Music maestro Iqbal Ahmed Khan tells ANJANA RAJAN about the hoary tradition of the Dilli gharana of which he is the torchbearer

A family that sings together stays together. Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan and his clan — that spreads itself genially through the rooms, nooks and surprise terraces of “Mosiqui Manzil” in Delhi’s Darya Ganj — exemplify this adapted adage. It takes some perseverance to reach the ustad, the khalifa or senior most exponent of the Dilli gharana of Hindustani music. Leaving the main road, automobiles and ‘Delhi now’ behind, we proceed deeper and deeper into the bylanes behind Golcha cinema. The helpfulness of the bystanders and shopkeepers is inversely proportional to the width of the streets. As the lanes get progressively slimmer, there is less and less need to ask for directions by house number. ‘Iqbal Bhai’ is well known to his neighbours. As he is, indeed to India and much of the world.

The 200-year-old house does not get its name from a passing flight of fancy. For generations, it has been the seat of the stalwarts of the Dilli gharana. As the ustad reels off a battery of eminent names, one can just catch those of the past few generations: “Ustad Sangi Khan, father of Ustad Mamman Khan, then Ustad Chand Khan, then my father Zahoor Ahmed Khan, then me, my sons, and by God’s grace my grandson Aalif.” That makes seven generations, though the musical family tree goes back much further, to Miyan Achpal, a musician at the Delhi Sultanate.

He names many a celebrated vocalist who has been a student at Mosiqui Manzil, learning from his great grandfather, grandfather and granduncles: “Mallika Pukhraj, Siddheshwari Devi, her sister Kamleshwari, K.L. Saigal, Madhubala, Mumtaz…they all learnt here. Others too, like Vidushi Krishna Bisht, my guru-behen,” he says, adding, “And I too learnt in this very room.”

He notes fondly, “I was born in this house. Nafeesa Begum, my mother, is Ustad Chand Khan’s daughter.” Thus, he has been gifted both his music and his house as a precious inheritance.

Soon to complete 60 years, he has already performed for 50 of them, and the golden jubilee of his career was celebrated not long ago by Sursagar Society of Delhi Gharana. When he was eight, he performed under the auspices of Gandharva Mahavidyalya, and last week he was there again, singing at the Vidyalaya’s annual Vishnu Digambar Jayanti Samaroh.

As a baby, Iqbal Ahmed was virtually adopted by his maternal grandfather and guru. “I was three months old. My mother tells me she used to take me only to feed me. I can’t remember those days, but she tells me that when I was two, he would hold me to him and pat out talas on my back. When I was three, he started teaching me a bit, and by the time I was four I had started formally training. He always kept me by his side.”

He points out an old newspaper clipping where he is seen as a tiny tot sitting beside his grandfather-guru. The paper is dated 1957, and, ironically, the article heading shows that preserving the tradition was a significant concern even then.

Mehfils and impromptu concerts were common occurrences, he recalls. “Any musician coming to Delhi visited our house. It was the focal point.” They would stay at hotels like the Haji Hotel nearby, but meals were at Mosiqui Manzil. The concerts would be held on the ground floor of the house in a portion that is no longer free, since with the expansion of the family, many new rooms have been built and partitioned off.

The memories come out like landmarks in Hindustani musical lore. Ustad Amir Khan came when the film with which he was associated, Baiju Bawra, was released. “Kya buzurg, kya kalakaar (Such revered elders, such artistes)! Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhai Lalji Lahorewale, Ravi Shankar, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, Vilayat Khan Saheb Agrawale, Rahimuddin Khan Saheb Dagar, Shiv Kumar Sharma’s father…you name them, and they came. My grandfather loved to invite them and arrange feasts and concerts for them.”

Surrounded as he was by loving gurus, friends and family, there was one special cousin, Zohra, who became his wife. “She has been the support I needed to accomplish anything in life,” he says affectionately. The ustad, a graduate of Dayal Singh College, also informs us, “My wife is the first woman graduate in our khandaan. She went to Mata Sundari College. That is why our children too have studied well.”

Life is different today. The city around him has changed beyond recognition, and, despite his protective zeal in preserving the layout of the room in which he and his forefathers practised music, life in Mosiqui Manzil too has changed. The ustad weeps freely when he remembers the various festivals when the gurus and shishyas got together to sing bhajans in praise of the relevant deity or genres of the season. “On Holi we would sing horis one after the other, during Bahar, we would sing Bahar ke prakaar (varieties of raga Bahar). On Durga Puja we would have mehfils till midnight, then make a round of the temples. All that is over. I feel very alone when I remember those days,” he sighs.

But on a more cheerful note, he sings a bhajan composition in a silky-sandy voice. “Kripa samudram sumukham trinetram…I have composed hundreds of bhajans,” he recounts with relish. He also likes to compose music for classical dancers and promptly comes out with a Sanskrit shloka to Shiva, the lord of dance, “Angikam bhuvanam yasya…”

The ustad spends a few months of the year in the U.S. where he has a number of disciples. “It is because of them that I go,” he says. “I do my bit to propagate art and culture.”

What brought him back from a three-month stint there this summer was the pull of his grandson. As he takes him in his lap and starts to sing, the five-month-old needs no patting, no soothing. He is all alertness. The parivar parampara, it is obvious, is in full flow.

Changing tunes, one raga

One can imagine that Mosiqui Manzil used to be a sprawling mansion when Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan was a child. Dividing it up between family members, adding rooms and floors, has changed the structure substantially. “The house number was once 1071, then it became 1593, then 1594,” he says. Now his portion is number 1595. But then the city is no longer an expansive place either. From the terrace of his house, the ustad says, the Qutub Minar was once clearly visible. Later, only Jama Masjid, being closer by, could be seen. But now, all around Mosiqui Manzil are buildings and more buildings, rising in crooked verticals to a smoggy sky. A few intrepid young residents fly kites from precarious perches. The ustad waves to a neighbour looking over from his terrace. “We have grown up together,” he says with a contented smile. There’s always room for harmony.