Legendary Figures: Ustad Imdad Khan and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, fountainheads of two great string lineages

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Ustad Imdad Khan (1848-1920, pictured above) was a sitar and surbahar (bass sitar) player born in Agra as a fourth-generation musician, His family's musical tradition would, thanks to his efforts, become known as the Imdadkhani gharana - also referred to as the Etawah gharana after their traditional home village. Imdad was renowned for intensive music practice sessions, including a chilla, a ritualised, non-stop practice session in isolation, traditionally for forty days. According to family sources, he is said to have practised the sitar in a state of chilla for some twelve years.

Trained by his father, Ustad Sahabdad Khan, a highly accomplished vocalist who had taught himself to also play sitar, it was Imdad who led the development and technical perfection that gave this musical family its distinctive instrumental style. During the 19th century, Indian classical music was dominated by the Senia style, named after Tansen, the court musician of the 16th century, and continued down the generations through his descendants.

Since Tansen had been a dhrupadya, every musical instrument of the time was expected to emulate the vocal technique of dhrupad. But Imdad, ever the visionary, chose to focus on the more modern khayal-ang, a classical style which, unlike dhrupad, relies on extensive ornamentation and improvisation.

Imdad achieved tremendous name and fame during his lifetime, serving as court musician in the principalities of Mysore and Indore with the pinnacle of success coming with being invited to play at the Delhi Darbar in 1913.

His legacy has made the Khan family one of the greatest musical families of India, and gained a huge following abroad. He gave the 20th and 21st centuries some of Indian classical music’s best-known instrumentalists: of his two sons, Ustad Inayat Khan, a sitar player (not to be confused with Sufi Inayat Khan), and Ustad Wahid Khan, who specialised in the surbahar.

Of his grandsons, Ustad Vilayat Khan was widely acknowledged as one of the best sitar players in the world while Imrat Khan is a surbahar virtuoso. Of his great-grandsons, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Ustad Nishat Khan, Ustad Irshad Khan, and Ustad Shujaat Khan all play sitar or surbahar (or, in some cases, both) while Ustad Wajahat Khan charts his own territory as the only Imdadkhani sarod player.


Listen to the music | Ustad Imdad Khan became the world's first recorded sitarist in 1904.

Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (1888-1972), the master musician of the Gwalior court, was a giant among sarod players of the early 20th century, becoming a legend in his own lifetime. His regal appearance and tremendous charisma are said to have made him the country's sought-after musician, despite being in an era when instrumental performances was clearly ranked behind vocal music.

A fifth generation descendant of the famous Bangash family, Khan’s Pathan ancestor Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash migrated to India from Afghanistan settling in the princely state of Rewa. His son, Ghulam Bandagi Khan Bangash, (grandfather of Hafiz) is credited with playing a major role in the development of the sarod, adapting it from the ancient Afghan rabaab by adding a metal fingerboard and more strings, hence creating a fusion of two major musical traditions.

Ghulam Bandagi Khan moved from Rewa to Gwalior, one of India’s most important musical centres of royal patronage where his sons (one of whom was sarod superstar Naneh Khan, father of Hafiz) continued developing the sarod, with an overtly lyrical style gradually emerging as the hallmark of the family.

Purists and critics of the time charge that Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan’s style was closer to the light classical vocal style thumri than the heavy-duty dhrupad, which was considered the more serious classical form.

This appears to be a somewhat unfair criticism as he had extensive training in dhrupad with the legendary Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur (a direct descendant of the legendary Tansen) where he overlapped with a fellow-pupil and another great musician of that period, Ustad Allauddin Khan. He was a purist in his own right and in post-Independence India, even appealed to the President to intervene in the preservation of certain classical raags.

Modern day exponents of this gharana – all sarod players – are led by Hafiz Ali Khan’s son, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who further developed and perfected an intensely lyrical style now also followed by his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash.


Listen to the music | Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan on an early recording of the reverential Raag Darbari Kanada, associated with the solemn atmosphere of the royal courts at which he played in Gwalior.

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

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