Thursday, June 2, 2011

Music Pakistan: Ustad Bundu Khan

Ustad Bundoo Khan

There is a fairy-tale like story told of Ustad Bundoo Khan, the genius of the sarangi, who lived between 1880 and 1955. So passionate was he about playing the sarangi, that he carried it with him wherever he went and would play for whomever would listen: patrons, family, strangers and even children.  He simply loved playing.  One day, in Delhi, his hometown, he was visiting the home of one of his main patrons. The man’s house was large and rambling and after waiting for a few minutes on the verandah, Bundu Khan decided he would go for a wander through the mansion.  When the master of the house went to fetch Ustadji he was nowhere to be found. Servants were sent throughout the house in search of the musician who was discovered, by his patron, lying in a flower bed playing his sarangi to himself, eyes closed facing the sky!  It was only with considerable persistence that the man was able to arouse Bundu Khan from his reverie and usher him into the house.

Such was the charmed life of the man who is considered to be the greatest sarangi nawaz of the 20th century. Born in Delhi in 1880 into a family of musicians he received his early training from his father Ali Jan Khan and later from his uncle Mamman Khan.  As an elderly man he related an experience of learning under the strict tutelage of his uncle.

'I had practised fast runs in the raga Bahar for three years. Both the ascent and the descent of the raga are looped, so it is not easy to be fluent at speed. But I was determined to earn a word of praise from Mamu. I worked hard at a typical taan of the raga until it was perfect and then I confidently played it for him. He made a face and shook his head. It was not supple enough, he said. According to him, my taan in the descent was like the neck of a pig which is so thick that it cannot even look back. I went to work for another year, for several hours a day, just concentrating on the problem of the pig's neck. Finally, I managed to get it right. You see, the taan does not actually need to look back over its shoulder, but to be beautiful it must sound as though it could bend if it had to.'

When asked what his Mamu said when he at last got it right, Ustadji smiled shyly and said, 'Mamu heard me go up and down many times. Then he said "Yes".'
Cover of a book on music theory
written by Bundu Khan

As was the practice in the first part of the 20th century musicians like Bundu Khan relied on All India Radio for regular employment, in addition to accompanying singers and performing concerts for patrons. In the 1940s the political winds began blowing across India with the ideas of Independence, Partition and the promotion of a new country, Pakistan. Like the chess players in the famous Prem Chand story, Shatranj ke khilardi, who are so obsessed with the game of chess that they are oblivious to the take over of their state by the invading British army, Ustad Bundu Khan once wondered aloud why he hadn’t heard of this new singer Mohammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) who was planning a visit to All India Radio!

When Pakistan was created many of his family including one son left Delhi and migrated to the new country. Not wanting to leave the city and his patrons but missing his family and under pressure to be a ‘good Muslim’ and move to Pakistan, Bundu Khan, lived through a period of terrible indecision and stress. At last he did move to Lahore to join his son but quickly decided to move back to India by which time new laws prohibited Pakistanis from migrating to India and he was stuck. 

He continued to perform In Pakistan and was awarded that country’s highest award (Pride of Performance) for artistes before passing away in 1955.  His two sons Ustad Buland Khan and Ustad Umrao Bundu Khan carried on the musical tradition in Pakistan.

Before the sitar became the instrument most identified with Indian music the sarangi reigned supreme. Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries the sitar and sarod were relatively rare instruments and only came into their own in the early decades of the 20th century as technology improved and as major social changes swept aside a way of life and the musicial mileu that made the sarangi king of Indian instruments.

Because of its amazing tonal depth [the instrument’s name is said come from the joining to two words, sau (100) and rang (color)] and its ability to closely follow the human voice, the sarangi and singing were for generations intimate companions.  In the 18th and 19th centuries the primary performers of popular music were the courtesans (tawwaif), the cultured women who danced and sang for the nobility and landed classes of northern India in the late Mughal era.  The courtesans were always accompanied by the sarangi but as the courtly lifestyle disappeared and especially as the cinema and radio made music available to all, the sarangi began its exit from center stage.

Indeed, so intimate was the collaboration between instrument and voice, that Ustad Bundu Khan has been credited with transforming the sarangi into a ‘solo’ instrument.  While some scholars dismiss this notion by pointing out that the sarangi was always a solo instrument, even in the 19th century, the connection with singing is deep. Many of India’s greatest classical singers, including the giant, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, studied sarangi before committing to singing. And many sarangi players began their careers as singers. Beyond dispute is the fact that the Delhi gharana (school/family) of singing traces it roots to the great line of sarangi nawaaz of which Ustad Bundu Khan was the greatest representative.

         Track Listing: (as amended by Dr Kashyap Dave)
         01 Jaunpuri
         02 Desh/Sorath
         03 Sampoorn Chandrakauns/Malkauns
         04 Bhageshri
         05 Adana/Chandrakauns
         06 Gandhari

Listen here


DrKashyap said...

Thanks a lot for posting such tracks in high bit rate. The track lables are just randomly given. Suggested correction is given in the bracket.

01 Bhageshri (Jaunpuri)
02 Udaana (Desh,better sorath)
03 Jaunpuri (sampoorn chandrakauns, better malkakuns)
04 Des (Bageshree)
05 Sampooran Chandar Kos (Adana)
06 Baldas Khani Tori (Gandhari)

Expecting more such gems esp 3 min 78 rpms or 6 min eps of old ustads. Thans again.

ajnabi said...

Hello Dr,
Thank you very much for clearing that up. My appreciation of this music is intuitive and hence I've not yet acquired the depth of knowledge of the individual ragas as you have. Therefore, your insights and suggestions are very welcome. Thanks.

DrKashyap said...

Dear Ajnabi,

Can you throw some light on this publication ? Time duration approaches CD format. There is no company name or track details on the covers. Is it a customized cd meant for private circulation ? Thanks in advance. -Dr.Kashyap (

ajnabi said...

Dr Kashyap,
These are indeed CDs. They are part of a 57-CD collection of old Radio Pakistan recordings and put out by Shalimar Recording and Broadcasting Company (Islamabad). I'm nore sure if they are commercially available outside of Pakistan. Year of issue in this format 2006

DrKashyap said...

Thanks dear for the details. It will be interesting to know the list of those cds. Shalimar is indeed doing a good service to ICM & has some of the very rare audio tracks.

ajnabi said...

Dr Sahib,
I could put a list together but not right now...but as you are a sarangi lover you might want to check out the post on Ustad Nathoo Khan.

DrKashyap said...

Thanks, Nathookhan was just overlooked. I have my comments on the Qaul blog. Mediafire link is misbehaving just now. Will d/l these high bit rate tracks.

ajnabi said...

Please let me know if you want me to refresh the links.

DrKashyap said...

No thanks, it is temporary mediafire problem. d/l ing just now.

DrKashyap said...

Dear Ajnabi,

Any chance i can mail you? Mine id is

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article!