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Ustad Amir Khan

Ustaad Amir Khan The death of Ustad Amir Khan in a tragic motor accident in Calcutta a few years ago has created a void in the world of Hindustani classical music. At the present time, when there is a dearth of such gifted artists, his death is an irreparable loss. Had he lived longer he would have had, at least, a number of able and talented disciples to carry on the tradition of his gharana.

In the last 25 years some artists have, by their revolutionary spirit, progressive outlook and creative faculties brought about radical changes in the style of presentation of classcal music. Ustad Amir Khan was such an artist. Like Kumar Gandharva. Amir Khan disregarded the age-old, conventional traditions, and with his intelligence and talent evolved an entirely original style of presentation. He also succeeded in gaining the approval and recognition of critics and connoisseurs.

Amir Khan was born at Indore in 1912. Music was in his blood; his ancestors had been musicians in the Mughal courts. His father was an expert sarangi and veena player. A mehfil of Amir Khan's was always a pleasant experience. He had a very impressive and magnetic personality. At his concerts he would always sit in the posture of a yogi doing his tapasya, with closed eyes and deep meditation. He maintained the same position till the end of his concert. His smiling countenance, a total lack of gesticulation or facial distortion, his absolute concentration on the song, and the slow, gradual build-up of a raga picture in- variably kept his audience completely engrossed. He had, for accompaniment, two tanpuras tuned to perfection, a subdued harmonium and a tabla with a straight, simple but steady laya. An atmosphere of solemnity and tranquillity pervaded his con- certs, in striking contrast with the noisy and sometimes un- musical gymnastic bouts some singers have with the tabla players that entertain listeners with acrobatics rather than providing them with aesthetic delight.

He had cultivated his voice till it was as exquisitely chiselled as a piece of sculpture. While presenting a raga he unfolded it with extreme skill, delicacy and purity. At times, when an ascending note appeared to be suspended in mid-air, he un- expectedly made a lightning play on that note, holding the audience spellbound. Because of his inborn, instinctive know- ledge of avakash, kal and laya he was able to make his voice sound as if he was singing swaras from two different octaves simultaneously, treating his audience to a unique celestial ex- perience. His mastery over layakari and the swaras was com- plete. His taans though complicated, and full of artistic twists. vere executed in an easy and graceful way. He had an amazingly wide range of pitch, and he moved majestically through this span with his liquid golden voice. Listeners were always favour- ably impressed by his gayaki and skilled display of tonal beauty. He did not agree with the popular notion that the tarana was just a tongue-twisting exercise with a meaningless cluster of words, involving a lot of voeal jugglery in an ever-increasing tempo. He always put into a tarana a Persian couplet inter- woven in the apparently meaningless 'Dir tun, tan, din yalali, yalallum', and honestly believed that these syllables did have some mysterious and mystic import. According to him it was the Persian scholar Amir Khusro who invented the tarana. Amir Khan was very keen on establishing this theory by carrying out research to unravel the hidden meanings of the tarana. But cruel destiny snatched him away and his mission was left un- accomplished.

Amir Khan's presentation was always thoughtful and methodi- cal and he rarely indulged in repetitive phrases. The thorough treatment he gave each raga naturally required coniderable time for flawless elaboration. It was well-nigh impossible to get a satisfactory exposition from him in just 3 minutes. It was therefore only in the late 1960s that I could have him to record for a long-playing disc. It was not an easy job to bring him before the mike, though obtaining his consent was not all that difficult. Even to approach him posed a very big problem for me. Amir Khan lived, in those days, in very disreputable sur- roundings, where it was considered very objectionab]e for any gentleman to go, even during the day. This is the locality a little beyond and opposite the Congress House on Vallabhhhai Patel Road, near the Kennedy bridge. It is inhabited by professional singing and dancing girls, as well as prostitutes. Amir Khan was giving tuitions to some of these singing girls for his living and therefore had to stay in one of the buildings on the third floor. Later, when his financial position improved, he shifted to a flat on Peddar Road. Just beyond the building where Amir Khan lived was the residence of an elderly singer by the name of Gangabai. Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Ahmad Jan Tirakhwa often stayed with her. This shows that even women of these professions were treated with respect as artists, in artistic cirles. As the recording executive of H.M.V. I had to contact artists regardless of time and place.

To obtain Amir Khan's agreement for the recording I had to meet him, and ,therefore it was incumbent on me to visit his residence. I was greatly put off when I learnt about the locality where he stayed. I was afraid of what people would say if they observed me entering a house of ill repute. Any outsider would naturally draw his own conclusions, not knowing that an eminent singer was living in that building. If I had, out of fear of social stigma, refrained from going to visit Amir Khan, his great artistry would have gone unrecorded. The idea of securing his consent for recording together with a keen sense of duty prompted me to enter the building, eyes downcast, not looking about me till I entered Amir Khan's room on thc 3rd floor. Once in his room I cheered up, and I talked to him for an hour or two. After that I visited him often. We exchanged views on music and gharanas, and such visits gave me opportunities to study his likes and dislikes. These visits also gave him confidence in me. After a couple of months and 4 or 5 such visits, he agreed to come for a recording. Some more time was lost in persuad- ing him to agree to the terms of payment. Finally this hurdle too was crossed. Yet Amir Khan went on cancelling dates, giving fresh ones and then again postponing the recording on some flimsy ground. I got fed up with his dilly-daUying and, in spite of my great regard and respect for him, I justifiably felt very annoyed. Ultimately one day I plucked up my courage and said to him, 'If I had approached God Almighty as many times as I have come to you, he would have blessed me, but all I can get from you is the promise of a future date.'

Seeing my exasperation he became thoughtful, smiled a little and replied, 'Please do not disbelieve me. Name any day of this week and I will keep the appointment.'

True to his word he came on the day I named, and I got from him his first long-playing disc. His favourite ragas were Marwa, Darbari Kanada and Malkauns. It is indeed rare these days to hear Raga Marwa as it was presented by Bade Gulam Ali and Amir Khan. His first LP was received with tremendous enthu- siasm by the public. This delighted Amir Khan, and he was more than ready for another recording. In spite of this I had to put in a lot of effort and time to bring him to the studio again. This time he made an LP containing ragas Lalit and Megh and this was all that could be obtained from him before he was lost to the world.

It was my ardent desire to record as many eminent artists as was possible and to get out of each as much as I could to preserve their art for posterity. Bade Gulam Ali, Alla Diya Khan, Amir Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar, rajaballi, Amanat Ali, all these and others of that generation had extremely old fashioned, conservative outlooks and were peculiarly obstinate when it came to recording their talents. This attitude prevented me from fully achieving my goal, and a wealth of art vanished along with these great singers.

I felt very distressed at Amir Khan's sudden death. I still have feelings of great disappointment and frustration when I think of the number of opportunities I lost.

by G.N. Joshi Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series

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