Monday, August 8, 2011

Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974)

Ustad Ameer Khan was easily the single most influential Hindustani vocalist of the 20th century. His music deeply influenced his contemporaries and, more than thirty-five years since his demise, continues to shape the dominant tendencies in vocalism, as well as instrumental music. An eclectic, who enriched his basic grooming with several other influences, he set standards of musicianship that have yet to be bettered. With no interest in accumulating audiences, wealth or awards, he represented the essence of the Indian tradition, which regards music as a mystical pursuit, with spiritual evolution as its primary reward.

As a sad commentary on the contemporary culture, he remained one of the least honored greats of 20th century Hindustani music. He died in a car accident, decorated only with a Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Padma Bhushan (the third highest civilian award of the nation).

Childhood and grooming

Ustad Ameer Khan was born Ameer Ali at Akole (Maharashtra), and brought up in Indore, where his father, Shahmir Khan served the princely court as a sarangi player. Young Ameer Ali began his training in vocalism and the sarangi at an early age.

For young Ameer Ali's  training, his father once sought the documentation of the Merukhand discipline from a colleague at the Indore court, Ustad Nasiruddin Dagar.. The Ustad refused on the grounds that such knowledge was not available to “the son of a mere sarangi player”. The remark stung Shahmir Khan, and he developed his own method for training Ameer Ali in the Merukhand discipline.

The Merukhand discipline (Meru = mountain, Khand = fragment) is a logically sequenced  compendium of all the 5040 (7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) melodic patterns that can be generated from seven notes. The patterns are sequenced according to a particular logic, and required to be practiced endlessly until they get “programmed” into the ideation process of the musician. The mastery of these patterns also, obviously, developed the musician’s technical ability to execute the most complicated melodic passages. When performing a raga, the musician chooses the patterns compatible with raga grammar for exploring the melodic personality of the raga.

Over a period of five or six years, and in stages, young Ameer Ali internalized the Merukhand system. Thereafter, he was taught Khayal singing, along with occasional lessons on the sarangi. As he became reasonably proficient as a singer, his father encouraged him to periodically visit his uncle, Moti Khan, an accomplished Tabla exponent, who lived in a neighboring district. Moti Khan would organize concerts featuring Ameer Khan for his circle of friends , and also train him in the nuances of relating melody to rhythm.

Shahmir Khan did not believe in making the boy practice for ten or twelve hours a day, which was the norm in those days. Ameer Ali's father believed that mechanical perfection did not constitute learning. Practice was productive only so long as the melodic imagination remains active, and one’s interest in the music is sustained. His prescription  for Ameer Khan’s riyaz was, therefore, unusual for that era. Ameer Khan was permitted to practice only three times a day, for an hour at each sitting. This remained a part of Ameer Khan’s philosophy throughout his life. In later years, he is reported to have said that only half his riyaz consisted of actually singing – the other half was thinking.

Alongside his training within the family, young Ameer Ali was exposed to some of the finest musicians of Indore every week-end, when his father’s friends gathered to perform for each other. Amongst the giants he heard and studied at these sessions were the dhrupad vocalists, Allahbande Khan and Nasiruddin Khan Dagar, Beenkar Murad Khan, Beenkar Wahid Khan, sarangi exponent, Bundu Khan, and the khayal vocalist, Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas.

In the profession

By the age of 20, Ameer Ali was an accomplished vocalist (and perhaps also sarangi player). Between 1932 and 1937, he moved from city to city in search of a career as a singer. He got a foothold in Bombay through his uncle, received some support from the musicologist, Prof. BR Deodhar, came under the influence of Aman Ali Khan of Bhendi Bazar, spent some time in Delhi, and also enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja of Raigadh in MP. His early appearances on the concert platform were discouraging.  In 1934, he recorded five or six 78 RPM discs for commercial release. Neither his concerts during this period, nor his recordings gave him the breakthrough he needed. He grappled with the realization that his style was not making an impact either in three minutes or in thirty.

He was 26 when his father died (1937). Success was now a necessity. Drawing on the music he admired, Ameer Ali implemented a systematic overhaul of his style, while keeping the Merukhand discipline at the centre of it. In the slow-tempo movements, he mastered the contemplative approach of Abdul Waheed Khan of Kairana. In medium-tempo rendition, he adopted the choreographic liveliness of Aman Ali Khan of the Bhendi Bazar group. In fast-tempo rendition, he adopted the mercurial style of Rajab Ali Khan, who claimed membership of an ill-defined Indore gharana. Ameer Khan was able to absorb all these influences and integrate them into a coherent personal musical statement, without having formally accepted the tutelage of any of them.

After an intense struggle – within and without -- Prof. Ameer Ali of Indore (as named on his early 78 rpm discs) emerged, over the next few years, as Ustad Ameer Khan – the only titan of 20th century vocalism not to have received formal training from reputed Pandits or Ustads. Between 1945 and 1950, he ascended to the top of the league of vocalists, without whose presence no important music festival in India could be planned. The stature he achieved was such that All India Radio felt obliged to delay even its prime-time news bulletin if Ameer Khan took a little longer to wind up his performance preceding the news.

The playback singer

The 1950s were a decade of substantial visibility for him through his work in the film industry. In 1952, he sang the title song (Raga Puriya Dhanashri) and also the immortal duet (Raga Desi) with DV Paluskar for the feature film, Baiju Bawara, and a Khamaj Thumree for the Bengali film, Kshudit Pashan (Hungry stones), under the baton of Ali Akbar Khan. Then came the memorable khayal (“Daya karo hey girdhar gopal in Multani) for the Hindi film “Shabab”. In 1955, he recorded  the same khayal in Lalit (Jogiya more ghar aaye) for two music directors -- Vasant Desai and OP Nayyar.

His title song for V Shantaram’s film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Bajey (Raga Adana) virtually scripted the film’s success. In 1959, he recorded a duet in Raga Bhatiyar with the shehnai maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan for the film, “Goonj uthi shehnai”. He also sang for two documentary films – Raga Darbari for a religious film produced by his disciple, Mukund Rai Goswami, and a ghazal of Mirza Ghalib for a film on the life and times of the poet, made by another disciple, Pandit Amarnath.

Iconic status

After his career had received a massive boost from his work in films, the release of his concert length recordings on Long Playing discs in the 1960s catapulted him to iconic status. His recordings became text books of raga exposition for the entire music world. His stature tempted both, Kairana and Bhendi Bazar fraternities, to claim him as one of their own. The truth was that, by then, he had himself become, effectively, the fountainhead of a new gharana.

It appears that Ameer Khan claimed membership of the “Indore gharana”, but without much conviction and – not surprisingly -- without much interest in the subject. The existence of an “Indore” gharana before him is debatable. Now that the third generation of the “Ameer Khan gharana” is performing respectably, a case is now being argued for the acknowledgment of an “Indore gharana”.

Ustad Ameer Khan emerged from a family background of feudal patronage, under which a small group of connoisseurs determined the fates of musicians. He reinvented himself for the post-independence era in which musicians had to address a faceless, and largely uncultivated, mass audience primarily through the electronic media. Under radically different conditions, he carved out a place for himself in history without making any compromise with artistic values.


Ustad Ameer Khan owned one of the finest male voices in 20th century vocalism. His rich baritone, which traversed three octaves with consummate ease at any speed, could communicate any of his melodic and rhythmic ideas with the minimum distortion. It had a majestic aloofness which forced you to be attentive to its intellectual as well as emotional elements. The way he used his voice was befitting a classicist, who sang only khayal and tarana genres of music. He could not be persuaded to sing the romanticist genres like thumrees or ghazals in public, except for films.

Ameer Khan, the man, was no different from his music – a personification of dignified tranquility. He was a handsome six-footer of proportionate build and serious, but pleasing, demeanor. You could have mistaken him for a professor or a lawyer, if you had met him at a friend’s house. When he sat on the stage to perform, he was simply dressed, and looked like a yogi in erect posture, with his eyes closed, virtually in a trance.

His concert repertoire comprised over 30 raga-s of the Hindustani tradition, and a handful of raga-s adopted from the Carnatic tradition. His Hindustani selection consisted of mature raga-s like Puriya, Marwa, Multani, Darbari and Shuddha Kalyan – raga-s with vast potential for melodic improvisation. These were, broadly, the favorites of Kairana gharana vocalists. He was, however, not averse, once in a while, to unleashing an esoteric raga like Shuddha-Rishabh Puriya, to demonstrate his mastery over raga grammar and aesthetics.

His Carnatic choice consisted of raga-s like Basant Mukhari (Vakulabharanam), Hansadhwani, Abhogi, Vachaspati and Charukeshi, which have now been adopted by the Hindustani tradition. However, even in the Carnatic segment, he occasionally rendered raga-s which had never before been attempted by Hindustani vocalists. His knowledge of Carnatic raga-s is reported to have been the legacy of the Bhendi Bazaar maestro, Aman Ali Khan.

Master of raga-ness

Ustad Ameer Khan gave audiences uncomplicated, but often unique, access to the melodic and emotional personality of a raga. In doing so, he imprinted an indelible mark of his personality on every raga he performed. To this day, it is almost impossible for male vocalists of subsequent generations to avoid his influence over raga-s of which Ameer Khan’s recordings are available. And, to this day, the recordings market has an unlimited appetite for posthumous releases of his concert recordings.

He could communicate his image of a raga with immense clarity because of his fastidious adherence to the principles of architecture of khayal presentation. Until Ameer Khan’s arrival, the observance of this discipline varied a lot between different gharana-s and vocalists. Under his influence, khayal architecture has now established itself firmly in the musical culture, and obvious clumsiness is no longer condoned.

In order to ensure that a raga’s melodic and emotional personalities are effectively communicated, he rendered his vilambit khayals at an ultra-slow tempo, and chose to perform them primarily in Jhoomra tala, ideally suited for this tempo. At his vilambit khayal tempo of 14-20 beats per minute, Ameer Khan was, along with Abdul Waheed Khan, the most leisurely vocalist of the 20th century.

To ensure the unhindered communication of musical ideas, he opted for the minimum and unobtrusive accompaniment. He rarely took a harmonium or sarangi accompanist, and required his tabla accompanist to do nothing more than keep time within the rhythmic cycle. For a brief period, he tried accompanying himself on the Swara-mandala; but dropped it, perhaps finding it obtrusive. To compensate for a melodic accompaniment, he used a six-string tanpura in lieu of the more common four-string instrument. Once his tanpura-s were perfectly tuned, he was one with his music.

The passion for poetics

Though a man of limited education, he educated himself in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and even learnt a bit of Sanskrit. Unlike many khayal singers of his generation, Ameer Khan treated poetic element of his compositions with respect. In his selection of poetry, he exhibited a strong bias in favour of devotional verses, and allowed their literary content to shine through in his renditions.

At a time when many Hindu musicians were singing verses like “Karim naam tero” (Malhar) and “Allah janey maula jaaney (Todi), Ameer Khan chose Hindu devotional verses like: “Jinke man Rama birajey” (Malkauns), “Jai maatey vilamba taja de” (Hansadhwani), and “Guru bina gyan na paoon” (Marwa). He also proposed the idea  that, in Persian, the supposedly meaningless consonants used in the Tarana form had a well-defined meaning, and represented the Sufi practice of attaining union with God by the repetitive chanting of simple lines of evocative poetry. To enhance the mystical elements in the poetry, Ameer Khan routinely inserted Persian Rubai-s (mystical poetry), in his Tarana renditions.

Relationship with the art

In a rare essay of his published in a paper under the auspices of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (Music – East & West, 1966) Ustad Ameer Khan wrote: “The poetry (of the Tarana) is always representative of the mystic school of poets. According to the mystic symbolism, the beloved is the almighty and the devotee is his lover. Thus the poetry of Tarana,  while maintaining a romantic flavor, is strictly spiritual in substance. The Ameer (Ameer Khusro, the 13th century poet-musician, believed to be the creator of the Tarana genre), himself a devotee of Khwaja Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia, knew that music in India cannot be divorced from its spiritual import. Music is representative of the aspirations of a people; and the music of a people whose values are spiritual must be used as a means to communicate with Divine Spirit, and not merely to please the masses.”

On several occasions, Ustad Ameer Khan has said – “Music is that which emanates from the soul, and is received by the soul”. At the root of Ameer Khan’s musicianship was, clearly, the sanctity of his relationship with his art. This is why he represents, to this day, a peerless yardstick of  musicianship.

© Deepak S. Raja. 2011
Edited version of an essay published in the June, 2011 issue of SRUTI, the performing arts monthly from Chennai.