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Biography: Abdul Karim Khan

by Mohan Nadkarni

First Published in: The Economic Times, Bombay, October 24, 1982

Abdul Karim Khan strode the musical realm like a colossus for well over a generation in the early decades of this century. He not only gave a new elan to the history of Hindustani music, but also set a novel trend in classicism by making a fundamental departure from the several contemporary styles of traditional singing. In fact, the aesthetic virtues that marked his vocalism were all his own, not visualized or projected before. His music was sweet, soothing and serene. It was also sensuous and naturally avoided dramatic contrasts and tensions. Nor did it have a sense of massiveness and dignity. But such shortcomings, if they could be so-called, were more than overcome by an intensely emotional approach.

Two more and equally trend-setting departures from convention are the Ustad's innovation of a style of thumri which was again radically different from the orthodox, time-honored Purab ang; and his adaptation of Carnatic ragas to the Hindustani way. In the Ustad's voice, the Purab-ang thumri shed its erotic motivations and instead, acquired the character of a sad, pensive and devout supplication. The Carnatic adaptations, on the other hand, emerged with a new color and sparkle in the Hindustani garb. It was the kind of musical fusion, a genius like him alone could conceive, achieve and also popularize.

Predictably, the exuberance and freedom of Abdul Karim Khan's gayaki created an unprecedented stir among the orthodox milieu of the time. It brought him as many critics as votaries. To quote the late professor D.P.Mukherji, an eminent author, connoisseur and critic from = Bengal: ``Abdul Karim Khan would invite us to enter into the sanctum sanctorum 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 pupils' pupils''.

The validity of Dr.Mukherji's observations is resoundingly brought home by the brilliant array of his parampara. The list is rather too long to permit individual mention. Today, we have the fourth-generation exponents of his gayaki, who can be trusted, given certain conditions, to enrich and foster the parampara.

Born at Kirana, a village in the Kurukshetra region, now in Haryana, in 1872, Abdul Karim Khan migrated to south-west Maharashtra along with his brother, Abdul Huq, while he was still in his twenties. His new style grew in tremendous popularity despite the controversy that dogged him throughout his life. He received patronage from princely courts of Mysore and Baroda even while he moved from place to place in the course of his concert tours. It was during such concert tours that he attracted and groomed a large number of shagirds.

It is undeniable that the Kirana gharana, as we know it today, is the brain-child of Abdul Karim Khan. Precious little is, however, known about his forbears or their contribution. That is what makes him not only the pioneer but also the founder of the contemporary Kirana gayaki.

It is on record that the Ustad was not only a benevolent teacher but also a man of many parts a skilled shikari, a sensitive photographer and a top-notch exponent of the veena and the sarangi.

I was not lucky to hear the Ustad in flesh and blood. He has fortunately left behind numerous commercial discs which, according to old-timers who had heard him, do little justice. They remember him as a pilgrim of melody engaged in his eternal quest of swara one who did not create music but just flowered into it. As for me, I never tire of hearing his records even today.

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