Legendary Figures: Ustad Allauddin Khan, a guru of genius

Category Legendary figures 11 May 2019

A distinguished lineage of instrumentalists descends from India's most renowned classical music maestro of the 20th century, Ustad Allauddin Khan, affectionately known as ‘Baba'. He reportedly lived to be 110 years old (c.1862-1972).

Allauddin did not come from a hereditary family of musicians although music was played for enjoyment. He ran away from home at the age of ten to join a jatra (traditional Bengali street theatre) group, which exposed him to Bengal’s immensely rich folk music. He settled in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) and began a twelve year programme of formal study in Indian classical music, initially as a vocalist with one of Bengal’s greatest singers, Nulo Gopal. But seven years later, when his teacher died suddenly of the plague, Khan is said to have been so aggrieved that he vowed to never pursue a career as a vocalist.

He considered himself to not even have reached the most basic threshold in music with his guru, and instead began to turn his attention to various other instruments, including the violin, which he learned to play. He became drawn to the sarod on hearing a recital by a pupil of the great Asghar Ali Khan (Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s grand uncle). Eventually he moved to Rampur, an important centre for royal patronage of music, to study with the legendary veena player Ustad Wazir Khan (who was also tutor to Hafiz Ali Khan, Amjad’s father, in the same period).

Later he became the court musician and tutor to Maharajah Brijnath Singh of Maihar, a princely enclave in central India. He remained in Maihar from 1918 until his death in 1972, long after India had disbanded its royalty. A Maihar tradition had already been established in the 19th century, but Allauddin Khan’s contribution to its development and technical perfection has been so tremendous that it is often assumed that he was the founder of what is now known as the Maihar gharana.

The beginning of the 20th century was an important period for classical instruments with two main opposing schools of thought on how an instrument should sound: there were those who attempted to emulate the modern, romantic khayal style of playing as opposed to others who sought to restore the original Dhrupad flavour of Tansen's days. Allauddin Khan clearly leaned towards the latter and although his public recitals were always on the sarod, he could play many instruments – Indian and Western – with tremendous ease and confidence.

Anecdotes about his time as a court musician range from throwing a tabla-tuning hammer at the Maharajah himself to personally undertaking the care of a disabled beggar. One of the most prolific classical composers of the 20th century, he had a tendency towards mixed or composite raags (meolodic structures) and produced a few dozen new ones of which the best-known is Raag Manj Khamaj. Fortunately, a number of his recordings survive intact, the most important ones being his recitals for All India Radio in 1959 and 1960.

Ustad Allaudin Khan has groomed some of the greatest instrumentalists of our time, most notably his son and pupil Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and, most unusually for that time, his daughter Annapurna (real name Roshanara Khan), who went on to be a fine vocalist, sitar and surbahar player. Other disciples include such distinguished names as Pandit Pannalal Ghosh (bansuri) and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (sitar). Even so, perhaps his most famous pupil remains Pandit Ravi Shankar, who went on to make the sitar a world famous Indian instrument.

• Listen to the music | Ustad Allaudin Khan showcases his superb command of the sarod with a rapid-fire take of Raag Lalit:

• Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia

—Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music, our new series exploring how music with ancient roots continues to innovate in a fast-paced, interconnected modern world. Expand your appreciation!

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