Kairana is Not a Communal but a Musical Metaphor

Such villages and small towns in the Hindi-speaking region represent the best features of north India’s composite culture, commonly known as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

Ustad Majid Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Abdul Haqq Khan of the Kirana gharana. Credit:

Ustad Majid Khan, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Abdul Haqq Khan of the Kirana gharana. Credit:

Kairana, a small town in Shamli district, is not very far from Muzaffarnagar. Recently, it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Historically a Muslim-dominated place, it has been projected by the Hindutva brigade led by sitting BJP MP Hukum Singh as another Kashmir from where Hindus are being forced to flee. Over the past week, the hollowness of this campaign became very widely known and even Singh felt obliged to take a U-turn and acknowledge that his claims could have been wrong because of lapses committed by his assistants who drew up the list of those who had left. Sadly, Kairana’s name has got associated with communal politics because of this baseless calumny.

Yet, this incident had a silver lining too as people were reminded that Kairana, also spelt as Kirana, has been closely associated with the Hindustani classical music and one of the most influential gharanas bears its name.

Nearly all the major gharanas and styles of dhrupad, khayal, thumri, tappa and dadra have their origins in the Hindi-speaking region. Most of them were associated with Delhi and the towns and villages surrounding it within a radius of 300 kms. The dispersal and migration of these gharanas took place after the cataclysmic events of 1857 and the consequent disappearance of the last vestiges of the Mughal court. There was an exodus of Muslim musicians from Panipat, Sonepat, Meerut, Kairana, Chhaprauli, Ambeta, Atrauli, Agra, Bijnor, Moradabad, Khurja and many other villages and small towns in search of patronage and livelihood.

Although Kairana had produced many stalwarts like the been player Bande Ali Khan, vocalists Kale Khan and Nanhe Khan and sarangi player Haider Bakhsh Khan, the Kirana gharana as we know it today owes its existence mainly to Abdul Karim Khan and his cousin Abdul Wahid Khan.

Born on November 11, 1872 in Kairana, Abdul Karim Khan was hailed as a child prodigy and gave his first public concert at the age of eleven at Meerut. Taking a cue from dhrupad, he introduced slow tempo alapchari in khayal and devoted utmost attention to swara (note). While in his late teens, he had visited Mysore and had heard many great artistes of the Carnatic system. He incorporated their sargam patterns into his singing. In many ways, he broke with the social as well as musical norms and displayed a remarkably modern outlook.

In 1894, he, accompanied by his younger brother Abdul Haq, went to Baroda and shocked the musical fraternity by his unconventional behaviour. It so happened that famed singers Ali Bakhsh and Fateh Ali, who were known as Aliya-Fattu and had earned the sobriquet of Jarnail-Karnail (General-Colonel) of music, were invited to sing at Maharaja Sayajirao Gayakwad’s court and they gave an outstanding performance. When the maharaja asked his court musicians to sing after them, all of them made some excuse or the other. However, Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Haq readily agreed to perform when the maharaja asked them. This was in direct contravention of the unwritten protocol among musicians that forbade junior artistes to perform after their seniors.

But 22-year-old Abdul Karim Khan took the risk and both the brothers sang with such mesmerizing effect that their performance completely overshadowed the one given by Aliya-Fattu. Overnight, Abdul Karim Khan became an all-India celebrity. His next daredevil act was to elope with Tarabai Mane, daughter of a close relative of Maharaja Sayajirao Gayakwad, and marry her. Tarabai bore him five children, three of whom made a name for themselves as vocalists.

Abdul Karim Khan sensed that the times were changing and the pattern of patronage and the composition of music audiences would not remain in the same. Moreover, unlike other gharanedar ustads, he was able to realise the importance of new technology as well as experimentation. Initially, most ustads were not willing to lend their voice for cutting records but Abdul Karim Khan broke ranks with them. Had he not done this, perhaps the music world would have been deprived of a phenomenon called Bhimsen Joshi. As Joshi’s biographer, Mohan Nadkarni, informs us, one day he heard a record of Abdul Karim Khan that had two of his famous renderings – a khayal composition, ‘Phagwa Braj Dekhan Ko Chalo Ri’ in Raga Basant and a charming thumri ‘Piya Bin Nahin Aavat Chain’ in Raga Jhinjhoti. The eleven-year-old boy Bhimsen became so restless that he left home in search of a guru because he wanted “to sing like Abdul Karim Khan.”

Disregarding tough opposition from other musicians, the ustad chose to collaborate with English musicologist E. Clements who was making serious attempts to make a harmonium that could produce all the 22 shrutis (microtones).

Abdul Karim Khan also broke another convention. Those days, musicians did not announce the name of the raga that they sang or played. Even when they taught their disciples, they told them how to master a composition (bandish) and present it but very often kept the name of the raga to themselves. It was Abdul Karim Khan who realised that in a public concert setting where the audience was not made up of only cognoscenti, it was necessary to announce the name of the raga. In 1909, he organised a ticketed programme in Sholapur wherein he presented his seven-year-old son Abdul Rahman and four-year-old daughter Champakali on the stage and announced the name of the raga whose alap Abdul Rahman would present and whose sargam Champakali would sing. Later, Abdul Rahman came to be known as Sureshbabu Mane and Champakali became famous as Hirabai Barodekar, who was one of the most widely respected and acclaimed vocalists of the Kirana gharana.

Those who are abusing the name of Kairana to further their communal politics must know that Abdul Karim Khan, the best known son of Kairana, was criticised by the Brahmins of Pune for reciting Gayatri mantra and it was the great Sankritist R. G. Bhandarkar who had defended him. On the other hand, some of his co-religionists were unhappy with him for producing only Hindu students such as Balkrishnabua Kaplieshwari, Rambhau Kundgolkar alias Sawai Gandharva, Ganesh Ramchandra Behrebua and a host of others and most of them were also Brahmins. He had sung the bhajan ‘Hari Om Tatsat’ before Bal Gangadhar Tilak after he returned from the Mandalay prison and also sang a few bhajans and the Ramdhun for Mahatma Gandhi. He opened a music college in Pune in 1913 and named it Arya Sangeet Samaj. His life and music were an example of secularism. One of his non-Hindu disciples who rose to the top was the legendary Roshanara Begum, who migrated to Pakistan after 1947.

His disciple Sawai Gandharva trained the likes of Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi and Firoz Dastur. His cousin Abdul Wahid Khan spent most of his life in Lahore and taught Hirabai Barodekar (who could learn from her father Abdul Karim Khan only for a few years as her parents parted ways and the children went away with their mother Tarabai), Pran Nath, sarangi player Ram Narayan and the one and only Begum Akhtar. The great vocalist Amir Khan was deeply influenced by his ati vilambit (extra-slow) elaboration of the alap and the merukhand style permutation and combination of notes.

Kairana is not a communal but a musical metaphor. Such villages and small towns in the Hindi-speaking region represent the best features of north India’s composite culture, commonly known as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. Hindustani classical music is the best representative of this secular tradition, which never discriminates or differentiates on the basis of religion. In the pre-indepenence era, when Hindu as well as Muslim communalism was baring its fangs, attempts were made to vitiate this tradition but they were largely unsuccessful. Those shared notes are coming under strain again but the communalists will not succeed this time either.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist

  • Pradeep

    Indian culture is fundamentally Syncretistic and composite by birth and nature….
    The ‘Nagpur’ is hell-bent on destroying it to create a ground for the imposition of “Hindu Rashtra” based on the ideological cocktail of ‘Manusmruti’, Mussolini and Hitler…