Tucked away in a nondescript bylane of central Kolkata’s Bright Street is a large concrete house typical of the 20th century Brutalist architecture in India. In the house are stored the musical instruments that were once used by the great sitar and sarod players of the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana – luminaries who dominated Hindustani instrumental music – and the memories and manuscripts they left behind.
In this house lives the last khalifa of the gharana, the 65-year-old sarod player Ustad Irfan Muhammad Khan, who makes his living primarily as a music teacher. His music room on the ground floor appears frozen in time. On one wall are large portraits of his famous ancestors – Niamatullah Khan, Kaukab Khan, Karamatullah Khan, Sakhawat Hussain and Waliullah Khan – peering down haughtily. The gentler faces of his father Umar Khan and uncle Ilyas Khan adorn another part of the wall. A photograph of a teenage Irfan Khan posing alongside his father, wearing a medal he had won at a national music competition, completes the pictorial family tree.
As I walk through the smoke chamber of a music room, the last picture inspires poignancy within me, for I comprehend the story that might have been, had Irfan Muhammad Khan received the right support at the right time in the form of concert opportunities and sustained patronage.
Born in 1954, Irfan Muhammad Khan is a scholar-musician with a vast repertoire of sarod and sitar compositions of impeccable provenance and an unusually deep perspective on the ragas of Hindustani music. He is the antithesis of the typical gharanedar (hereditary) musician, as we know them today. Fluent in several languages, he is a compulsive reader, passionate music historian and curator of an extraordinary set of documents. These include his ancestors’ journals and manuscripts (in Urdu, Persian and Bengali), and the original notations of hundreds of compositions made by several generations of his family.
In the context of his family and the extinct milieu of elite scholar-musicians of Seni heritage, Irfan Khan’s intellectual cultivation is not an outlier but largely the norm. His forebears, the kalāvant musicians, occupied the most coveted positions in princely courts, assiduously nurtured musical knowledge and transmitted it just as rigorously.
Irfan Khan is possibly the last surviving hereditary sarodiya in India to have received, in detail, the method of developing a raga as practised by the Seni rabab and been players of the 19th century. These musicians worked from a precise skeletal sketch of a raga (a source code of sorts), based on some non-negotiable phrase sequences that were handed down by teachers and memorised through repeated practice. Using this network of phrases, they would create a flowchart of how the raga would be explored, while retaining space for personal expression. (In stark contrast, today’s instrumental music appears to privilege showcasing an individual performer’s physical skills rather than elaboration of a raga.)
And yet, despite this wealth of musical knowledge, Irfan Khan has spent his entire life and career on the margins of the performance circuit.
With frenemies like these...
To understand Irfan Khan’s heritage, it is important to visit the life and music of his grandfather Sakhawat Hussain Khan, one of the preeminent sarod players of the 1920s through the ’50s who had recorded widely.
Known for his extraordinary virtuosity on the sarod, Sakhawat Hussain toured Europe extensively for several years in the 1930s and performed at major events, such as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. During these travels, he met world leaders, monarchs and dictators, including Hitler, Stalin and Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Sakhawat Hussain was pivotal in taking the esoteric art of 20th century sarod music from the salons of wealthy aristocracies to the concert stage. As adjusted to modernity as he was steeped in traditions, he had learnt hundreds of gats (miniaturised compositions for the sitar and sarod that outline key aspects of a raga to preserve the core information) in many ragas, and mastered the Seni alaap as well as the 78 rpm recording format. Neither rulers nor other performers could help but notice these talents.
“Sakhawat Hussain ke baap,” bellowed the great sitariya Enayet Khan, introducing himself at the end of his recording of a gat in raga Khamaj on an oddball instrument he called the sursaptak. The sursaptak was a sitar but with its frets removed, which denuded it of the characteristic sound of metal strings stopped on metal frets. Khan created it with the express motive of caricaturing the music of his frenemy Sakhawat Hussain.
While Enayet Khan died in 1938, Sakhawat Hussain (1875-1955) outlived him by nearly two decades. But it is Enayet Khan’s gharana legacy that remains at the centre of the contemporary performance culture of Hindustani music, while that of Sakhawat Hussain has largely been forgotten.
Why did his lineage fade into oblivion? As the American ethnomusicologist Max Katz argues in his book Lineage of Loss – Counternarratives of North Indian Music, the factors that led to the rise of his gharana’s fortunes also led to its decline and marginalisation, namely its corpus of orthodox musical knowledge and the refusal of its members to deviate from what they considered the core values of their music.
Father and sons
Sakhawat Hussain’s sons were Umar Khan (1916-1982) and Ilyas Khan (1926-1989). Umar Khan was a sarod player and Ilyas Khan played the sitar.
Ilyas Khan was roughly a contemporary of Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. Yet few listeners today have heard of him, let alone his recorded music. He added to his gharana’s knowledge bank by studying, in addition to his family’s repertoire, more gats and dhrupads from the sitar gharana of Kalpi, near Lucknow. His non-family teachers had been the ustads Abdul Ghani Khan, a dhrupad singer, and Yusuf Ali Khan, a sitarist and sitar maker (also the original designer of the kharaj-pancham sitar that is today synonymous with Ravi Shankar).
While Umar Khan was largely trained on the sarod by his father, he too adopted much of the additional Kalpi repertoire that his brother had learnt from teachers outside the family. His friends included the likes of Mushtaq Ali Khan, Fahimuddin Dagar and the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, a peer group that influenced Umar Khan’s artistic horizons, in addition to his formal training.
For much of his professional career, Umar Khan remained in the employ of the nawab of Jalpaiguri. The nawab’s daughter, a serious musician, studied surbahar under Umar Khan for several decades. “Whenever concert offers came my father’s way, the nawab would make a generous counter-offer that killed his financial motivation to perform,” said Irfan Khan. The nawab’s deep respect for the ustad and his benevolent patronage wrecked Umar Khan’s career as a sarod soloist. So frequent were the disruptions that he gradually faded away from the concert stage, and consequently from the memory of the listening public.
Ilyas Khan, on the other hand, remained a technically ambitious musician and a voracious practitioner, according to his nephew Irfan Khan. The few available recordings of the sitarist bear evidence to this claim – there is in them a profound understanding of raga, sparkling technique, catholicism of taste and superb compositions.
When I first heard Irfan Khan online several years ago, my ears were not attuned to the old world sensibility his music embodies. I was in a hurry to dismiss his playing, for it offered me neither the technical dazzle of modern sarod players nor the saccharine sounds we have become used to hearing these days. His handling of a familiar raga, Tilak Kamod, was different from what is commonly played today. And yet, Irfan Khan’s music and his purposeful and serious manner would not leave my mind. “There is something different about him, something quite profound,” I remember saying to myself.
With time, more recordings emerged, among them a concert played in Kabul in 1986, featuring ragas Bhimpalasi and Bahar. Here, it was evident that Irfan Khan had not only received superlative taleem in both raga theory and the craft of playing the sarod, but there was serious virtuosity hidden beneath the patina of time – layers that had accumulated largely due to the lack of concert opportunities, and an uninspiring day job teaching beginners how to play the sarod and the sitar. I was hooked to this series of videos, uploaded by his disciple Dr Max Katz. For me, the most impressive aspect of Irfan Khan’s playing at that point was the effortless ease with which he played the most difficult aspects of jod and jhala on the sarod, and utilised a highly unusual 5/4 time signature, practically unheard of in our times, in these aspects.
His father Umar Khan had faded from the national performance circuit due to the whims of an eccentric patron. Once such long-established networks are lost, it is extremely difficult for a young musician to reestablish himself in the professional world of Hindustani music. After Umar Khan’s death in 1982, Irfan Khan faced a stark set of choices, none too ideal. He could either compromise on his inherited musical values or seek a low-profile teaching job that would, if nothing else, help sustain his young family. The choice he made – to teach music in residential schools – deprived him of concert opportunities and of regular contact with his musical peer group, and possibly led to a mellowing of his prowess on the sarod.
Irfan Khan recalls his first concert with considerable pride: it “was organised by Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury in 1971. I had been playing seriously for just a few years, and my father thought it was premature exposure.” But Roy Chowdhury, a widely respected scholar-musician and repository of the musical knowledge of the Seni ustads, would not relent, and young Irfan Khan was made to perform in memory of his illustrious ancestor Kaukab Khan.
Ustad Sakhawat Hussain Khan and his sons Umar Khan and Ilyas Khan shared, and willingly participated, in Pandit VN Bhatkhande’s vision of a “national music”. In the process, they allowed a large part of their proprietary repertoire to be taught as part of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes, and indeed taught such courses themselves.
But, over the decades, far from being a conservatory aimed at musical excellence, Marris College (now Bhatkhande University) succumbed to the pandemic mediocrity that came to envelop swathes of Indian academia. First-rate musicians like Ilyas Khan, who had chosen the respectability of a teaching career over the vicissitudes of a freelance professional’s life, would be reduced to squabbling over minutiae of undergraduate curricula with musically nescient bureaucratic overlords. This was possibly the reason Ilyas Khan went out of his way to prevent his nephew Irfan Khan from joining the college faculty, thereby unwittingly condemning him to further obscurity.
“I take any respectable concert that comes my way,” said Irfan Khan. For him, the primary motivation for performing, at this point, is simply to ensure that the compositions of his ancestors find a way into audibility again. However, he is too proud – and justifiably so – to lobby promoters for performance opportunities, and in the current climate, that works against him. Irfan Khan’s current projects, as a result, focus on notating, recording and archiving each composition he has inherited from his forefathers. He is also serious about passing on his knowledge of ragas to capable musicians who might do something meaningful with it. “All that I ask in return is for my forefathers to be remembered and acknowledged when someone plays this music in public,” he signed off.
Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player who occasionally writes about music. He has learnt about 100 sarod compositions from Ustad Irfan Muhammad Khan.