Kharaj Pancham and beyond

Right notes: Sitar Ratna Ustad Rahimat Khan training famous Marathi musician Vasant Pawar in the Sitar.

The range of music, the world over, has nothing less than four octaves, called Sapthaks, yet, Sitar, a prominent string instrument in Hindustani music, took a while to reach the level. The Sitar is still used by many with six strings, which, many musicians argue, deprives it of the fourth, base octave.

Sitar Ratna Ustad Rahimat Khan (1855-1954) is credited with adding the fourth ‘Kharaj Pancham’ string style to the Sitar, giving the instrument the base octave and thereby a sense of ‘completion’. The Kharaj Pancham, with seven strings, is a feature unique to Ustad Rahimat Khan’s legacy. A legacy that is being carried on to this day, three generations later, as the Dharwad Gharana.

Interestingly, like the Sitar, Rahimat Khan’s journey in music too changed its path several times. There was a change in the very instrument he played, an addition of a new instrument to his profile, his place of residence and even an addition to – if not change in – the school of music, the Gharana, that he belonged to.

Turning point

When asked about this journey of both, the Ustad and the Sitar, Ustad Rais Bale Khan and Ustad Hafiz Bale Khan, who are seventh generation musicians, Sitar maestros and great-grandsons of Rahimat Khan, said, “The oldest known name in the family tree, Ustad Daulat Khan, his son Ustad Madar Baksh Khan, grandson Ustad Gulam Hussain Khan and great-grandsons Usman Khan and Rahimat Khan played the Rudraveena and were vocalists too. The turning point in Rahimat Khan’s life as a musician – one could say, Indian music itself – was the entry of Rudraveena maestro Ustad Bande Ali Khan.”

Gulam Hussain Khan sent a young Rahimat Khan, already a trained vocalist and good at playing the Rudraveena and other instruments like Esraj, Jal Tarang and Tabla, to Indore for further training under his uncle Bande Ali Khan.

“Legend has it that a visionary Bande Ali Khan, after training, warned Rahimat Khan never to play the Rudraveena to earn his daily bread, lest misfortune befalls his family. Instead, he told his student to improvise the Sitar,” said the brothers.

“The Sitar, originally played by Persians, had only three strings and was called ‘sehtar’, from which it got the name ‘Sitar’. Over the centuries, it got three more strings, but the fourth octave was still missing in it. Rahimat Khan experimented with the Sitar as ordered by his
guru, using strings from the Rudraveena,” they explained.

Lo and behold, the entry of the ‘Kharaj Pancham’, giving the fourth octave to the Sitar! The ‘renovated’ Sitar and its artiste went about winning hearts, the most important being that of the Mysore king, Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar.

“Rahimat Khan was among the prominent artistes invited by Krishnaraja Wadiyar to perform at the annual Dasara festival. Spell-bound by his mastery over the Sitar, Wadiyar bestowed the title of Sitar Ratna on him. The king also requested Rahimat Khan to stay in Mysore as the court musician, but the Ustad humbly turned down the offer,” said Dr Raghavendra Ayi, president of the Sitar Ratna Samiti, Dharwad.

The annual journey from Indore to Mysore gave Rahimat Khan a chance to see Dharwad and fall in love with it. He, therefore, shifted his base, bringing the instrumental legacy of Hindustani music to the south of the Vindhyas in the first decade of the 1900s.

Incidentally, members of the family have resided in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, Bhavnagar in Gujarat, and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Kolhapur and Pune in Maharashtra, before settling in Dharwad. In fact, Rahimat Khan’s father Gulam Hussain Khan was a court musician at Bhavnagar.

The family’s musical journey takes an interesting route on the map of time and music. “Rudraveena being the earlier instrument we played, our family is said to have belonged to the Beenkar Gharana, ‘Been’ is the Hindi word for Veena. Also, from Daulath Khan to Rahimat Khan, our ancestors belonged to the Gwalior Gharana. With the entry of Bande Ali Khan, the founder of Kirana Gharana, and his great influence over Rahimat Khan, the family changed to Kirana Gharana,” said Hafiz Khan.

It has taken a century’s worth of time and effort for four generations to popularise the Sitar beyond the Dharwad region. Today, the illustrious family of musicians is recognised as the pioneers of Dharwad Gharana. “A school of music gets the title of a Gharana if it survives for 100 years or three generations. It was, therefore, declared in 2015 in Mumbai that Ustad Rahimat Khan’s school of music would be called as the Dharwad Gharana,” Rais Khan said.

Following in the footsteps of Rahimat Khan, at least 16 Sitar artistes from three generations in the family have enthralled the audience while two more are in the making.

Interestingly, while the Sitar is what people immediately associate the family with, their relationship with vocal music remains close. “Rahimat Khan’s eldest son Ustad Prof Abdul Kareem Khan preferred to remain mostly backstage, training his seven sons – Usman Khan, Bale Khan, Mehboob Khan, Hameed Khan, Chote Rahimat Khan, Rafique Khan and Shafique Khan – and some of us, too, in Sitar and also vocal music,” Hafiz Khan said.

“When credited with carrying on the legacy of the Dharwad Gharana, we can only look up in gratitude to Abdul Kareem Khan for having fiercely protected the new style of playing the Sitar and passing it on to us,” he added.

Abdul Kareem Khan was also the guru to well-known Hindustani vocalists Pt Ganapati Bhat Hasanag and Pt Vinayak Torvi. Abdul Kareem Khan trained his second son Ustad Bale Khan to be a vocalist only, but destiny had other plans. Famed Santhoor player Pt Bhajan Sopori said, “It is evident that Bale Khan, who was an artiste with All India Radio (AIR) Dharwad, was responsible for building the base to popularise the Sitar in South India, more than anybody else.”

Passing on the legacy

Renowned vocalist Pt Venkatesh Kumar added, “The vocal training that he received only supported Bale Khan in his Sitar performance, as the melody stood out in his recitals.”

Venkatesh Kumar said that every generation following Rahimat Khan has seen dedicated artistes, who have contributed greatly to music, making the Gharana proud. The present generation has Rukhaiya Khan, Rais Khan, Hafiz Khan, Mohsin Khan, Mansoor Khan and Yaseen Khan as sitarists.

Rahimat Khan started the Bharatiya Sangeet Vidyalaya in Dharwad in 1932, and the institution has been training Sitar artistes along with organising concerts. Today, Hameed Khan, Shafique Khan and Mohsin Khan run the institution, teaching and organising concerts every month.

Bale Khan’s younger brother Rafique Khan runs the Academy of Hindustani Music in Mangaluru. The Sitar Nawaz Ustad Balekhan Memorial Foundation Trust, headed by Hafiz Khan, was founded in 2010, organising concerts and providing scholarships to students of music annually. In 2015, it introduced an award in the name of Bale Khan for Indian musicians; in 2016, a special award for accompanying artistes was introduced.

In 2018, Rais Khan established the Suhana Basant Foundation in Pune in memory of Bale Khan and organised a two-day inaugural concert in which famed musicians performed.

Dr Ayi pointed out that the family’s contribution to Indian music is three-dimensional, “The members are not only performers and teachers. Organising programmes of musicians from other Gharanas and presenting awards especially to accompanying artistes is, probably, the most unique contribution of Rahimat Khan’s family.”

On a closing note, the brothers said, “Belonging to such a legacy would hold meaning if we reach at least a fraction of the heights of our ancestors. It requires us to remain devoted to the style of our Gharana and uphold it with pride.”

 

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