Amir Khan with Nikhilda and Nikhilda's cousin Pratima Mukherjee, 1970.


Music of the Soul, on Amir Khan

Music of the Soul
Nikhil Banerjee

(Abtracted from the souvenir publication of the "music conference to raise funds for a mausoleum on the grave of Amir Khan", Organized by Amir Khan Sangeet Sangstha Rabindra Sadan February 16, 1975, 5 PM).

The cultural history of our motherland is perhaps the most wonderful story of a long and sublime integration. The civilisation which we call ours had to face the currents issuing from different foreign sources as a sequel to the numberless invasions that had been carried out through the ages. But none of the forces could annihilate the inherent vitality of our culture which assimilated them, enriched its own treasure and enlarged its own dimension. The entire pulse of that life or vitality could be felt in the solid spiritual backbone that was sturdy enough to maintain its entity. Our civilisation is embedded in spiritualism. This tradition derived all its strength and beauty fundamentally from music. literature etc. of its own soil. This to my mind sets the proper perspective against which India's classical music should be studied and practiced. To that extent it has an image of its own. Our music is never a matter of festive gaiety.

This tradition of our music was carried out with all its serenity by the great devotees like Swami Baijunath, Swami Haridas, Swami Tyagraja, Mirabai, Surdas, and others. They accepted music as a medium of self-realisation. As lone wanderers of life, they were absorbed in their sadhana. But things began to change after the Muslim invasion during the 12th century. Musicians came to be admired and given a high place of honour in the court of the nawab-Badshah of the day. Musicians reacted to their circumstances positively. The spiritual goal came to be overlooked and gradually the purpose of entertainment prevailed over it. Here we trace a distinct fail from the standard both in form and content of music. Instead of that sombre contemplation of the divine spirit, the musicians catered to the taste of the court perhaps for the patronage which was offered to them. From then on musicians imbibed the tendency of showmanship mingled with an attraction for pomp and splendour of their association sometimes imperceptibly. All this background is elaborated only to assign to Ustad Amir Khan the correct place that he should be given in the history of our music. In him I found a rebirth of that Saint-Musician who with his philosophy of music was lost through decades.

Perhaps it was in the year 1949 when I attended a conference organised by Raichand Boral primarily as a listener of Pandit Ravi Shankar. As Panditji had finished his recital I was going to leave the auditorium when suddenly came to my ear the raga Abhogi from out of a voice in its 'full throated ease' The magic of the voice did have a hypnotic spell on me and instantly drew me back to my chair. That a kheyal performance could be so enthralling was quite a revelation for me especially considering my state of mind at a younger age. Henceforth I found in me a devotee of the great Ustad. In my later life I came in touch with him through my cousin Srimati Purabi Mukherjee who was under his guidance. In many concerts we took part together (as different items of course) as artistes. He has been a constant inspiration in my musical career. In going to develop my own musical ideas I have very often felt that Khan Saheb has thrown a new light on the concept of music and his demonstration has opened up a new horizon with its immense possibilities.

The first thing which strikes me about Amir Khan's performance is his brilliant exposition of the raga image with a strict adherence to the rasa or the mood that is implied in it. This is generally achieved through the medium of alap followed by dhrupad singers. Instrumental concerts invariably start with the alap and jod before passing on to the main composition viz. gat. Among the present kheyal singers Amir Khan most successfully assimilated this alap-paddhati in his vilambit khayal bistar portion. Quite scrupulously he confines his sthay-khanda in both the saptaks - mandra and madhya. He was very much of an artiste in trying to maintain the predominance of raga-image throughout the performance He was very much of an artiste in trying to maintain the predominance of rage-image throughout the performance. Therefore he did not indulge in juggling and acrobatics of tal and layakari which he believed could easily be achieved at the expense of aesthetics. He was an Ustad and no mistake but his valiant craftsmanship was mellowed by the grace and cadence of his artistry and filtered through the purest channel of his philosophy.

At this point it may be relevant to examine what attitude he maintained towards the choice of lyrics. It has been a general belief that in a kheyal, lyric can get only a secondary importance. But unfortunately many famous musicians and composers had pushed this idea to an extreme with the result that they tried to fit in most irresponsibly a handful of poor lyrics in some of the most serious ragas. Sometimes they are crude and vulgar. Amir Khan condemned and hated such blasphemy. His sthayi compositions speak for themselves and are a pointer to the principle that verse and melody must correspond to each other to reach any significance. His compositions were so inevitable that they cannot be performed satisfactorily in any mode other than his own.

The next technical thing on which Khan Saheb had best of his practice and mastery is known as merukhand or backbone. Up till now very few musicians have realised or emphasised its importance. Amir Khan focused heavily on it. He had successfully practised all the 5,040 patterns that are possible by the combinations of seven notes enabling him to have full control over the rag blooming forth with an inexhaustible variety of vistar and tan.

And last but not least, he gave a new dimension to the tarana style ol singing which was first innovated by Amir Khusrau. Khusrau added many Persian poetry not understandable to many. This gave the people an impression that Tarana is a composition of meaningless words, syllables and bols of the instrument such as odani/tudani/nadirdani/tom, meaning : He knows You know/You are the ultimate wisdom/l am yours/. Amir Khan deciphered the meaning ot these words and proved their appropriateness. He used to add a few lines from Persian poetry while he performed tarana. He read a paper in the conference on the music of East and West held in 1964 at New Delhi. "The poetry is", he writes "always representative of the mystic school of poets. According to the mystic symbolism the beloved is the almighty and the devotee his lover. Thus the poetry of the tarana, while maintaining a romantic flavour is strictly spiritual in substance. Music is representative of the aspiration of the people and the music of the people whose values are spiritual must be used as a means to communicate with the divine spirit and not merely to please the masses. Here is an example of one of his famous compositions in the raga Darbari Kanada:

Yare man bia bia
Dar tam tadim
Tanan tanatadin
Tanan tana dim tom ta na na na


Ba balam raseeda jaanum
Tu bia ke zinda maanum Pas azari ki man na
naanum Bacheh kar khahi amud.

which means : 'Oh love, come soon, come at once/ come and enter my body/ For I am yours, come

Antara : My life hangs on my lips/Come thou that I may live again/For if thou shall come when I am no more/ To what avail shall it be".

Another feature of the tarana is the repetition of certain words at a great speed. But Amir Khan did not encourage an exhibition of speed for its own sake. He thought that a person is given to repeat a word again and again in the state of a trance originating either from devotion or pathos or any other heightened emotional state.

Thus Ustad Amir Khan was a great thinker and a composer who was capable of translating his ideas into practice. At every stage of his life he was attempting a bold experiment and striving for perfection. He had a total command over the intrinsic purity of the classical formula of music but that never made him a conservative. He was fully aware of his ulterior purpose and his responsibilities to that extent as an artiste. He had the originality to defy the worn out conventional canons of the kheyal gayaki and to maintain a constructive approach towards the aesthetic beauty of a performance. A few days before he died I met him in a rather homely concert where in course of his demonstration he said to me "Sangit ruh se nikalti aur ruh koi sunati hai" which means : "Music is wrung out of your heart which alone it is given to enchant".

Even to this day I often feel haunted by those words. Music is the spontaneous outflow of the purest feelings of the soul and it must come as "leaves to a tree". Khan Saheb was never mad after public appreciation or recognition. Music with him was a spiritual pursuit - something which by awakening in our mind "the image of beauty and harmony keeps the suggestion of an eternal truth". He sought to concentrate within himself and conceive the raga image as the mother conceives the child and attained the profound meaning of the raga. It is this philosophy of music which places him in the spiritual tradition to which history stands witness.

Amir Khan was "interviewed" by Nikhil Banerjee in this recording, date not known.