Remembering Ustad Amir Khan on his 105th birth anniversary.

Ustad Amir Khan (15 August 1912–13 February 1974) was a well-known Indian classical vocalist. He is considered one of the most influential figures in Hindustani classical music, and the founder of the Indore Gharana.

Amir Khan had a rich baritone voice with a three-octave range, and could move equally effortlessly in any octave. He developed his own gayaki (singing style), influenced by the styles of Abdul Waheed Khan (vilambit tempo), Rajab Ali Khan (taans) and Aman Ali Khan (merukhand). This unique style, known as the Indore Gharana, blends the spiritual flavor and grandeur of dhrupad with the ornate vividness of khyal. Amir Khansahib presented an aesthetically detailed badhat (progression) in ati-vilambit laya (very slow tempo) using bol-alap with merukhandi patterns, followed by gradually speeding up sargams with various ornamentations, taans and bol-taans with complex and unpredictable movements and jumps while preserving the raga structure, and finally a madhyalaya or drut laya (medium or fast tempo) chhota khyal or a ruba’idar tarana. He helped popularize the tarana, as well as khyalnuma compositions in the Dari variant of Persian. While he was famous for his use of merukhand, he did not do a purely merukhandi alap but rather inserted merukhandi passages throughout his performance.

Khansahib often used the taals Jhoomra and Ektaal, and generally preferred a simple theka (basic tabla strokes that define the taal) from the tabla accompanist. Even though he had been trained in the sarangi, he generally performed khyals and taranas with only a six-stringed tanpura and tabla for accompaniment. Sometimes he had a subdued harmonium accompaniment, but he almost never used the sarangi.

While he could do traditional layakari (rhythmic play), including bol-baant, which he has demonstrated in a few recordings, he generally favored a swara-oriented and alap-dominated style, and his layakari was generally more subtle. His performances had an understated elegance, reverence, restrained passion and an utter lack of showmanship that both moved and awed listeners. According to Kumarprasad Mukhopadhyay’s book “The Lost World of Hindustani Music”, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s music was extroverted, exuberant and a crowd-puller, whereas Amir Khan’s was an introverted, dignified darbar style. Amir Khansahib believed that poetry was important in khyal compositions, and with his pen name, Sur Rang (“colored in swara”), he has left several compositions.

He believed in competition between the genres of classical music and film and other popular music, and he felt that classical renderings needed to be made more beautiful while remaining faithful to the spirit and grammar of the raga. He used to say, “नग़मा वही नग़मा है जो रूह सुने और रूह सुनाए” (music is that which originates from the heart and touches the soul).

Besides singing in concerts, Amir Khan also sang film songs in ragas, in a purely classical style, most notably for the films Baiju Bawra, Shabaab and Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. This attempt to introduce classical music to the masses through films significantly boosted Khansahib’s visibility and popularity. He also sang a ghazal Rahiye Ab Aisi Jagah for a documentary on Ghalib.

Khansahib’s disciples include Amarnath, A. Kanan, Ajit Singh Paintal, Akhtar Sadmani, Amarjeet Kaur, Bhimsen Sharma, Gajendra Bakshi, Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Kamal Bose, Kankana Banerjee, Mukund Goswami, Munir Khan, Pradyumna Kumud Mukherjee and Poorabi Mukherjee, Shankar Mazumdar, Singh Brothers, Srikant Bakre and Thomas Ross. His style has also influenced many other singers and instrumentalists, including Bhimsen Joshi, Gokulotsavji Maharaj, Mahendra Toke, Prabha Atre, Rashid Khan, Ajoy Chakrabarty, Rasiklal Andharia, Sanhita Nandi, Shanti Sharma, Nikhil Banerjee, the Imdadkhani gharana, and Sultan Khan. Although he referred to his style as the Indore Gharana, he was a firm believer of absorbing elements from various gharanas.

Amir Khan was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1967 and the Padma Bhushan in 1971.

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