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One of the most important event in the realm of Hindustani classical music took place last year with the release of 'Ananya', a double disc comprising 2 hr. 12 min. music of Ustad Amir Khan (25th February 1912-13th February 1974). Released by Navras Records in 'The Great Masters' series, these rather fragile but rare private concert recordings of the Ustad now find their their place where they belong--the hearts and minds of the listeners of Hindustani music. To many followers of Amir Khan's music, it comes like a true revival.

Like many historical events of great worth, whose significance is realised and re-constructed much later, this event too passed rather without much notice, except in Calcutta--the city where Ustad spent his most important and final years of his life. 'Ananya' rescues, 25 years after Amir Khan's death, his priceless gayaki in Raga Yaman, Hamsadhwani, Puriya and Abhogi from going into oblivion. His rendering of Raga Yaman (43:21min.) shines through the haze of numerous schools, conventions, renderings and interpretations, makes them look like half-hearted attempts, and appears so definitive that it will be difficult for musicians in future to emulate or ignore it.

It is just not a piece of gayaki (vocal music); it is a revelation. Amir Khan had done to Yaman what he had earlier done to Raga Marwa, Megh, Hamsadhwani and Nand: he has made it all his own.

10 minutes into this monumental piece of singing he suddenly feels it important to remind listeners that he is singing a very old bandish of khayal--a Persian rubai of Amir Khusro, that it is very old indeed. Now, we know that there was no khayal in 13th century; the genre was made popular only in 18th, and that Amir Khusro's rubai that he is singing was never used as a bandish of khayal before! It has been an old habit or strategy of Hindustani musicians to hide their originality and seek legitimacy for their innovations and feats of individual creativity by attributing them to ancient sources. The true genius of Amir Khan lies not in his classicism and traditionalism (he was a master of both yet disregrded them at will) but in the revolutionary changes he brought into the very mode of Raga presentation and singing style. He was the most profound, original, intellectual, meditative, democratic-humanist and critically aware vocalist in the entire history of Hindustani music.

As we have said Amir Khan was not  a destroyer of tradition. He simply knew what to do with it. Most musicians before him did not know that and many do not even today. He was original without being jerky, and was a traditionalist without being parochial or bigoted. He was great builder and a great dreamer. He understood the essence of the Indian cultural tradition lies in continuously evolving multicultural and shared heritage of which the Hindustani classical music was the finest example, and to which he contributed almost as much as--if not more than--anybody else.

Despite being rooted in the ethos of post-independent Indian society and contemporary concerns and tensions, his music transcends his age and his time in a way all great art does. Once some people in a group were informally debating the relative merits and demerits of various gharanas (schools or traditions) and practitioners of Hindustani music. As always the question was raised about Ustad Amir Khan's place in the scheme of Hindustani music and the exact significance of his gayaki. A young admirer of Ustad asserted that Amir Khan was perhaps the greatest musicians of this tradition that we know of. There was instant disapproval; some people asked: what about Tansen? Baiju Bawra? Swami Haridas? etc. Others asked, more reasonably, what this follower of Amir Khan thought, for instance, of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayyaz Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, The two 'Pandits' (VD Paluskar and DV Paluskar), the two Dagars (Moinuddin and Aminuddin), Ustad Alladiya Khan, Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Ustad Rajab Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, and, of course, Begum Akhtar. Faced with this barrage, the youngman responded in a much subdued voice that Amir Khan may not be the greatest musician of 20th century by the criteria, standards or parameters that have evolved in this century (may be Abdul Karim Khan or Fayyaz Khan or Kesarbai are greater), but on the scale of a millenium, on a larger civilisational canvas, Amir Khan would still be the greatest Hindustani musician of all time. To his surprise this point was generally conceded and even applauded by the cognoscenti. This incident does underline the way in which the quiet genius of Amir Khan has irresistably come to symbolise the very soul of Hindustani music.

We have chosen some excerpts from the available recordings to pay tribute to Amir Khan at the turn of the millenium.

Amir Khan

It was Amir Khan who single-handedly dragged, with extraordinary gentleness and charm, the Hindustani classical music from the grips of the feudal ethos (where the arrogant feudal patron was called guni, and the musicians who invariably were very low in the social ladder depended on his recognition to escape poverty and neglect) and strove to give it a democratic temperament and individual dignity.

He was the artist par excellence of Independent India--modest, dignified, thoughtful, melancholic and almost casual. There is no attempt to dazzle and bewitch the listeners, no gimmickry and distortion, no pushing and jostling.

He rose much above his other great contemporaries like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Paluskar, Kesarbai and even Begum Akhtar in that he did not seem to need an audience, a pedestal and a durbar at all and yet he was very mindful of what he did with his listeners and his own stature. If one could be allowed to suspend for a moment the primacy of politics in the way an age is defined, then the period branded as the Nehru Age in India can also easily be called the Age of Amir Khan.


We provide here a sampling of ragas rendered by him.

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