Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rebel, Genius, Pioneer: Khansahib Abdul Karim Khan

Khansahib Abdul Karim Khan

A recent re-discovery that has much of the blogosphere and specialist music labels abuzz is Abdul Karim Khan, a man gifted with a voice of unbelievable luxuriousness and a life as troubled as any 1970’s rocker. 

The following are some extracts of a booklet that accompanies a 2010 release of his music by London’s Mississippi Records.

Abdul Karim Khan was born November 11, 1872 in the village of Kairana in western present day UP in north central India, a small agrarian town founded at the beginning of the 17th century. He was the eldest of four siblings, three sons and a daughter, each born about a year apart from one another. His family were part of a group of interrelated Sunni families in Kairana who revered the Chisti Order of Sufi saints, especially Moinuddin Chisti ( 1141-d. 1230), a Persian who travelled through Central Asia before settling in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India. Abdul Karim and his brothers studied music as boys with their father, Kale Khan, and two of their uncles, who in turn had been taught father/uncle-to-son in a tradition traceable back to Ghazi Khan, Abdul Karim’s great-grandfather, and Ghazi’s brother, Ghulu Khan, who were employed as musicians in the court of Delhi at the beginning of the 17th century. The family’ earlier musical lineage is through to go back to either Dhondu Nayak, a Hindu musician who was known to have been active at Gwalior at the turn of the 16th century, or to a family of Sufi qawwali devotional singers and sarangi players who began as folk musicians and refined their music over generations.

During the 19th century, some exceptional musicians from Kairana, the majority of them having been players of the bin (the predominant string soloist’s instrument before it was superseded by the sitar) and sarangi  (vertical fiddle used to accompany vocalists), most notably Bande Ali Khan (b. 1829, d. 1895), who was said to have been the greatest bin player of his time, and to whom Abdul Karim Khan was related by marriage as well as in musical lineage.  Bande Ali Khan had given both of his daughters in marriage to grandsons of Behram Khan (B 1727-d 1852), who in turn is believed to have been the son of a Hindu named Gopal Das Dagar who converted to Islam and who is now considered the seminal antecedent to the Dagar clan of vocalists and bin players. From the marriage of Bande Ali Khan’s daughters and Behram Khan’s grandsons, four great singers were born, their sons Moinuddin, Aminuddin, Zahiruddin and Fayazzuddin Dagar, who in turn trained their children as well including bin player Zia Mohuiddin Dagar (b 1929 d 1990) who then trained his son Bahauddin Khan (b 1970) who continues that family’s tradition in the present.  Abdul Karim Khan had received early training on sarangi from his own family before approaching Bande Ali Khan for lessons on bin.  According to that family line, it was Bande Ali Khan who insisted that Abdul Karim Khan study voice rather than bin.

As the Mughal Empire collapsed and the British East India Company accelerated expansion and control during the 19th century, the musicians of Kairana travelled to various courts, further than before and with increasing frequency. That there was a rail station only two miles from town made it possible to take up residency in Darbhanga to the east, where Abdul Karim’s father and uncle were employed as singers for a while, or to Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur and Mysore.  By the age of 11, Abdul Karim and his brother Abdul Latif were being presented in concert near their home, and by 1888, when Abdul Karim was 16, his father took him to the court of Mysore to visit an uncle who was working there as a sarangi player. It was Abdul Karim’s initial first-hand exposure to the ‘big time’. For a classical musician of the 19th or early 20th century in Northern India, employment at a modest salary in one of the spectacular and opulent courts was a covetable way of life, and for a boy from a small village, the sheer scale and grandeur of the place must have been entrancing.
Sawai Gandharava and Abdul Karim Khan

For some time Khansahib sang in the court of the progressive ruler of Baroda, in present day Gujarat. Here he fell in love with a high-born Hindu woman, Tarabai Mane and eventually abandoned his Muslim wife and eloped. This effectively put paid to his prospects of being employed respectfully in any court in India.  Abdul Karim with Tarabai in tow, set across on a  ‘never ending tour’ of India singing publicly in concert halls for a paying audience. Though this was a move made out of necessity, it was ground-breaking and showed the way forward for Indian classical musicians who found themselves without their traditional royal patrons as political change swept the country and democracy replaced petty monarchy.

Abdul Karim also was one of the earliest male vocalists to perform thumris, ‘semi-erotic poems originally for the accompaniment of courtesan dancing girls’. Though thumri and other similar styles were considered ‘light’ music, Khansahib dedicated as much care and effort and imbued each composition with a level of artistic commitment equal to that which he brought to khyal. 
Khansahib and 'party' recording 1930's

He was also an early pioneer of the record and cut his first sides as early as 1905 with and American and German recording team attached to the Gramaphone Company of London. He did not, however, record any more until more than 30 years later.

In 1905, when Abdul Karim Khan first recorded, the Gramaphone Company had only been recording in India for two and half years. When Abdul Karim’s voice was first bought and sold as part of the new technology of mechanical reproduction, his 31 performances were among 5000 recordings made in India during the period 1902-08. The limitation of the medium itself both in sound quality and duration discouraged many of the best musicians from commodifying their art into records. For an improviser capable of singing a single composition for an hour at a time like Abdul Karim, the format’s demand that a performer demonstrate his art in a couple of minutes was anomalous at best and insulting at worse. Meanwhile, there was little status to be gained from having recorded.  Records were expensive at first and only available to wealthy households or prosperous businesses, but over the course of several decades, record players and the discs to play on them became increasingly affordable and whatever social cachet might have been hoped for by owners of ‘talking machines’ dwindled.

A further reason for some of the best performers of Abdul Karim Khan’s generation not to have recorded is more subtle. In the tradition of guru-to-disciple transmission of classical music in India, the performer himself is a living manifestation of his art’s history, and each performance is potentially decisive. The intellectual and aesthetic disciple, not only of the individual but of perhaps of centuries of his handed-down lineage may be on one hand called into question, scrutinised, or debunked, or on the other, accepted, understood and taken with the hearts and minds of individuals in the audience.

Abdul Karim and Tarabai continued a nomadic life moving into Maharashtrian towns of Miraj,  Sholapur and finally Pune where he opened a music school. But as his success as a concert performer grew his ability to provide consistent training to students suffered. He was away in far flung parts of India for weeks and months at a time. Not only did his school suffer but his wife too began to feel the strain. Tensions between the right ‘faith’ in which to raise their children added to the stress and eventually Tarabai upped and left with four children in tow.  In the meantime, Abdul Karim’s cousin, Abdul Wahid Khan, joined him in Pune to help out with the school. But tensions grew here as well.

Abdul Karim and Abdul Wahid were equals as artists but had a complicated relationship. The differences between them were physical, temperamental and philosophical. Abdul Karim was slender to the point of gauntness; Abdul Wahid was corpulent. Abdul Karim was married to a Hindu, taught Hindu students and operated in a largely Hindu sphere of intellectuals; Abdul Wahid was a devoted Sufi who felt Muslims offered too much to Hindus and received too little in return. Abdul Wahid was also married to the sister of Abdul Karim’s first wife—the one he had abandoned in fleeing Baroda. Abdul Wahid travelled little and as a performer, insistent on as much time as possible to carry out his incredibly long expositions of raga. He was also a serious opium smoker, who was in later years nicknamed, “ the deaf’ because he had damaged his hearing in the stoned practice of playing high, steady drones for long periods on the upper register of the sarangi.

Though depressed and heart broken that his wife had left him and his family was gone he refused to remarry his first Muslim wife and continued to ‘hit the road’. His stage shows were often elaborate and crowded with several tabla players, tanpura-ists, and even his dog, Ustad Tipu, that howled along as he played.  As time’s changed, Abdul Karim’s attitude toward recording his voice also shifted. He saw its potential to promote his art and attract larger audiences and so in 1934-5 recorded again for a German company, Odeon.

In October 1937, Abdul Karim Khan had performed well-received concerts in Madras. He had received an invitation from the poet, philosopher and nationalist, Sri Aurobindo, to perform at his ashram in Pondicherry.  On the train journey to Pondicherry, he felt unwell and decided to detrain to rest on a rail station. According to one story, he laid down on a bench, sang a prayer in rag darbari and passed away. In another story, he turned to the man sitting next to him and told him, “I’m going now,” pulled down his turban and died. It was October 22 and he was 65 years old. The cause was heart failure. Radio stations across India interrupted their programs to broadcast the news of his death.

The sides included in tonight’s post are from the 1934-5 Odeon sessions in Bombay.

                  Track Listing:
       01 Misra Kafi Hori_ Bavari Dama de Jayo
02 Basant Khyal_  Phagava brija dekhana ko chalori
03 Basant Khyal_  Ab Maine man dekhe
04 Gujri Todi Tarana_ Dim Dara Dir Dir
05 Malkauns_ Pira Na Jane Deki
06 Jhinjhoti Thumri_ Piya Bina Nahin Avat Chaina
07 Gara Thumri_ Jadu Bhareli Kauna
08 Ananda Bhairavi_ Ugicha ka Kanta Ganjila
09 Bhairavi Thumri_  Jamuna ka Tira Kanha
10 Sindhi Kafi khyal_ Nach Sundari Karun Kopa


Giri Mandi said...

Too much, too much, too much!!!

ajnabi said...

my feelings exactly!

Anonymous said...

just a heads-up, mississippi records is from right here in the beautiful city of portland, oregon- thnx-

Anonymous said...

any chance ov gettin this in mp3 form? if not, any ideas on how to? appreciate any help- thank you

ajnabi said...

Anonymous, check back in a day or two.

Anonymous said...

sounds good- thnx for responding-

Anonymous said...

Can you please reupload this by any chance? This is a rare, rare set of songs. Thanks! Ramesh

Nathan Rabe said...