Womanhood celebrated

musical tales

Womanhood celebrated

Vusat Iqbal Khan is the daughter of Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, the Khalifa of Dilli Gharana of Indian classical music, and the first woman from this legendary family of musicians to come forward on stage. She has combined storytelling with music to bring to people the compositions of Amir Khusrau, a few of which have never been performed beyond the walls of her family home. 

Young and vibrant, Vusat tells me, “I am proud of where I come from! Dilli Gharana is one of the oldest gharanas of music in India, established by Hazrat Amir Khusrau, famous for its khayal gayiki. Amir Khusrau’s bandishes are the treasures of Dilli Gharana. It’s important that we take to people its richness, which the gharana has preserved for 100s of years. That has been my motive in starting out with the maiden venture, Rudaad-e-Shireen.”

This attempt by Vusat has been well-received by the connoisseurs of art and music, evident from the record number of performances within a span of a few months. “The idea is to have more such productions where we weave storytelling with the traditional bandishes from the gharana.”

For instance, she says, “All the bandishes that you hear in Rudaad-e-Shireen are legacies of the oral tradition that my father, Abbiji, has received from those who came before him in the gharana. But in this production, Abbiji has brought a contemporary flair to the compositions so they could be appreciated by all.”

Her Rudaad-e-Shireen team comprises vocalists Bhawna (who has also written the script for storytelling), Anju Sharma, Mohena Bahl, Rajnandini and Yashpreet.

Vusat emphasises, “These girls have sung some of the toughest compositions so beautifully! I tell you, they could get it right because of the rigorous rehearsals with Abbiji,” adding, “These bandishes are the legacies gifted to our students. And it takes months and years to get a bandish correctly.”

Strength in unity
Bhawna is training in Sufiana gayiki, Anju Sharma’s forte lies in ghazals, Mohena Bahl and Rajnandini are powerful classical singers, and Yashpreet specialises in Punjabi folk. “All of them are individual performers,” relates Vusat, “and as a team they bring great diversity as well as strength to the quality of the work.”

Vusat reveals that her support comes from her core team that constitutes her father, her husband Imran, and vocalist Bhawna. “What I have been able to do has been possible because of my discussions with them. And to a great extent, they have helped me execute all these conceptions.”

And that she comes from Dilli Gharana only complements her work. Rudaad-e-Shireen is performed on pre-recorded tracks, which are nothing short of archival material, because the sitar recital is by Ustad Saeed Zafar Khan; on flute is the renowned Ajay Prasanna, on tabla is Sabir Khan, on keyboard is Ravi; and the rhythm-arrangement is by Sundaram Khan — all of whom are among the best of our times.

As for her storytelling skills, she has been trained by dastango Nadeem Shah Suhrawardy, one of the few in modern times to have performed more than 100 dastangoi shows in India and abroad. “I am so grateful to him and look forward to performing with him someday!”

This is the first time Dilli Gharana has come up with a multimedia show: they have used lights, arranged by Ashutosh; paintings of Raja Ravi Varma; Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan’s voice at one point; and the dramatised narration of the story by Vusat. The extremely shy Bhawna points out, “Many people say paintings should not come in the presentation because they may be distracting. But I thought Shireen’s emotions in every frame could be captured by Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, for visual effect.”

Search for identity
In Rudaad-e-Shireen, Khusrau’s compositions have been used to express the journey of Shireen from childhood to adulthood, and the shift in her life from living primarily as someone’s daughter and someone’s wife to somebody who realises her own identity. “Shireen’s tale is about realising the ultimate reality through self-realisation. As poet, philosopher Allama Iqbal famously said, ‘Khud-shanasi hi khuda-shanasi hai’,” explains Bhawna. And, the bandishes used in this production connect a life cycle, chips in Imran.

For future projects, Vusat has many things on her mind. She wants to bring as many khayal compositions of Dilli Gharana to the outside world, hoping to take them to the popular realm from classical high-art through the medium of storytelling. She says her biggest inspiration has been her mother, Zohra Khan, the daughter of legendary Ustad Hilal Ahmed Khan.

Zohra Khan was the first woman in the family to not only graduate, but also to ever step inside a college. And that perhaps explains why Vusat has been able to spread her wings and get into territories no girl from her family has ever charted before.


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