaikwads.
The Baroda royal court appreciated Abdul Karim Khan’s music very much and requested the brothers to extend their stay. However, fate had something else in mind.
Abdul Karim’s music played cupid between him and Tarabai Mane, daughter of a court chieftain and the niece of the Queen herself. The couple eloped and simply took a train from Baroda to Bombay to escape the royal wrath. This was an unthinkable offence in those days, but Abdul Karim and his new wife took further refuge at Kolhapur, and later at Miraj. The Maharaja of Baroda was also benevolent enough to let the lovers be.
Soon after coming to Bombay, Abdul Karim Khan was invited to the Mysore Royal Court, and the Wodeyars of Mysore also cherished his music very much. But the most fortuitous fall-out of this Mysore stint was the exposure Abdul Karim Khan received to Carnatic music. The concept of “shrutis”, as used in Southern music, and the imaginative experimentation with “sargam” appealed to the young Abdul Karim Khan.
Already blessed with a melodious and highly tuneful voice which could traverse all three octaves effortlessly, he blended these Carnatic elements in his gayaki and achieved perfection in the purity of “swara”. It is also widely believed that he met “Bhu Gandharva” Ust. Rehmat Khan around this time. The senior Ustad was renowned for his aesthetic sense and extremely surreal gayaki, and he left an indelible impact on Abdul Karim Khan.
Abdul Karim Khan had, by this time, become a regular visitor to the Mysore Royal Court. The process of blending several concepts into his gayaki and evolving an identity was well and truly set in his mind. He focused on a few selected and widely known raag-matrices such as Puriya, Marwa, Kalyan, Malkauns, Lalit, Todi, Asawari and the like. Using “vilambit-laya” (a slow-tempo meter), he relied on the accuracy of each note in accordance with the ethos of each raag-matrix. He also concentrated on a full-throated voice with flat taan-patterns and achieved a machine-like perfection in reproducing musical notes. So much so that it was said that if something seemed out of tune in his concert, it would be the tanpuras and not the singer because Abdul Karim could never be out of tune.
Tuning and matching tanpuras precisely was another speciality he developed. Tuning one of the tanpuras in Pancham (Pa— the fifth note from tonic) and the other in Nishad (Ni— the seventh note from tonic), thereby, creating a soundscape or a canvas of the entire octave in a concert was pioneered by him. All these signature features came to be known as “Kirana Gayaki” and Ust. Abdul Karim Khan its “Founder-Khalifa.” He was also instrumental in bringing “thumri” (not considered dignified enough earlier) to the classical music concert platform.
Abdul Karim Khan was married twice— first to a distant cousin, before leaving Kairana for Baroda, and the second with Tarabai Mane from Baroda. Tarabai was blessed with five children, four of whom learnt music and carried the tradition of the Kirana Gharana further. Although Tarabai separated from Abdul Karim Khan in the later years, she encouraged her children to take up music and keep up the taleem under Ust. Abdul Waheed Khan, Abdul Karim’s cousin who had also migrated to Maharashtra following his elder brother.
Both these Ustads were instrumental in giving a definite shape and identity to Kirana Gayaki and both of them trained a number of disciples in the tradition. Since the Ustad settled down at Miraj in Maharashtra, most of his disciples hailed from the adjoining districts of Kolhapur, Sangli, Belgaum, Dharwad, Hubli and this border area of present-day Karnataka and Maharashtra— coming to be known as the “Cradle of Kirana Gayaki.”
Fortunately for lovers of classical music, Ust. Abdul Karim Khan lived in an era where audio recordings were becoming more and more popular and we, therefore, have many short recordings by the Kirana Gharana founder that showcase his prowess and musical thinking. Here’s a striking rendition of “Raag Basant” by Ust. Abdul Karim Khan (converted from an archival 78-rpm vinyl disc) that brings out his command over musical notes and taan-patterns:
The second generation of Kirana
The next generation of Kirana Gharana artists, trained under Ust. Abdul Karim and Ust. Abdul Waheed Khan, were highly devoted and illustrious, to say the least. Sureshbabu Mane and Hirabai Barodekar (Abdul Karim’s son & daughter, respectively), “Sawai Gandharva” Ramachandra Kundgolkar, Balkrishnabuwa Kapileshwari (who also wrote Guru’s biography), Basavraj Rajguru and Puttaraj Gawai were the stalwarts who carried the gharana tradition further. Each of these artists performed prolifically and also trained a number of disciples.
While Abdul Karim Khan’s son Sureshbabu Mane’s career was comparatively short-lived and he did not enjoy commercial success as a concert artist, daughter Heerabai Barodekar was a pioneer in the sense that she was the first “lady from a reputed family” to organise and perform in a ticketed concert of classical music.
Heerabai had a long and illustrious career that took Kirana Gayaki across the length & breadth of India and abroad, as well. She also trained a number of disciples who became popular in their own right, in due course of time. Here is a leisurely, serene and “typical-Kirana-style” Raag Lalit recorded at least fifty years ago in her sonorous voice:
Here is Pt. Basavraj Rajguru presenting a rarely-heard composition from Kirana tradition in Raag Puriya-Kalyan:
With the passage of time, subsequent generations of disciples of this tradition consolidated and spread its reach still further. This has been particularly true for Smt. Gangubai Hangal, who trained under Sawai Gandharva in the gurukul tradition. Fighting the prevalent shackles on womenfolk to devote their life to a passion of their choice, Gangubai steadfastly trained under her Guru for many years and mastered the Kirana tradition entirely. Later, she had to overcome another hurdle against ill-health (that caused her permanent loss of timbre and voice texture) but re-established herself as the leading performer of her tradition. Listen to her Raag Sarang which was recorded in her later years:
Kirana gharana and innovation
That music is a fluid art liable to change with succeeding generations, and their ever-changing socio-cultural patterns, has been proved yet again with Kirana Gayaki. Succeeding generations of Kirana followers, especially in the twentieth century, have introduced subtle influences of other schools of thought and enriched this tradition further.
There are two distinct and distinguished examples in the Kirana tradition showcasing this slow, subtle yet definite transition.
The first, of course, is Bharat-Ratna Pt. Bhimsen Joshi— a colossus and an institution by himself. He travelled the length and breadth of India in search of a Guru and acquired (perhaps unknowingly) some diverse impressions of gayaki-styles in various areas. When he was finally accepted by Pt. Rambhau Kundgolkar as a shagird, he underwent rigorous & disciplined taleem symbolized by the Kiran Gharana tenets for a number of years.
However, one can notice through his performances from the 1950s to early 21st century, the subtle Punjab-Patiala, Gwalior and Indore (Ust. Amir Khan) influences slowly merge into the original Kirana Gayaki and create a blend that delighted the listeners to no end.
Here are two of his recordings from two distinct eras— the first is Raag Multani, recorded live in concert sometime in the mid-1950s where a young Bhimsen amazes us all with his range, aggressive taan-patterns, use of sargam and stupendous breath-control. Immense thanks to the soul who recorded and preserved this occasion for posterity:
And the second is Raag Shuddh-Kalyan, recorded much later. Although one can argue that the ethos and nature of this raag demands a serene and expansive treatment, one can sense a distinct change in Bhimsen-ji’s gayaki over the years:
The second glorious example in this reference is that of Dr Prabha Atre. Having trained under Pt. Sureshbabu Mane for a few years, she was taken under the wings by Smt. Heerabai Barodekar after Sureshbabu’s untimely death. With academic and professional excellence under her belt, she came out as an original thinker and a path-breaking artist over the years.
Having been exposed to a number of singing styles and schools due to her tenure with All India Radio, she absorbed subtle elements of Ust. Amir Khan-saab’s Indore Gayaki and imaginative usage of sargam, and enriched the original Kirana-style a step further. Prabha-tai also undertook extensive research on tarana and brought it back into vogue in Kirana Gayaki. Listen to her rendition of Raag Madhur-kauns, a self-composed raag & bandish:
With the socio-cultural changes and technological advances making gharana-traditions hazier, almost every aspirant today tries to blend the best practices from different masters in his or her art and enrich his or her experience with that of the listeners. However, despite this change in approach, there still are artists who make an honest attempt to keep the purity of the tradition alive.
Among the contemporary artists of Kirana Gharana, the top recall today is Anand Bhate. Hailed as a child prodigy in the early 1980s (he was given the title of “Anand Gandharva”), he trained under Pt. Bhimsen Joshi for close to a dozen years and today is a leading and very popular concert artist amongst the younger generation. With a professional approach and an honest urge to enrich the listeners’ experience every time he takes to the stage, his performances have come to symbolise moments of unforgettable joy.
Let us end this episode on the Kirana Gharana remembering the immortal Bhairavi Thumri, popularised by the founder of this gharana Ust. Abdul Karim Khan and recorded by a young Anand ‘Gandharva’ Bhate:
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