Spring is here, and it’s time for beautiful seasonal compositions like raga basant and raga bahar! And of course their numerous prakars like ragas basant bahar, basanti kedar, basanti kanhara, shudh bahar, hindol bahar and many more. But in this article today we do not plan to talk about seasonal ragas but a completely different facet of Hindustani Classical Music.
I’m sure most of you would have heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of raga basant. If not at a live concert, you would’ve definitely heard his duet in the same raga with Manna Dey from the film, Basant Bahar. But his renditions sound too distinct to that of Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur’s. And both their renditions are way too different than Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali’s. If the composition is the same, then an individual style shouldn’t create such a stark difference. But it does. And the reasons behind it, lead me into the mysterious world of Gharanas in Hindustani Classical Music.
A Gharana is a school of a particular style of singing or playing instruments. The birth of Gharanas seeks its origin in the idea of preserving the tradition of music, original musical compositions and the distinctive style of its founder. Over the years, it is this quality which broadly determines a Gharana.
Each Gharana has its unique discipline, system and technique. The character and style of traditionally disciplined music of a Gharana rest with one to three generations, and in due course some of the adept pupils add their own individual contribution combining with the incumbent style of performing. To add more, a Gharana also indicates a comprehensive musicological ideology; directly influencing the thinking, teaching, performance and appreciation of music.
The Gharana concept progressively gained more as the performers from various parts of India left behind their royal patronage and moved to urban centres in search of commercial success. In an attempt to retain their respective identities, they chose to be referred to by the regions they hailed from. Therefore even today, the names of many Gharanas refer to places in India. Some of the well known Gharanas in the Khayal system are Agra, Gwalior, Patiala, Kirana, Indore, Mewati, Rampur Sahaswan, Bhendi Bazar and Jaipur-Atrauli.
Being a comprehensive musicological ideology, the Gharanas often vary substantially from one another. The key differentiation between Gharanas is the manner in which the notes are sung. As Gharanas emerge from the creative style of a musical genius, he gives the existing form a completely new interpretation and cultivates new preferences. This new approach includes the tone of the voice, the pitch, the inflexions and the intonations, and the specific application of the various nuances. For example, the Kirana Gharana uses Ektaal (12-beat cycle) more frequently for Vilambit Khayal rendition while the Jaipur Gharana uses Teental (16-beat cycle) for transitioning from Vilambit to Drut laya which is not commonly featured in other Gharanas.
Apart from the Khayal tradition, Gharanas exist in Dhrupad as well as Thumri forms of singing. These Gharanas have moved from the temples to the royal courts of North India before dispersing to numerous locations in India including Benares, Lucknow, Mathura, Rampur, Jaipur, Varanasi, Darbhanga, Betia and Vishnupur.
The concept of Gharanas is not confined to vocal music alone. Although vocal music has always been the mainstay of Hindustani Classical Music, one of the most spectacular features of India's rich musical tradition is the evolution of a wide range of musical instruments and it is here where we find Gharanas in instrumental music especially with regards to Sitar, Sarod and Tabla.
As in its vocal counterpart, in the context of Indian classical instruments, the characteristics of a Gharana for each instrument includes the structure, tuning system and the tonality of the instruments teamed up with specific application of ‘tantrakari baaz’ or the vocabulary of the instrument. For example, Imdad Khan formed the Etawah Gharana, also known as the Imdadkhani Gharana which tutored musical geniuses such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Rais Khan and Ustad Imrat Khan. Another such example is that of Ustad Allauddin Khan, who created the Seni Maihar Gharana which doled stalwarts like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee.
Conventionally, a Gharana is accepted by musicologists and musicians if it has existed for a minimum of three generations either within the family or through the historic Guru-Shishya parampara. Likewise, a musician may form a distinctive style by assimilating a variety of styles; and when his sons or disciples continue this style for three generations or more, a new Gharana is born.
Thus there has always been enough and more room for creative individuality within the tradition of a Gharana. Just as Vazebua, Omkarnath Thakur, Vinayak Rao Patwardhan and D.V. Paluskar were exponents of the same Gwalior Gharana but each of them had an entirely different style of singing. Similarly as referred to earlier, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee have distinct styles of their own within the Seni Maihar framework.
The origin of the concept of Gharana lacks clarity. If we date back to the 16th century, we notice that the performing styles had already diversified into different Gharanas patronized in several princely courts. Amongst these, there were two major Gharanas that left a lasting impact on the Hindustani Classical Music system:
1. The Qawwal Gharana, founded and propagated by the multi-talented Amir Khusro. The Gharana included singers and Sitar players who were known to accompany singers during a Qawwali and Tarana performance. Later on, Shennai and Tabla players along with musicians who would accompany female singers and dancing girls in the Court too grew to be a part of this Gharana.
2. The Kalawanta Gharana, founded by renowned Dhrupad singer and composer Baiju Bawra. This Gharana included the singers of the Dhrupad style of music and the instrumentalists who played Saraswat Veena in accompaniment to vocal renditions.
Baiju Bawra was a contemporary of the famed Mian Tansen, one of the 'nine gems’ of Emperor Akbar's court and interestingly both these musicians were disciples of the same Guru; Swami Haridas, an illustrious saint from Brindavan. This period is hailed as the golden age of Hindustani Classical Music as it was at this time when the system of Khayal and Dhrupad style of music attained perfection of expressions, and was held in the highest estimation by the royal courts of that period.
After the death of these stalwart musicians, many Gharanas representing their traditions sprung up. Some of the notable amongst them were the Seni Gharanas (from the family of Tansen): the first formed by Tansen’s youngest son Bilas Khan at the Delhi Darbar, the second formed by another son of Tansen named Surat Sen, whose descendants subsequently settled in Jaipur and the Gharana of Veena formed by Misri Singh, a celebrated Veena player, son of Maharaja Samokhan Singh and husband to Saraswati Devi, (Tansen’s daughter). Besides these three Seni Gharanas, the other famous Gharanas were the ones formed by Brija Chand and Suradas at Mathura and the Tilmandi Gharana of Dhrupad in Punjab formed by Chand Khan and Suraj Khan at that time.
Today, though the controlling style of each Gharana has witnessed a drop, it won’t be correct to say that they are losing popularity and following altogether. In fact the interest has increased as the number of students learning classical music is on a rise. Since the recent past, music teachers are experimenting with newer forms within the strict frameworks of various Gharanas. The Gharanas now are allowing enough freedom for creativity and individual experimentation and this feature is attracting new entrants to the system.
Many of the popular Gharanas may not be necessarily popular in their place of origin anymore but their influences surely have spread to other parts India and the World. Like Agra Gharana today is not widely held in Agra but we could find partisans of this style in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. And if that’s not all, some musicians across the world now are trying to revive old Gharanas by thoroughly studying the forms and compositions so that if people today cannot enjoy original recordings, they could at least experience them as re -creations.