History & Culture

A tribute to Iqbal Ahmed Khan of the Dilli Gharana

The death clock of 2020 has struck once again as Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan (25 November, 1956 to 17 December, 2020), the living repository of classical Indian Sufi music and the Khalifa (leader) of the Dilli Gharana passed away on Thursday morning. During the first morning prayers, sum or the first and the last beat of the rhythmic cycle of music and time, brought an end to the life of the musician, whose antecedents date back to the court of Bahadurshah Zafar, according to Mirza Arif, Urdu poet and inventor, and a direct descendent of the Mughal family.

A scene from yesteryears: The Khawaja hall at the back of the Sufi Shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin reverberated with poetry written by the 13th century Sufi Hazrat Amir Khusrau. Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan led the music rendered by a host of singers wearing pointed yellow hats.

Living in Shahjahanabad, Iqbal Sahab possessed an old tanpura from the Mughal days. Decorated with decorative ivory inlay, he sat during the monsoon in a room facing a small courtyard beckoning the clouds with his music. “My grandfather Ustad Chand Khan of Dilli Gharana wrote a treatise ‘Iqsami raga’ (variations of the Raga) where he described 45 variations of Malhar, but I remember only 35,” he once said to a group who’d dropped in, as he began to sing small verses creating an audio collage amidst the pattering raindrops.

The music of his family, including contributions by his grandfather Ustad Chand Khan and older brother Nazir Khan, captured the same spirit as the Sufi Mughal prince Dara Shikoh’s syncretic journey into literature.

Renowned Kathak danseuse Rani Khanam recalls, “Some years ago I approached Khan Sahab for music for my production on Dara Shikoh based on M.S. Sathyu’s play. The engagement was significant. Ustad Iqbal Sahab unravelled the treasures of his family.”

The Dill Gharana family possesses the rare heritage of Amir Khusrau that combines Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani musical nuances. In one composition, the raga (musical scale), like many others Khan Sahab sang, evoked the subtlety of whirling and swaying in spiritual ecstasy. Iqbal Sahab said Ushak (a raga instituted by Amir Khusrau) combined Raga Sarang, Basant, and Nava. And Raga Kufi integrated the Arabic musical scale Zilah, Hussaini and Sarang.

Once at a seminar on Sufism at the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts in the 1990s, Iqbal Sahab sat wearing his yellow Sufi cap. At the start of his recital, before an august audience with scholars from the Deccan, Kashmir, Iran, among others, he said, “This yellow cap denotes the essence of spring.”

He then described Delhi and Hindustan’s inherent essence combining Hindu-Muslim threads in the weave of Sufism. For Iqbal Sahab, it was never merely about composition, but the socio-cultural environment of the piece. “When I sing Raga Basant, my mind wanders to recreate the Sufi landscape of Hazrat Nizamuddin. I imagine my cap turning as it did with Amir Khusrau, who once pronounced his guru his qibla.”

A Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, Iqbal Sahab remained living in the quaint musical neighbourhood Suiwalan in Old Delhi. Among several initiatives to conserve his family’s syncretic musical culture, he began to evolve the yearly Ustad Chand Khan Music Festival about 25 years ago, under the Sursagar Society of Delhi Gharana. He encouraged his talented daughter Vusat and his son-in-law Imran to innovate in introducing Amir Khusrau to new audiences, with new interpretations and technology.

For instance, ‘Rudaad-e-Shireen’ was a musical storytelling production that interpreted Khusrau’s poetry to break the shackles of patriarchy. Vusat says, “For the production, together with my father, we selected compositions aligned to the events in the life of ordinary women. In many of our productions, my father insisted on young women at the centre.”

Many years ago, Iqbal Sahab read out excerpts from an entry in the diary of his grandfather Ustad Chand Khan, describing the musical gatherings to celebrate the coronation of George V at the Red Fort. Later, he read out passages about the dilemmas and suffering of artists during the days of Partition.

The spirit of Ustad Iqbal Ahmed will echo on the Yaar-e-Chabutra (the platform of friendship) at the shrine of Nizamuddin, “Sakal bun phool rahi Sarson…” (The yellow mustard is blooming in every field). These Sufi lines recall Shelley’s words of hope: “The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can spring be far behind.”

The writer is a Kathak exponent and cultural critic

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 8:37:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-tribute-to-ustad-iqbal-ahmed-khan-of-the-dilli-gharana/article33366580.ece

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