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Biography: Khadim Hussain Khan: A Progressive Traditionalist

by Mohan Nadkarni

Connoisseurs of traditional music in Bombay (and even elsewhere in Maharashtra) are by no means strangers to the Agra gharana. In fact, Bombay's association with its music is almost a century-old. Sherkha Khan, grandfather of the celebrated Vilayat Hussain Khan, was the first exponent of the gharana to come to Bombay from the North. He stayed in the city for almost a decade. Vilayat Hussain Khan's father, Nathan Khan, spent the best part of his life in what was then Bombay province, during which he groomed Bhaskar Buva Bakhale and Bablibai, who ranked among the top-notchers of the time.

The Agra gharana is admittedly one of the most popular singing styles of North India. Originally a dhrupad-dhamar gayaki, the credit for its grand evolution to the contemporary khayal vocalism goes to Ghagge Khuda Baksh, great grand-father of Faiyaz Khan, who is rightly acclaimed as the greatest maestro of the tradition in this century.

Unique blend

The greatness of Khuda Baksh's contribution lies in the way he overcame some inherent limitations of his voice (which could not lend itself to dhrupad-dhamar singing) and harnessed it so fruitfully to evolve a style that could present a unique blend of the pristine Agra gharana and the equally prestigious Gwalior gharana of khayal singers. The nom-tom alap technique, the bold, forthright approach with an open voice, the fascinating play With laya, especially in bol-taan movements, the variety of vigorous taans and quawwali-oriented enunciation of song texts-all these gave the vocalism its distinctive character.

A shining aspect of this tradition-and a rare one, too-is that almost all its ustads have been liberal by temperament, so much so that teaching has been their mission. No other gharana can perhaps claim such a vast following of disciples. Each generation of its exponents has been carrying forward the tradition to hand it down to the succeeding generation of Shagirds in the true spirit of gurushishya parampara.

The name that immediately comes to mind in the contemporary context is that of the septuagenarian, Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan, who has earned the double distinction, this year, of winning the newly-instituted Maharashtra State Award and the much-coveted President's Award in recognition of his services to Hindustani music.

Arduous But Rewarding

Born at Atrauli (in Uttar Pradesh) in 1907, Khadim Hussain Khan had his initiation into music by his father, Altaf Hussain Khan, and then from his grand uncle, Kallan Khan, both celebrities of their time and court musicians of Jaipur. Young Khadim's studentship with the latter was long and arduous-it lasted 16 years-but privileged, too, because Kallan Khan was the younger son of Ghagge Khuda Baksh, the gharana's pioneer. Thus, in a sense, Khadim is as much a direct representative of the pristine vocalism as Faiyaz Khan, who was groomed by Khuda Baksh's older son, Ghulam Abbas Khan. While Faiyaz Khan took almost wholly to the concert career, Khadim Hussain has made vidyadaan his mission.

To say this is not to deny the great qualities of Khadim Hussain Khan as a performing maestro. I have been actively associated with Bombay's musical life for over three decades and I have haunting memories of his public concerts of the late 'forties and early 'fifties. They provided me many glimpses of the rich and varied repertoire he inherited from his forefathers and several other great ustads.

Innumerable ``Shagirds"

The ustad has made Bombay his karma-bhoomi since the late twenties and taught innumerable students. Latafat Hussain (his younger brother), the late Saraswatibai Phatarpekar and Jyostna Bhole are among his senior disciples who have made a name in the field. A large number of them have taken to teaching music, while many gifted female singers like Krishna Udyavarkar have forsaken music in the prime of their life to settle down as housewives. The only exception perhaps is the case of Lalit Rao who has spurned a highly lucrative career in the engineering profession-she holds a master's degree in electronics from a Canadian university-to pursue music in the true professional manner, even while managing her household responsibilities as a devoted wife and mother. Her dedication is being richly rewarded and she has now emerged as one of the most perceptive exponents of the Agra tradition from the younger set.

I have been privileged to know the ustad rather intimately for several years and it is an experience to watch him coaching his shagirds. A stickler for perfection, he believes that ``sur-ka-lagaav" is the sine qua non of true musical expression. ``One has first to master the swara, for it provides the most solid foundation for the edifice of musical architecture," he asserts.

A less-known facet of the ustad's personality is that he is also a composer of great merit and he has written scores of cheezas under the name 'Sajan Piya'.

Good Raconteur

Humility is native to his soul. He remains unspoilt by success and fame as a respected ustad and erudite performer. Nor has his personality changed a whit. Short and slightly built, he continues to wear his dhoti, kurta and his roughly spun jacket in the familiar, old world, carefree manner. A good raconteur, he keeps his hearer spell-bound with interesting stories of his early experiences when he himself was a performer in the making. He has always a word of encouragement to every budding artiste.

Khan Saheb is all praise for socialization in music and other performing arts and he asserts that basic appreciation of music should be taught to children right from the primary stage of education.

Nor does he regret the disappearance of the era which afforded princely patronage to musicians and dancers. "Times change and we have to change with the times", he avers, and speaks respectfully of the encouragement extended to the performing arts by the Government and people in the post-freedom era.

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