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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The other side of Kairana

The other side of Kairana

The Uttar Pradesh town, in the news for communal divide, is also the birth place of the Kirana 'gharana'. A tour through the town with two musicians from Delhi

The ruins of a Jehangir-era palace in Kairana. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
The ruins of a Jehangir-era palace in Kairana. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The scent of sewage impregnates this land of winding lanes and unpainted brick hovels. Women in blue chadors peep out from behind the carved wooden doors of their houses. Colourful posters call out for polio vaccination. Chickens squawk along raising dust.

Looking more like a village, this town has a claim to great fame.

A hundred and forty kilometres north-west of Delhi, Kairana gives its name to the Kirana gharana, one of the leading schools of Hindustani classical music.

Today’s news readers, however, will identify this place for less artistic reasons. The Muslim-majority town that neighbours Muzaffarnagar, the district in Uttar Pradesh that witnessed communal riots in 2013, is in the headlines these days because of the alleged exodus of the Hindu community.

While that debate rages on, marvel over the fact that Kairana’s filth-strewn streets could be the very alleys on which walked Bhimsen Joshi, one of the legendary singers of the Kirana gharana.

But there is no written record if Joshi ever even visited this town. Indeed, some of the greatest masters of the Kirana school, like Joshi himself, lived far from Kairana.

Yet, Kairana is special.

After all, Joshi’s master’s master was the god-like Abdul Karim Khan—born in this town. Kairana is also the birthplace of vocalist Abdul Wahid Khan, whose disciples included Begum Akhtar.

One day I accompany two Delhi-based harmonium players to Kairana where they plan to explore those roots.

Karim Niyazi and Zafar Hussein are cousins in their sixties. Trained as vocalists, they trace their lineage to Kairana’s long-departed musicians. They actually refer to Abdul Karim Khan as their dada, or grandfather, and connect themselves to the legendary man through a convoluted chain of relatives. Out of touch with their native land, the two men are in Kairana to embrace their origins.

“A musical gharana invariably grows around the genius of a creative master whose achievements automatically attract a collection of aspirants, admirers, and disciples," wrote the late Delhi-based raconteur Sheila Dhar, while reflecting on the Kirana legacy in her classic book Raga n’ Josh. “This small nucleus grows and widens as the style associated with the master gains prestige and acceptability among music lovers."

Calling vocalists Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan the pillars of the Kirana gharana, Dhar noted that “many sarangi and sitar players also trace their ancestry to this town"—like the visiting cousins.

Stressing the school’s significance, singer Shubha Mudgal says, “Although not one of the oldest gharanas, the Kirana gharana has impacted and continues to influence the singing styles of many musicians. It is one of the two styles most commonly followed by vocalists today, the other being Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. While the genius of Amir Khan sahab borrowed liberally from the Kirana style, the music of Rajan and Sajan Mishra and Rashid Khan, to name only a few, bears testimony to Kirana’s overarching influence. Of course, the legacy of Bhimsen Joshi is followed, imitated and adapted prolifically."

In India, where extreme importance is attached to the privilege of birth in the clan, the relatively obscure Karim and Zafar cling to the legacy of the Kirana school by blood. They share this claim along with a number of other musicians who, too, claim descent from Kairana and who, too, presently subsist on the periphery of the contemporary classical music scene, mostly as instrumentalists accompanying famous names.

As the self-appointed custodians of the gharana, these musicians struggle to pass on its great artistic customs to their next generation, in a milieu where “daughters are not allowed to touch music."

Being skilled anecdotists, Karim and Zafar could mesmerize even those of us who are bored by ragas. Their stories, for instance, about the traditional family recipes demanding night-long vigils rival their passion for khayal and thumri. The cousins speak slowly, with precision, and in a pure Urdu vocabulary. Eavesdropping on their conversation is like reading a poem written in a language of long ago. Their tête-à-tête centres on questions of birth—the Urdu word nasl, or breed, occurs in every sentence. Karim, who has a sheaf of papers at home jotted with hand-written family trees, finds consolation in tracing his links to Abdul Karim Khan. Convinced of his bloodline, he is a rock of confidence despite his career hardships.

In contrast, Zafar is a melancholic. He is prone to sudden bursts of crying, especially when he muses on the misery of his present. “We are the eighth generation of the Kirana gharana," he says. Hard of hearing, Zafar proudly shares this deficiency with Abdul Wahid Khan, who was referred as Behre Wahid Khan (Deaf Wahid Khan).

Outside the Kairana’s session court teeming with advocates, litigants and flies, the two musicians meet journalist Meherban Ali. As a man who daily scoots around the town fishing for stories, the bearded reporter says rather cheerfully, “Kairana’s music is over. All our artistes have gone to the big cities. The last of them left 25 years ago. We who live here have no understanding of classical music."

In the confusion of tractors and bicycles, Kairana looks like any other semi-rural Indian town pressing ahead with its mission to achieve development. The town’s more impoverished houses are characterized by tattered curtains hanging on their doorways. Many a corner hoarding promises pills for typhoid.

Some other cities that gave their names to schools of music have escaped Kairana’s embarrassing fate.

“I drove through Kairana once in the early 1980s to try to glimpse some reason why the musical imaginations of Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan might have been stirred and fostered there," says Bonnie C. Wade, author of the 1984 book Khyal: Creativity Within North India’s Classical Music Tradition. A professor of music in the University of California-Berkeley, US, Wade says on e-mail, “In the case of Agra and Gwalior gharanas, the cultural spaces created in the two cities by significant patrons and populations of musicians did make them important geographical places. The same applies to Jaipur and Rampur with their royal establishments and fostering of particular musical tastes. Were there possibilities in Kairana? Possibly, but it would be difficult to prove now."

Dhar attributed Kairana’s genesis as a centre of music to the Mughal era, when Emperor Jehangir is said to have resettled many families of musicians after their homes were destroyed in a flood in Yamuna. The travellers who accompany us today however tell a story going back to the time when Delhi was ruled by Allauddin Khilji. “About 700 years ago, two brothers from Persia, Nayak Dhondu and Nayak Chharju, escaping persecution by Tatars, were sheltered by the Sufi saint Naseruddin Shah in Sonepat," says Karim, referring to a Haryana town near Kairana. “Both brothers became the saint’s devotees and together they would offer devotional songs to him."

On their way to Kairana, the cousins stopped at Naseruddin’s cave-like dargah. It was their first visit to the shrine. Gesturing towards the tomb, Karim said, “Our nasl started here." Zafar touched the thick walls, saying, “Nayak Chharju moved to Kairana. He turned to music and became the fountainhead of the Kirana silsila (order). His first five generations stayed in the town; the sixth, which included Abdul Karim Khan, left for faraway dargahs and rajwadas (royal principalities) in search of patronage. Today, their kin have multiplied into thousands. We are among them. "

Both Zafar and Karim were born in Muzaffarpur in Bihar, where they spent their childhood in a mammoth clan. A music-loving maharaja had invited an earlier generation of Kairana’s musicians to settle on his land. The house consisted of a series of rooms built around a courtyard. Everyone was related to everyone else by blood or marriage or by both, though each family maintained its own kitchen. Zafar’s mother was famous for her stuffed karela (bitter gourd). Karim’s grandmother was loved for her fish curry.

Walking down Kairana’s twisting lanes, the cousins are followed by street dogs. Stepping into a relative’s house, Karim says, “This was where Abdul Karim Khan was born."

But it cannot be the same house. A tiled toilet is just beside the entrance. Farida, who lives with her rag-picker husband in the historic dwelling, says, “Many white people have made TV (recordings) at our home. Mister Michael had come from Holland in 1987."

Looking wide-eyed at the courtyard, Zafar says, “I’m reminded of our courtyard in Muzaffarpur."

Like most children born to hereditary artistes, Zafar and Karim were raised with a severe discipline aimed at training them as virtuosos. They were expected to become vocalists on the lines of well-known “family outsiders" such as Bhimsen Joshi. Every day, the boys had to wake at 4am. The morning namaz was followed by riyaz, or musical training. They were supervised by Zafar’s father who was an “A-class singer" at the Patna station of All India Radio (AIR). Sometimes, lessons were given by Karim’s father, a sarangi player at a Maharaja’s court.

Fleeing the afternoon’s white heat, the cousins take refuge in Farida’s dark sitting room, where they sit on a string cot. At her request, they start to sing on the marvels of Hindu God Krishna and his flute. As the short recital ends, Zafar begins to cry. Karim says, “This was Dada Ustad’s (Abdul Karim Khan’s) thumri. It’s the first time in 25 years that we have sung together."

Metamorphosing into magical beings in their impromptu concert, Karim and Zafar briefly escape the dreariness of their everyday circumstances.

The polio-afflicted Zafar lives in east Delhi’s aesthetically bleak Sundarnagri, which was once in the news for being the venue of Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s protest fast. Zafar started as a vocalist but turned to the harmonium to earn a living because, he says, “I could not establish myself". Today he is part of a qawwali troupe.

Karim’s struggles are similar. By the time he was born, the days of maharajas were over and musicians could find livelihood only in the studios of Doordarshan and AIR. “I rose to the status of a B-High grade singer in Patna radio," he says. “But the vocal line is difficult and not everyone achieves recognition. I appeared to flourish but my name soon sank because I was distracted. My father was ailing. The harmonium gave me more opportunities to perform in sangat."

The term sangat implies performing in a group or as an accompanist. A solo recital is a hard-earned privilege that only a few musicians achieve. If you are a regular to Delhi’s classical music programmes, you may recognize Karim as the harmonium player often sighted in Mandi House auditoriums. His videos are on YouTube.

Suddenly Zafar’s mobile phone rings. Its tune is that of a romantic Hindi film song. It was set up by his eldest son who runs a mobile phone repair shop.

As he takes a final look at the place where Abdul Karim Khan probably scampered around as a child, Zafar says, “If Dada Ustad hadn’t left Kairana, he wouldn’t have achieved his fame."

Outside on the street, the cousins walk past a graveyard with no visible graves; the gentle ripples on the earth point to the presence of the dead beneath. The southern side is bordered by the ruins of a Jehangir-era palace; its reflections fall on a lake said to have been built by djinns.

Kairana has more than a hundred mosques. The few temples are confined within a Hindu-dominated neighbourhood. Despite being in the troubled western UP, Kairana has never been tainted by a Hindu-Muslim riot in the living memory.

Affirming this facet of his town, poet, painter, and book collector Riyasat Ali Tabish, considered Kairana’s walking encyclopedia, rhetorically reads from a poem in his self-published book Almas e Kairana: “Both Sheikh and Brahmin live happily in my town. Ramu’s house lies beside Shamshad’s and they both are flourishing here because my Kairana is the land of lovers and of music."

As their car begins leaving the town, Zafar and Karim look out of the window and bow their heads. “We salute all our elders buried here," says Karim. Zafar covers his face with his hands.

They then speed towards Delhi.

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Published: 16 Jun 2016, 12:38 PM IST
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