In this paper I propose that Behram Khan (1800-1878) introduced a “popular classicism” to the modern repertoire of Hindustani music. By “popular classicism” I do not mean a “classical music for the masses”; rather I mean an approach to pedagogy and performance derived from classical Sanskrit treatises (shastras) that made musical learning available to those who did not have access to esoteric family knowledge. This might seem at first counter-intuitive since Behram Khan is viewed as the progenitor to one of the more austere and authoritative lineages in Hindustani music—the dhrupad line of the Dagar family. And yet, oral histories allow us to suggest that Behram Khan was an outsider to elite musical lineages himself and, as such, was motivated to introduce musical knowledge to other non-music lineages. Of the principles available, the one most relevant to contemporary practice is found in the Sangita Ratnakara (written in the 13th century), in particular the mathematical delineation of permutation-combinations. Now known as merukhand, the exercises provide a theoretical structure that sits behind the organization and presentation of musical phrasings. As Win Van Der Meer argues, these combinations enabled a detailed pathway between notes and in the process de-emphasized the compositional frame of elaboration, where improvisation was based on the melodic movements of the composition. As such, musicians who came from outside sources of orthodox authority gained an alternative form of elaboration, one that provided a standardized, systematic and highly detailed progression.
The question of theoretical knowledge in Hindustani music is somewhat controversial. Turn of the (20th) century musicologists often lamented the ignorance of theory among “present-day” musicians. According to this narrative, the musicians’ conversion to Islam under Mughal rule and descent to illiteracy led to a gradual neglect of the Sanskrit shastras. The consequence, according to this view, was that music was set adrift from any theoretical moorings and “declined” to the present-day state. The work of Indian musicologists in general and V.N. Bhatkhande in particular worked to resuscitate the relevance of classical theory. I will not here address what I consider to be a particularly modernist assumption of the relationship between theory and practice. Instead, I want to explore the possibility that some shastric knowledge did in fact exist within certain musical lineages, in particular the merukhand exercises found in the Ratnakara. How does one account for this presence? Is there a continuous line of tradition that dates back to the 13th century treatise? Were there parallel developments of such principles? Or was there a more recent engagement with the treatise? I will suggest the latter and in answering as such, we can also explain the curious fact that such “classical” knowledge is more likely found in “lower” accompanist-based lineages than in “elite” solo-based lineages.
While many modern musical families demonstrate clear evidence of merukhand -based elaborations I would suggest a historical itinerary that is neither the consequence of continuous tradition nor imported inventions by way of colonial or national research. The pieces that help fit this historical puzzle together are provided by the recent release (2000) of Alladiya Khan’s memoir, which suggest an alternative positioning of Behram Khan and his motivations for accessing the treatises. In the early 1940s the great vocalist, Alladiya Khan, narrated his “life history” to his nephew. Alladiya Khan’s father was a contemporary and friend of Behram Khan. We therefore find his remembrances of Behram Khan to be of interest; in part because they are perhaps the earliest of the oral recollections we have available in published form.
Behram Khanji … went to Banaras in order to learn Sanskrit, lived there for twelve years, and acquired the Sanskritic knowledge of music. In those days Sanskrit was not taught to anyone except the brahmans (sic). Therefore Behram Khan dressed and behaved like a Hindu… He served his guru well and acquired knowledge of Sanskrit by pleasing him. There were a number of books on music in Sanskrit, and his specific intention in learning Sanskrit was to be able to read them… He studied Sangeet Ratnakar, Sangeet Kalpadrum and other ancient works on music with his guru…
Alladiya Khan came from a competing lineage but he nevertheless honors Behram Khan’s memory by attributing to him a unique status of learning and erudition. Alladiya Khan himself was also known to be proud of his Brahmanical roots and it is difficult to read his lofty comments about the revered Behram Khan outside of the cultural politics of Indian nationalism just prior to Independence. And yet, Alladiya Khan’s remembrance of Behram Khan is not without a political bite.
I sang at the court of Maharaj Ramsinghji, and started to attend the court regularly… I went to pay my respects to Behram Khansahab … He was a great friend of my father and often visited Taunk when my father was alive.… Behram Khan also asked my father to allow him to take me with him, but my father did not agree. The reason was that Behram Khan belonged to the Dadhi community.
An orthodox interdiction weighs against an exogenous pedagogical exchange. The claim that Behram Khan was a Dharhi is quite controversial. Dharhi’s had acquired a dubious reputation as accompanists to dancing girls, a dual association that would delegitimize Behram Khan’s standing as an elite solo musician coming from “pure” heritage. There are certainly political reasons for Alladiya Khan to make such claims and we would do well to treat them cautiously.  And yet, Alladiya Khan ultimately concludes that the orthodox injunction against learning “from people whose musical lineage was uncertain” was too severe and laments “what a great mistake I made” abiding by it. We also know that Alladiya Khan himself became quite the innovator and took up many non-family students, including tawaifs.
If we examine Alladiya Khan’s other, more generous, statements about Behram Khan and see them in conjunction with other oral histories and performance-practices, the claim appears plausible and can be interpreted not as smear charge but a creative response to orthodox and elitist restrictions. Indeed, what is interesting is that while the knowledge Behram Khan sought from the shastras was esoteric and exclusive his deployment of that knowledge was for popular propagation. Alladiya Khan continues:
He wished that the knowledge of music and the secrets that he had acquired with great difficulty could be made known to everybody… That is why he taught music to weaver’s children—a non-musical community—and taught them to compose sargams. Many of the weaver’s children began singing extremely well and composed sargams in difficult raags with facility. Behram Khan would allow them to sing in important concerts where singers were present and let them display their knowledge of difficult ragas. His intention was to show that while these persons from non-musical families could sing so well and knew so much about music, we musicians from traditional families had neglected the art. He wished that we singers should take notice of these things and pay attention to our music and train our children in the right fashion”
… During his time he popularized sargam in India as much as possible. Before him, some four hundred years ago, during the time of Swami Haridas and his disciple Tansen, all the singers … had a good knowledge of sargam. But they did not teach it to anybody except their children and disciples. Behram Khan popularized it among people of all communities…Behram Khan belonged to the Dhari community . . . Behram Khan was apart from all the four traditions.
Alladiya Khan’s reference to weavers suggests Behram Khan’s involvement with both Sufi and Bhakti popular traditions, in particular to those of Kabir—traditions that appealed to marginal castes and communities. There is a strong sense that Behram Khan resisted the exclusivist stance of elite musicians. We note this propagating spirit in another early recording of oral history, from the Agra vocalist Faiyaz Khan. The following comes from a recorded interview:
Interviewer: I have heard that your Gagghe Khuda Baksh was a friend of Behram Khansaheb. [In their time] when somebody used to sing, they used to ask, “From whom did you learn this?” And if the singer was unable to answer he was made to take the position of murga in the mehfil. There was so much respect that if they didn’t know sthai (first line of a composition) then they were not able to sit next to you (your elders).
Faiyaz Khan replies: Why do you have to go that far? Take, for instance, this Ali Baksh Fateh Ali of Patiala. His father played the sarangi . . . His voice was beautiful. His music was also very good … At that time, there was a music gathering (goorvar) in Jaipur. Rajab Ali Khan, Behram Khan, Mubarak Ali Khan, Tanras Khan, hamare dada Gagghe Khuda Baksh, Mohammad Rangile, all the great musicians were there.
Then he [Fateh Ali Khan] came… The sarangiyas (performers of the bowed fiddle) and tabliyas (performers of the table) were not allowed to sing in the mehfil. But Behram Khan, who had already taken a tawaif as student, her name was Goki Bai, he gave Fateh Ali Khan permission to sing. So there he sang with this beautiful voice and these fantastic taans and nobody said “vah!”
…But Khansaheb Tanras Khan broke protocol (tiagra kiya—renounced). Tanras Khan came up to him and gave him the tanpura (drone) and after that he got his fame. So, to return to your point, by just using your voice (throat) doesn’t mean you know how to sing.
It is significant that in this telling Behram Khan emerges again as the champion of the outsider. In this preeminent setting of hierarchy and place, it is Behram Khan who first breaks rank and allows the accompanist-turned-singer, Fateh Ali Khan, to sing. Behram Khan, the same vocalist marked by Alladiya Khan as a Dharhi, stands here as an authority and authorizer of position. And yet, the signs of his outsider status are apparent. For one, he taught a tawaif (courtesan), Goki Bai, as a student, which was prohibited among orthodox families at the time. For another, he broke ranks with orthodox interdictions and allowed the sarangiya, the accompanist-turned soloist, to sing. Might it be possible that Behram Khan was motivated by his own outsider status to support musicians who marginal status ritually excluded from a place on the stage? And how did the shastric principles support this propagating spirit?
Alladiya Khan refers to Behram Khan’s teaching of sargam, which suggests the explicit linking of articulated notes with their note-names, though it is difficult to determine if the term had the same reference. More traceable is the place of the merukhand exercises. Alladiya Khan does not make reference to Behram Khan’s study of merukhand but he does refer to Behram Khan’s study of the very text from which the musical progressions are found. Moreover, we know from interviews Behram Khan’s descendants, such as Z.M. Dagar, that they were deeply familiar with merukhand exercises. The merukhand structure enabled an alternative frame of improvisation. Where the older orthodox approach was more thematically attached to the composition, the merukhand structure provided a detailed and systematic approach, one that did not require specific training for elaboration as it provided a relatively standardized progression. I would even suggest that the emphasis on alap found among most dhrupad musicians owes some of its shape to the move away from compositions enabled by this merukhand structure. This might partially explain the emphasis that Z.M. Dagar places on the learning of a fixed alap in a single rag rather than multiple compositions, as the key that unlocks improvisational movements in other rags.
There is not the space to present it here, but a careful study of musical repertoires through the twentieth century reveals a consistent pattern now made sensible by and traceable to Behram Khan as outsider to the elite lineages. Those musicians who came from what were by the mid-20th century considered Kalawant gharanas (elite lineages), such as Agra, Jaipur and Gwalior, did not teach or elaborate through a merukhand structure, nor did they present alap, except for those incorporations introduced by Faiyaz Khan as influenced by Behram Khan’s grandsons. Musicians from accompanist based-lineages, however, still perform through the merukhand structure or at some point did. These latter lineages include the Indore gharana of Amir Khan, the Kirana gharana of Abdul Karim Khan and Wahid Khan, the Patiala gharana of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as well as the instrumental lineages of Imdad Khan, Bimal Mukerjee, Abdul Halim Jafar Khan, Rais Khan and Shamsuddin Desai Faridi.
In other words, it is possible to conjecture that it was the subordinate accompanist class, through Behram Khan, that accessed this “classical” frame and then grafted its mathematical structure onto a “new” performance practice. We note, then, the possibilities of an indigenous appropriation to a “forgotten” source. If we accept these accounts, it would appear that Behram Khan musically translated ancient scriptures through a set of motivations not yet overwhelmed by Orientalist investments in Indic recoveries. That is to say, Behram Khan did not appropriate the shastric tradition to re-deploy an elitist, religiously exclusive or esoteric tradition. Quite to the contrary, Behram Khan labored to use the “classical” treatises to bypass traditional sources of orthodox authority to champion the outsiders—the weavers, the untouchables, the non-musicians. Through Behram Khan, in other words, we can posit and illuminate a different historical itinerary to classical sources, one that was neither Orientalist in ideological scope nor elitist in agenda.
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- wimvdmeer on Rusha Roho in Zanzibar
- Serge NYAMBO on Rusha Roho in Zanzibar