Delhi, the capital city for centuries under various dynasties, naturally became an important centre for music and the arts. The possibilities of royal patronage attracted many artists to Delhi. The Delhi gharana of Hindustani music traces its origins to the time of the Delhi Sultanate. According to its current practitioners, there were two brothers during the time of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1210-36)—Mir Hasan Sawant and Mir Bula Kalawant—one of whom was deaf and the other was dumb as well as deaf. The legend goes that they were called to court by the Sultan to sing in front of him! Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri found out about the plight of the two brothers and prayed for them and they were cured and got the gift of music from the Almighty and began singing beautifully. Hasan Sawant had a Sufi inclination and thus began singing qawwali and his tradition came to be known as the Qawwal Bache gharana. Bula Kalawant became a court singer and his tradition came to be known as the Delhi gharana. It is thus to be kept in mind that there exist inextricable links between the Qawwal Bache gharana and what later came to be called the Delhi gharana both in terms of familial/disciple relations and stylistic affiliations and repertoire to this day.
The tradition of qawwali singing is connected with the Chishti silsila within the Sufis and Hazrat Amir Khusro (1253-1325) features prominently among those who contributed in myriad ways to the development of this musical tradition of the north.
It is said that it was Hazrat Amir Khusro who modelled the khayal and the rudiments of khayal gayaki. However, it is also historical conjecture that the popularity of khayal happened only during the reign of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangile’ (1719-48). Others say that khayal gayaki received considerable patronage during the reign of the Jaunpur king Sultan Hussain Shah Sharqui (1452-89). In either case, there seems to be a considerable gap in terms of time between the probable invention of the khayal during the 13th century and its spread during the 15th or 18th centuries which remains unexplained.
Genealogical charts of the gharana claim that the court singer during the reign of the last emperor of Delhi Bahadur Shah Zafar (1838-57)—Miyan Ajmal Khan (popularly known as Miyan Achpal)—was a representative of the Qawwal Bache gharana. His brother Ghulam Hussain and disciple Tanras Khan kept the tradition of the gharana alive. The son-in-law of Ghulam Hussain was Sangi Khan who focused his attention to sarangi playing, while the disciples of Tanras Khan kept the vocal tradition of the gharana alive. The last great doyen of the Delhi gharana, Ustad Chand Khan (1889-1980) claimed to have been related to the Qawwal Bache gharana on the maternal side and the Delhi gharana on the paternal side.
Coming to stylistic features of vocalism, it is said that it was the Qawwal Bache gharana which began phirat, which may be translated as a free run, up and down the octave, within the confines of the raag. This new aspect of elaboration of the raag was later on adapted by the Gwalior and other gharanas. The phirat is said to have been first sung and presented by Ustad Bade Mohammad Khan. It is to be noted that this is the same person who is said to have taught the Gwalior gharana ustads Haddu and Hassu Khan, albeit indirectly! It was he who made this mode of development especially intricate, instead of taking straight runs up and down the octave. Another stalwart of the Qawwal Bache gharana, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan is credited with the invention of dohri or dugun ki phirat. This is the person about whom Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana spoke very highly, going so far to say that there was no singer like Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan during his time! Similarly, the Kasur-Patiala gharana can also be traced back to the Qawwal Bache gharana as the founders— Ustads Fateh Ali and Ali Bakhsh— were disciples of Tanras Khan who in turn was the disciple of Miyan Achpal. Thus, it can be seen clearly that a number of vocal styles which are prevalent to this day can be traced back to prominent figures of the tradition in Delhi.
The Delhi gharana of tabla was founded in the early 18th century by Sidhar Khan, a pakhawaj player in Rangile’s court, and the playing style of this gharana is also known as the band baaj. This style has clarity of sound that is a result of the initial role of the tabla as an accompaniment to vocal and instrumental music. This sharpness is achieved by playing on the chanti or kinar.
In the 20th century, the most important tabla player of the Delhi gharana was Gamay Khan (1883-1958). His son Inam Ali Khan (1924-90) was an important tabla player of later part of the 20th century. Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan (1941-90) was a disciple of both Gamay Khan and Inam Ali Khan. More recently, Ustad Shafaat Ahmed Khan (1954-2005), the son and disciple of Chamma Khan from another branch of the gharana, and Pandit Chatur Lal (1925-65), represented the gharana very ably.
It was but natural that the revolt of 1857 and the partition of India in 1947 meant considerable movement away from Delhi in search of alternate centres of patronage. Tanras Khan moved to Hyderabad after the tumultuous events in 1857 and stayed there until his death in 1890. After partition, quite a few artists went over to Pakistan and the Delhi gharana is represented by Ustad Nasiruddin Saami in Pakistan. The current khalifa of the Delhi gharana is Ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan while the khalifa of the Qawwal Bacche gharana is Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal. The sons of Taan Samrat Ustad Naseer Ahmed Khan—Tanvir and Imran Ahmed—are carrying forward the gharana’s legacy of vocal music. The tradition of sitar playing within the gharana, which was brought into vogue by Ustad Zafar Ahmed Khan, is ably represented by his son and disciple Ustad Saeed Zafar Khan. The tradition of tabla is also being carried forward by exponents of the gharana such as Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Ustad Rafiuddin Sabri and Pandit Subhash Nirwan.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, August 2007