The allure of Khayal music

Syncretic heritageThe Gwalior Fort temple as seen in Nandit Desai’s documentary   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: “Gwalior — A Journey of Indian Music”

Gone are the days when pupils hid themselves behind doors and under the furniture to extract musical treasures from unwilling gurus of Khayal. Today anyone interested, from dilettante to serious student, can find a teacher. But knowing about those difficult days is important too. Three recent additions to Hindustani music education resources offer glimpses of history along with explication of vocal techniques, and sometimes a dash of legend.

The flowering of Khayal is intertwined with the inception of the Gwalior gharana, recognised as the genre’s oldest school. Meeta Pandit, a celebrated young torchbearer of the gharana, has written “India’s Heritage of Gharana Music: The Pandits of Gwalior”, which documents the beginnings of the gharana and dovetails into the contributions of her forefathers in the Pandit family who played a prodigious role in its nurture. The internet series, “The Great Indian Gharanas in Khayal”, conceptualised and anchored by journalist Nikhil Inamdar, introduces Gwalior and the later gharanas, in bite-sized capsules. And young director Nandit Desai’s 51-minute documentary, “Gwalior — A Journey of Indian Music”, too concentrates on the Gwalior gharana.

In addressing a contemporary audience, how does one reconcile gilded legend with the history and topography of medieval India, the spiritual philosophy with the intricacies of technique, which together produced the art of Khayal singing? The three communicators voice their views and motivations.


“So that everybody would know of them”

In “India’s Heritage of Gharana Music: The Pandits of Gwalior” (Shubhi Publications) we hear of the Gwalior gharana’s dramatic origins. Over a period of four months, Meeta Pandit writes, the music loving Daulatrao Scindia (ruled 1794- 1827) hid young Haddu, Hassu and Nathu Khan under his throne so they could imbibe the taan technique of Bade Mohammad Khan, who, owing to alleged family feuding, would never have consented to teach them.

Amalgamated with taan, the singing of the three secret prodigies was guided by their grandfather Natthan Pir Bux and eventually developed into the ashtaang gayaki (eightfold vocal technique) of Gwalior. This book is a welcome compilation of material, since written resources, particularly in English, are hard to come by in what is still largely an oral knowledge tradition. It contains rare photos and manuscript images from the Pandit family archives, along with stalwarts’ biographies.

Of note is the emphasis on the secular social order in which the gharana thrived, where Muslim gurus lived as revered elders with their Hindu disciples. Notably, in 1916, Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan (son of Nathu Khan) came to live with Vishnu Pandit after the dilution of royal privileges to artists. He was meticulously cared for, and in turn passed on his knowledge to two generations of the family, including his prime disciple Pandit Shankar Pandit. This arrangement, the author writes, “added to the creativity and multi-facetedness of both […].”

Three generations of Pandit family - Dr. Meeta Pandit, Pt. L.K. Pandit and Pt. Krishnarao S. Pandit

Three generations of Pandit family - Dr. Meeta Pandit, Pt. L.K. Pandit and Pt. Krishnarao S. Pandit   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: “India’s Heritage of Gharana Music: The Pandits of Gwalior”

As for open doors, the book credits Ustads Haddu, Hassu and Nathu Khan as “amongst the first musicians to break the age-old custom of limiting the talent to blood relations.” The book, Meeta’s first, is dedicated to her elder brother Tushar Pandit, a brilliant vocalist who died tragically young and whose unfinished doctoral research Meeta continued and expanded for this publication.

Some of the stories — like murder by black magic — sound fantastical. But Meeta points out they “have been taken from the instances told by Pandit Krishnarao Shankar Pandit (her grandfather), those which were told to him by Nissar Hussain Khan saheb.” Coming “directly from the people who established the Gwalior tradition and who have seen that era,” she feels, “I don’t think they can be called apocryphal.” They not only appear in written memoirs but in interviews given to journalists in those days, she says, adding, “I compiled them so that anybody or everybody who read the book would know of them.”

Pandit Krishan Rao Shankar Pandit at Tansen’s tomb

Pandit Krishan Rao Shankar Pandit at Tansen’s tomb   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: “India’s Heritage of Gharana Music: The Pandits of Gwalior”

On what lessons can be drawn today from the sometimes astonishing instances of guru bhakti, the author, a representative of the sixth generation of the Pandit lineage, says, “A trait such as guru bhakti is very individual. One may say why do I need to do this, so there is no answer to that. Similarly, as far as riyaaz is concerned, I think these things are eye-openers, how these masters attained the highest level of the art and were craving for more. I feel it is for those people to draw a lesson who get inspired.”

Meeta Pandit

Meeta Pandit  

References to musical technique, written by a practitioner and not a musicologist, are not comprehensible to the uninitiated. The aim being outreach, one would expect the publishers to help organise and phrase the information more accessibly for unversed readers.But in an age starved of role models, the social commentary is of significance, emphasising the secular social order in which Muslim gurus lived as revered elders in the home of the Pandits, and the gharana’s open-door tradition of teaching non-family members.

Breaking down the esoteric nature of this great tradition”

“The Great Indian Gharanas in Khayal” is a set of short capsules on a tradition that Nikhil Inamdar points out was “born at the intersection of such great historical events and socio-political tumults.” To back the project he naturally approached, “a website that chronicles India’s living history,” rather than a music website.

Inamdar, a business journalist with “some intermittent training” in Hindustani vocal music, says, “Since I can’t really sing, I thought the next best thing to do was to write about it or do some sort of video documentation of our great tradition.”

The series features respected musicologist Deepak Raja along with practitioners from four different gharanas “to essentially thread the narrative from the expert protagonists’ point of view, with minimal voiceover,” explains Inamdar. “I’ve always been fascinated by the subtle nuances of the craft, but as an avid listener didn’t always understand for instance, the idiosyncrasies of two different gharanas. I also felt there was a lack of video material that could delineate these comparative differences to a lay interested audience who had questions in mind but needed an easy ‘show and tell’ approach.”

Nikhil Inamdar

Nikhil Inamdar  

The speakers highlight technique with demonstration. “There is material available on the gharanas on the internet, but it is largely in the text form, and articulating ideas about one medium (music) through another (writing) is tough. The essence is lost,” says the journalist. “I wanted this to appeal to an interested, informed lay viewer/listener who is not an expert, but could be keen to know more. I think there are several people out there who ‘like’ classical music but complain they don’t ‘understand’ it — they should watch this. It’s only when we break down the esoteric nature of this great tradition, that more people will embrace it.”

Inamdar notes, “So much of our music and its traditions are shaped by real lived history, and yet much of our understanding of it is fed through popular mythology or legends that are not necessarily true. It definitely is hugely important, for classical music, to separate mythology from history. While the mythology is fantastic (and fantastical) — the ability of musicians to invoke rain and fire for instance — the history is not less fantastic. Our music is such an incredible illustrator of our great secular, syncretic traditions. We don’t really need to use the crutches of mythology to make it interesting. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened.”

For everyone who loves cinema”

Nandit Desai aimed “Gwalior — A Journey of Indian Music” at “not just musicians and rasikas but for everyone who loves cinema.” To help non-expert viewers, he attempted “not to simplify the film, but to include exposition wherever possible. So while filming, I made sure all the artistes demonstrated certain technicalities such as ashtaang gayaki.”

Young Desai is not trained in vocal music — but he’s not quite an outsider either. His mother Subhadra Desai, a senior disciple of Pandit Madhup Mudgal, is a noted Hindustani vocalist, while his father Neerav Desai has been singing for nearly four decades in the Gandharva Choir led by Mudgal. Nandit has trained in the tabla under Prasun Chatterji and is a member of the Susmit Sen Chronicles. Thus, says the filmmaker, he “was constantly or consistently exposed to the music of several stalwarts of Hindustani classical music.”

Nandit Desai

Nandit Desai  

The film features a range of practitioners speaking on the Gwalior gharana through the prism of their personal experience and expertise. Senior vocalist and scholar Satyasheel Deshpande both explains and demonstrates. Gwalior doyen Pandit L.K. Pandit and veteran vocalist Neela Bhagwat offer lucid explanations along with other artists, including Meeta Pandit, resulting in a wealth of perspectives. The script, voiced by Sadhna Srivastava, is educational, recounting the historical watershed when great musicians shifted from the Mughal court to Gwalior.

An important takeaway from Desai’s film is the consensus offered by speakers that the gharana system is vital for solid training but should not be seen as a limitation on the creativity of a musician. Screened recently at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the film will soon be marketed in DVD format, says Desai.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 9:38:18 AM |

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