Author: Translated from Hindi by Madhu B Joshi
Originally published in Jamini, 2016
This article is an excerpt from an interview held during the 1980s at Bikaner, Rajasthan, in which Dr Mukund Lath explores a few key concepts of Indian classical music with the revered Indian classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj.
An 87-year-old singer of the Mewati Gharana, Pandit Jasraj represents the last of a generation of Indian classical vocalists. With a vocal range that extends over three and a half octaves, Pandit Jasraj uses perfect diction, along with perfect tone, a hallmark of his gharana’s style. The maestro has done extensive research in semi-classical forms of Hindustani music, alongside creating a novel form of vocal duet called the “Jasrangi Jugalbandi”. Known for presenting an extensive range of rare ragas, his illustrious career has spanned decades, and earned him accolades both at home and abroad. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Padma Vibhusan and the Sangeet Natak Academy Award, given by the government of India.
Dr Mukund Lath is an Indian scholar and cultural historian best known for his writings on Indian music, theatre, dance, history and philosophy. His research on “Dattilam”, an ancient Indian musical text dating between the first and fourth century, is considered a landmark in musicology. He trained in classical music under Pandit Maniram, Ramesh Chakravarti, and Pandit Jasraj. He has received many awards including the Padma Shri by the government of India.
Mukund Lath: Some time ago you presented a major concert of the Mewati Gharana in Bhopal. I watched some of it on television. The organiser of the concert, Kotharijee, had requested me to write on the Mewati Gharana. Though I am a disciple of the gharana, I am not fully conversant with its background, and more importantly, I’ve never quite understood the relationship between its history and the style of music it fosters. I had written to Kotharijee saying I would certainly write, but only after a discussion with Pandit Jasraj.
Today is a good opportunity to understand the ideologies behind the Mewati Gharana, and gharanas in general. Before we begin, I wanted to ask you a fundamental question – is it really necessary to belong to a gharana if one wishes to pursue music? Surely, the history of gharanas can only be of value if the gharana, as an institution, has value in itself. What do you think – is gharana necessary?
Pandit Jasraj: How can the value of the gharana be denied? Our music has come to us through the gharanas, and it has developed within them. How could the very tradition of music have survived without the gharanas?
ML: Bonnie Wade, an American writer, has discussed the connection between khayal singing and gharanas in her recent book. She points out that the institution of the gharana is weakening and that if that continues, khayal singing will also weaken. She remarks that today there is a star system at work; the individual musician is almost being deified. People speak of Pandit Jasraj, Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi and so forth but the gharana remains unmentioned. If this goes on, it will be the end of the institution of the gharana, and with that, of classical music. What is your view?
PJ: It is within a gharana that an artist is formed. One learns music as a result of being part of a gharana and only then does he move forward on his own. It is sad that once an artist receives acclaim, he is less inclined to acknowledge his gharana; but on his way to stardom, he takes every advantage he can of it.
ML: It is important to bear in mind the difference between gharana and the guru-shishya parampara. The two are not the same. In South Indian musical tradition, there is a guru-shishya parampara but no gharana. Interestingly, the guru-shishya parampara also works in the West. Fine musicians have gurus or teachers whom they hold in great esteem; it is just that unlike us they do not create a song and dance about the guru. Nevertheless, they do accept the great importance of the teacher. Good training in music is simply not possible without a proper teacher-disciple relationship. But the gharana is a different matter. A gharana is not just a guru-shishya tradition, it is much more than that. It is marked as a family giving birth to musicians – the son, the nephews, the grandsons – it is they who are thought to be the true proponents of the gharana; others could be shishyas or disciples of the gharana or the family, but they cannot belong to it.
PJ: The guru-shishya parampara remains crucial. One can possibly sing without a gharana; as a matter of fact, people are doing so nowadays, but how can one sing without a guru? With whomever an artist trains, that is his gharana.
ML: Gharana is generally understood to mean the descendants of a great musician. What we call gharanas are in fact families with musical lineages. And yet the fact is, whether musicians are aware of it or not, that the traditions of khayal gayaki which we call gharanas, are a comparatively recent phenomena. In the days of Sadarang – Adarang, who are thought to be the initiators of the gharanas, and who lived during the reign of Mohammad Shah Rangeelay in the 18th century, khayal was practiced widely but there were no gharanas as such. There was, one might say, a star system similar to the one we have today.
I have heard that in earlier times, if one sang a composition of another gharana, he was obliged to pay a token offering to the descendants of the composer’s gharana – is that still the case?
PJ: Yes, that’s how it was in the olden days. A singer would announce, ‘I’m singing a bandish, a composition belonging to your family’ and then pay a token offering acknowledging the maestro’s due.
ML: In that case, it appears evident that the relation of a musician with a gharana was at two levels – one with style and the other with money. When it came to money, only a person who belonged to a particular family was qualified to receive it. And since such a qualification was related to a style of singing, an effort was made to confine the style within the family. A bandish (an individually created composition) was the inheritance of the sons and grandsons of the family; it was their source of income. They held exclusive rights to their forefathers’ creations and earned their living from them.
PJ: But it wasn’t about money alone. It was about prestige, honour, and acknowledgement. Some would pay a gold souvenir, others would just offer coins wrapped in a handkerchief. What I mean to say is that it was more about honouring a creative contribution than it was about being paid cash.
ML: Some scholars say that there are only six true gharanas. The Mewati Gharana is not named among them.
PJ: Some gharanas have become more well-known than others. There are about twenty to twenty-five gharanas which are not as well-known as the established six. Imagine a writer who writes about the music of today. Being exposed to only the more famous musicians, he will write about them alone, overlooking the rest. The chroniclers after him also do the same. There were many gharanas that practiced their art but were not noticed or accounted for – this is the sad state of the history of our music.
ML: Tell us a little about your own training. Who did you train under?
PJ: My brother, Pandit Maniram, who is much older than me, was my guru.
ML: How long did you train under him? Did you practice with him every day and for long hours…?
PJ: Look, the training that makes a musician a true musician is always part of a long process. Like other musicians, my practice had three stages: that of the sikhiya (the learner), then of the dikhiya (the observer) and finally that of the parakhiya (the person with creative judgment). The one who is receiving knowledge and taking lessons is the ‘learner’. For a singer to develop into a true artist, he has to be all three, with education and training coming first and that’s what my training entailed.
ML: Yesterday you mentioned how Rajab Ali Khan challenged your father, Motiramjee. He sang the unknown raga ‘Din-kee-puriya’ and then asked your father to sing it. This was a test of his learning. The thought in Rajab Ali’s mind was that if Motiramjee has been properly taught, he would be able to sing the raga with ease and with a creative imagination. Although Motiramjee did not know the raga, for he had just heard it, he was able to render it in its right form and spiritl. There are numerous anecdotes that make the same point. We’ve all heard stories of singers who listened to someone on the sly and were immediately able to learn not only a new raga, but a new style of singing as well. If a person has had a proper training, he should be able to do this: he should be able to absorb and learn by listening alone.
PJ: Yes, this is a result of the process which I spoke of. You are speaking of the parakiya, who has reached the final stage of the process and developed a fine creative judgment as result of his experience as a musician.
ML: Wasn’t Rajab Ali trying to gauge the depth of Motiramjee’s learning? What sort of training enables a singer to render a new composition just by listening to it, and then elaborating on it with his own imagination?
PJ: Essentially, he would need to become at one with it.
ML: Speaking from the perspective of Western music traditions, it would not be possible for a person trained in that tradition to do what Motiramjee did. It is not expected of trained Western musicians to be able to creatively enter into the form and spirit of a new composition and render it in their own way. The training test devised by Rajab Ali could not even be imagined in the West. If a singer in our tradition has been well-trained, he will be able to grasp the new composition and render it in his own terms – not a Western composition of course, but a composition in the raga genre.
PJ: This is what learning in Indian music is all about. This is what we call ‘gurumukh vidya’, knowledge acquired directly from the guru. In our tradition, the guru shapes the student’s mind so that he can follow the path shown by the guru. But as gurus, we never want the disciple to remain confined in that space. A student is not taught a definitive number of elaborations or embellishments. On the contrary, he is exposed to various kinds of ornamentations and elucidations.
A guru asks a student to follow him until he has reached a certain level, and has fully imbibed the training. Afterwards, a disciple is free to listen to others, take in influences and devise his own style of singing. The reason why gurus in the olden days did not allow a student to listen to other musicians too much, was to better enable the student to first imbibe in the guru’s style. A guru never says, ‘follow me’ or ‘copy what I am doing’; he says, ‘listen to what I am doing and then try to walk the path I walk, in your own way’. Then when the student reaches a certain maturity, the guru asks his student to perform on his own.
ML: And this points to the question I had in mind – isn’t it strange that while the guru demands the student should follow him, at the same time he also demands that the student should not follow him?
PJ: In the initial stages, the guru will ask the student to copy him. Copying involves some fine points and only a polished singer can copy well. In Indian classical music, the main notes and the intermediate ones have distinct affinities. For example, if one is working around three main notes, weaving them into a rhythm, and creating an elaboration or a rapid phrase, one is also required to be aware of the nuances of the intermediate notes, and articulate them with great subtlety. Let me show you. [Sings] This has to be done just so, and can only be accomplished by copying.
ML: … but once one learns to sing a tune like that, can he not use it in his own way? One could render the same phrase in many different ragas…
PJ: That’s right but there are other finer points besides this, which can only be learnt by copying. Let me show you a few ways of going from the second note to the third note. [Sings]. How could one master such techniques unless one is made to listen and practice?
ML: But the ability to render a raga is not just a matter of technique or skill …
PJ: True, but learning technique and developing skill is necessary for the disciple, if he is to become a capable singer.
ML: There are some skilled singers we know of, who can listen to a recording by a great maestro, and copy it in every detail. You too must have heard them –
PJ: Such a person cannot really be called a disciple …
ML: What then is the difference between a disciple and one who copies well?
PJ: A disciple does not just copy, he learns from his guru. And a true guru does not impose his singing on the disciple, he shows his disciple the way and imparts a knowledge that is open to imagination.
ML: That explains the learning part (the sikhiya part) but what about the observer, the dikhiya, and the parakhiya, the person with a developed creative judgement. What do those terms imply?
PJ: Once a disciple has learnt the basics, he should become an observer or dikhiya. He should open his eyes and ears to the world of music around him in order to know where he stands, discover his place in the order of things musical so that he can carve his own path . He should, in other words, evaluate himself in relation to others. He should eventually become a judge, a parakhiya, evaluating what he has learnt and what is going on in the world around him to consider what he is going to do himself. Only then can he be a good singer.
ML: What if someone is less of a learner, but a good observer or has mastered creative judgement?
PJ: Such a person can also be a good singer, but he is unlikely to represent his guru, so to speak.
ML: How so?
PJ: A good observer and a good judge can certainly be a good singer, but if you ask such a musician to perform like his guru, he would surely not be able to do so. All three qualifications need to be present in equal sums. Nowadays there are plenty of observers and judges, but few learners.
ML: What do you think of the upcoming generation?
PJ: I am an optimist. I just feel that the upcoming generation is not able to devote sufficient time to learning music as there are too many other forms of entertainment. As a result, anyone is unable to gain competene in any one thing.
ML: Some people believe that our music never changes. Do you think it does?
PJ: Any vibrant genre must change. Change is necessary. But it is not as though the music today will change into something entirely different in the future. That is not likely to happen.
ML: Are you convinced of that?
PJ: What I mean to say is that songs and light-classical genres such as qawwali, geet, ghazal, thumri, bhajan will continue to exist; such music has been embraced in every age. I think that serious classical music will also flourish. It will undergo change, but will not weaken or become diluted.
ML: There was a time when there was no elaboration of a raga in the khayal form. Khyal singing was a short, crisp affair. But with the introduction of raga-elaboration in khyal, a really new and mature style of raga rendition has come into being. Do you feel anything like that can happen in the future?
PJ: No, not really.
ML: Let me ask you a different question in relation to the history of your gharana. It is said that two singers ‘left’ the gharana. How can anyone leave the household he/she belongs to, or was, in fact, born in? It’s not as if the ones who left were mere disciples, they were sons and grandsons of the family; what could ‘leaving’ mean in this context?
PJ: What it means is that they changed their style of singing. My father’s younger brother, my paternal uncle, was deeply impressed by Rajab Ali Khan’s music. He began to incorporate elements of Khan’s signature style in his own singing, though he never became a disciple. He remained in our gharana, but also digressed from it. In a similar manner, my uncle’s son Puran adopted the style of the Agra gharana. One is influenced by so many factors — personality, attitude, genre — all of these matter. Perhaps all these factors together influenced my uncle too; but of course, he was a good singer to begin with. He had no problem incorporating Rajab Ali’s style.
ML: In learning a new gharana style, did your uncle have to undergo a formal training with Rajab Ali?
PJ: There isn’t much difference between the style of singing in our gharana and that of Rajab Ali Khan. I don’t think my uncle would have had to re-train.
ML: Let me ask you a question about the khyal genre. Some people say that the newer khyal style is influenced by the style in which the sarangi was played, just as the older and more austere dhrupad form was influenced by the style in which the rudra veena was played. What would you say?
PJ: Yes, during the days that khyal was taking form, the sarangi was indeed a dominant instrument. It was an accompaniment for dance too – especially the kathak genre.
ML: What about performances by courtesans or tawaifs? What was the role of the sarangi , played with the tabla, in their performance?
PJ: The roles of the sarangi and the tabla were different in kathak recitals and in performances by courtesans. Before the kathak dancer appeared on stage, the tabla was usually played with sarangi accompaniment, and then the curtain would go up…
PJ: I’m using the word ‘curtain’ loosely. Today we are used to the idea of the curtain, because concerts are held on stage. Earlier, there was no stage. The tabla would be playing and the dancer would wait on the side, until it was time to begin her dance with a striking table piece accompanying her entry.
ML: And the singing? Did that also have sarangi and tabla interludes?
PJ: No, just the sarangi. It went like this – there would be an exposition on the sarangi and then the tabla-player would then play a piece, and set the tone for the song. Right after, the courtesan would begin to render her composition.
ML: Well, music with such a strong sarangi component was bound to be influenced by the style of the sarangi, was it not? Just as the Rudra Veena influenced the singing of dhrupad? The staccato manner in which the chords of the veena are struck by the finger allows clear gaps between notes, which is similar to the slow exposition in dhrupad. The sarangi, being a bow-instrument, offers continuity of sound, and therefore, the kind of music it accompanies is bound to be different. It would be closer to the khayal style of exposition, wouldn’t it?
PJ: Yes, that would be so. If you look closely, you will notice that contemporary khayal singing is quite markedly influenced by the sarangi. Whatever the case may have been earlier, the distinctive flow of the contemporary form of khayal, is greatly influenced by the sarangi. It must also be acknowledged that this form of khayal singing owes much to the KiranaGharana.
ML: Is that in any way related to how the sarangi is played?
PJ: A singer who sings with the veena as an accompaniment is bound to be influenced by the tones of the veena. One who sings along with the sarangi, will obviously be similarly affected by the sarangi. The typical style of sarangi playing would induce the singer to follow its textures and so induce a flowing voice that glides over notes.
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, one of the founding fathers of the Kirana Gharana, used to play the sarangi himself. People are probably going to criticise me for saying this, but remember, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, a singer with an incredible fluidity in his voice, also played the sarangi. And though he sang within the perimeter of the Patiala gharana, his singing was clearly influenced by the style of the sarangi. If you listen to the music of his predecessors in the Patiala Gharana, Ustad Ashik Ali or Ustad Ummaid Ali or Ustad Akhtar Ali, you will find that their style of singing is quite different. They liberally used strong combinations of hard pulsating notes (zamzama), which when played on the sarangi, naturally acquire a soft mellowness. Bade Ghulam Ali’s singing had that quality of softness along with a flow for which the sarangi was certainly responsible.
ML: I agree! But since we are talking about Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, let me talk about Amir Khan too. He has been greatly influential in moulding modern music. Most great singers were copied for a time, but the impact Ustad Amir Khan had remains unmatched.
PJ: The credit for breathing new life into the alaap of khayal can certainly be attributed to Amir Khan. There are two riders though: one, luck favoured him; two, the trend existed before him but he brought it to fulfillment. Before him, Rajab Ali Khan’s nephew, Amanat Ali sang the slow exposition beautifully but he didn’t have as much impact. Amir Khan appropriated his style and made it his very own, moulding it to suit his unique music. Amanat Ali had a very short career.
ML: Did you ever hear Amanat Ali sing?
PJ: Often. Like Amir Khan, he used to begin his khyal- singing in a very slow tempo. He enjoyed great prestige and was much respected in his day. There was a time when he was the highest paid artist on the radio. That was before India’s independence in 1947.
ML: Has his contribution been acknowledged? Did people accept him?
PJ: Not too many people did but he was much appreciated in Bombay. Back then, Bombay was the cradle of music, especially when it came to vocal music. Amir Khan’s name came to light five years after Amanat Ali’s death. You should write about Amanat Ali.
ML: I may have heard of Amanat Ali from you before but had not thought of him as being the initiator of the slow exposition style of khyal. There was a period when you too were influenced by Amir Khan. Later, of course, you crafted your own inimitable style. You are now an Ustad, a parakhiya. You have developed an approach to music which is unique and very much your own.
There ought to be more conversations like the one we had today. There are not too many perceptive musicians who can present the past with such insight.
- Sikhiya, dikhiya, parakhiya – Sikhiya is a disciple who learns by directly taking lessons; Dikhiya is a disciple who learns through observation; Parakhiya is a disciple who learns by applying creative judgement
- Mewati Gharana is a musical apprenticeship clan of Indian classical music founded in the late 19th century by Ghagge Nazir Khan of Jodhpur. With its own distinct aesthetic and stylistic views and practices, the gharana is an offshoot of the Gwalior Gharana and acquired its name after the Mewat region of Rajasthan from which its founding exponent hailed. The gharana gained visibility after the contemporary vocalist Pandit Jasraj revived and popularized the style of singing.
- Gharana is comparable to a style or school of dance or music (vocal/instrumental). The names of gharanas are almost always derived from the city, district or state that the founder lived in. Various gharanas adopted their own particular approach to presentation, technique and repertoire.
- Pandit is an honorary title given to an expert.
- Raga is ‘aesthetically pleasing’ (literal). The basis of Indian classical music, raga is a musical structure of five to seven notes, with characteristic phrases, an identity and mood.
- Jee – ‘jee’ or ‘ji’ is a used as a suffix to a name as a mark of respect and politeness in Hindi, Urdu and related languages.
- Ustad/Pandit refers to a guru, an expert; honorary title given to a learned musician.
- Guru refers to the guide and preceptor who shows the life-path.
- Guru-shishya parampara is the primarily oral teaching tradition of Indian classical music, from the teacher (guru) to the disciple (shishya). The raga and its structure, the intricate nuances of rhythm, and the rendering of raga and rhythm as a composition, are passed on from teacher to disciple by word of mouth and through direct demonstration. There is no printed sheet of music, with notation acting as the medium, to impart knowledge.
- Parampara refers to a continuing tradition.
- Abdul Wahid Khan (1872–1949) was an important Indian classical singer, who laid the foundations of the Kirana Gharana.
- Gayaki refers to style of singing.
- Sadarang– Adarang- Sadarang (1670–1748) was the pen name of the Indian musical composer and artist Niyamat Khan. He and his nephew Adarang are attributed to changing the khayal style of Indian music into the form performed today. He served in the court of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (ruled 1719-1748, pen name ‘Rangeelay’). Sadarang and Adarang remain influential in Indian classical music, mainly through their compositions.
- Khyal is ‘imagination’ (literal); elaboration of a raga with lyrical composition consisting of twostanzas.
- Rajab Ali Khan (1874 -1959) was an Indian classical vocalist of repute, who sang a mix of both Jaipur and Kirana gharanas. He was a court musician of Dewas and Kolhapur, and later of Jaipur State. As a khyal singer Rajab Ali was known for slow improvisations full of melodic patterns as well as very fast and intricate phrases.
- Motiram– Pandit Jasraj’s father and a musician of repute of the Mewati Gharana. In the conversation between Mukund Lath and Pandit Jasraj, he is deferentially referred to as Motiramjee.
- Gurumukh vidya is the knowledge acquired directly from the guru.
- Gharana gayaki is the authentic style of singing following a specific gharana. Examples, gayakis of Agra Gharana, Mewati Gharana, Patiala Gharana, Kirana gharana.
- Sarangi is a bowed, short-necked string instrument from India and Nepal which is used in Indian classical music. It is said to closely resemble the sound of the human voice.
- Dhrupad is an ancient, structured form of classical music reigning supreme for centuries in North India before the advent of khayal.
- Rudra veena is a large ancient plucked string instrument.
- Tabla refers to a pair of drums, in which the treble is played by the right hand while the left hand plays the bass.
- Kirana Gharana is considered one of the most prolific khyal schools, the style of singing in which is concerned foremost with perfect intonation of notes. The name of the school of music derives from Kirana or Kairana, a town in Uttar Pradesh, India. Abdul Karim Khan (1872 – 1937) was a renowned Indian classical vocalist of the Kirana Gharana.
- Patiala Gharana of Indian classical musicis best known for its ghazal, thumri, and khayal styles of singing. It was founded by Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Ali Baksh Khan (known as Alia-Fattu), and was initially sponsored by the Maharaja of Patiala, Punjab.
- Bade Ghulam Ali (1902- 1968) was a classical vocalist of the Patiala gharana who was an important influence in the development of the khyal gayaki.
- Amir Khan (1912 – 1974) was a well-known Indian classical vocalist. He is considered one of the most influential figures in Indian classical music, and the founder of the Indore Gharana.
- Alaap is the gradual unfolding and development of a raga through monosyllables and without a fixed composition.
- Zamzama is an Urdu word meaning ‘addition of notes’, and implies a cluster of notes, used to embellish the landing note. Notes in a zamzama are rendered in progressive combinations and permutations.
Sources: Internet, ITC, Wikipedia