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Ustad Amir Khan – A pathbreaking vocalist

The year 2024 marks the 50th “Punyatithi” of a legendary Hindustani classical vocalist, Ustad Amir Khan. He lost his life in a tragic car accident near New Alipore, Calcutta in February 1974. Unfortunately, at the time of his untimely death he was at an epitome of his artistry who could still have mesmerized the audience for at least a few more years. 

Ustad Amir Khan, with his intelligence and talent, evolved an entirely original style of presentation and gained the recognition of all. He was born in 1912 in a family boasting a lineage of great musicians. His father, Ustad Shahmir Khan was a brilliant musician who played both Sarangi and Veena with equal expertise. Amir Khan began to learn Sarangi and Vocal from his father at an early age. Young Amir Khan was constantly exposed to the various vocal gharanas since many contemporary maestros like dhrupad vocalists, Ustad Allahbande Khan and Ustad Nasiruddin Khan Dagar, Beenkar Murad Khan, Beenkar Wahid Khan, sarangi exponent, Ustad Bundu Khan, and the khayal vocalist, Ustad Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas used to frequently visit their home. Gradually, his father began to devote more time to Amir Khan’s vocal training.  For this purpose, his father once sought the documentation of the Merukhand discipline from a colleague at the Indore court. The Ustad refused on the grounds that such knowledge was not available to the son of a mere sarangi player. The remark stung Shahmir Khan, and he developed his own method for training Amir Khan in the Merukhand discipline.

The Merukhand discipline (Meru = mountain, Khand = fragment) is a logically sequenced  collection of all the 5040 (7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) melodic patterns that can be generated from seven notes. The patterns are sequenced according to a particular logic, and required to be practiced endlessly until they get programmed into the ideation process of the musician. The mastery of these patterns also, obviously, developed the musician’s technical ability to execute the most complicated melodic passages. When performing a raga, the musician chooses the patterns compatible with raga grammar for exploring the melodic personality of the raga.

Ustad Shahmir Khan did not believe in making Amir Khan practice for ten or twelve hours a day, which was the norm in those days. His prescription was to practice only three times a day, for an hour at each sitting. This remained a part of Ustad Amir Khan’s philosophy throughout his life. 

By the age of 20, Amir Khan was an accomplished vocalist. Between 1932 and 1937, he moved from city to city in search of a career as a singer. He got a foothold in Bombay through his uncle, and received some support from the eminent musicologist Shri B.R. Deodhar, came under the influence of Ustad  Aman Ali Khan of Bhendi Bazar, spent some time in Delhi, and also enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja of Raigarh in MP.

His early concerts did not go well and soon he realized that his style was not making an impact. Ustad Shahmir Khan passed away when Amir Khan was in his mid twenties and thus it was absolutely necessary for him to make a mark in the field of Hindustani Classical Music. This triggered a change in the elements of his presentation and while keeping the Merukhand system at the core, he completely reconditioned his music. The meticulous badhat – an elaboration of a raga in the vilambit/slow laya/tempo, which was considered to be the hallmark of his gayaki, was taken from Kirana Gharana icon Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan. His taans were clearly influenced by the clarity of Ustad Rajab Ali Khan. In sargam-singing, the influence of Ustad Aman Ali Khan of Bhendi-Bazar Gharana was evident. This amalgamation resulted in a newly found Indore Gharana of Ustad Amir Khan which captivated the audience and he ascended to the top of the league of vocalists.

Sitar Maestro Pt. Nikhil Banerjee found in himself a devotee of Ustad Ji right from the time when he first heard him in 1949. He analyzed Khansahab’s gayaki minutely and apart from being in awe of the brilliant unfolding of a raag and the strict adherence of Khansahab to the practice of Merukhand, Nikhil Ji pointed two other noteworthy points like the importance given by Amir Khansahab to enunciation, meaning of lyrics suitable to a raga and the extensive research on Taranas. Ustad Ji believed that the syllables of Taranas too have a meaning. Pt. Nikhil Banerjee conducted an interview with Amir Khansahab where they discussed all these in detail.  

Amir Khansahab had a limited education but he educated himself in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and even learnt a bit of Sanskrit. He was of the strong opinion  that, in Persian, the supposedly meaningless consonants used in the Tarana form had a well-defined meaning, and represented the Sufi practice of attaining union with God by the repetitive chanting of simple lines of evocative poetry. To enhance the mystical elements in the poetry, Ustad Amir Khan routinely inserted Persian Rubais (mystical poetry), in his Tarana renditions.

Amir Khansahab preferred restrained accompaniment for his performances so that he could express his musical ideas without any hindrance. He rarely took any Sarangi or Harmonium accompanist and expected the tabla accompanist to do nothing more than keep his playing plain and simple. Generally, he chose a fourteen beat taal/rhythmic cycle called Jhoomra for his vilambit khayal. He used to use a six-string tanpura instead of the more common four-string Tanpura and once they were perfectly tuned, he was one with his music.

His choice of ragas were mostly the ones with a vast scope of improvisation and the selection consisted of mature ragas like Puriya, Marwa, Multani, Darbari and Shuddha Kalyan to name a few. He also adopted a handful of ragas from the Carnatic tradition like Hamsadhwani, Abhogi, Charukeshi, Vachaspati etc.

Ustad Amir Khan also gave his voice in many films like, 

  • Baiju Bawara in which he sang a duet with Pt. D.V. Paluskar 
  • Kshudita Pashan for which Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was the music director. Amir Khansahab sang whereas Nikhil Banerjee Ji and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan played the sitar and sarod. 
  • The title song of V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje
  • ‘Goonj uthi Shehnai’ where he performed a duet with Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan  
  • In 1955, he recorded a khayal in Lalit (Jogiya more ghar aaye) for two music directors — Vasant Desai and OP Nayyar and many more.

Amir Khansahab was bestowed with honors such as the Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Presidential Award, Padma Bhushan (1971) and the Swar Vilas from Sur Singar Samsad (1971). But these awards had little or no significance for him as he would continue to remain a simple individual till his last breath. Even while performing he never made a conscious effort to please the audience and maintained the purity of Indian classical music throughout the recital.

In the course of his performance in a homely concert, Ustad Amir Khansahab said the following lines which encompasses his music,

“Sangeet ruh se nikalti aur ruh koi sunati hai” 

(“Music is that which emanates from the soul, and is received by the soul”)

Saptak Team



Image Courtesy: From the book “Sangeet Ke Dadipyaman Surya – Ustad Amir Khan” by Tejapal Singh (Singh Bandhu) and Prerna Arora

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