Keeping the flame of Delhi Gharana alive

PUBLISHED on November 21, 2021


Ustad Mazhar Umrao Bundu Khan is the proud heir to the legacy of his grandfather sarangi grandfather Ustad Bundu Khan and his father Ustad Umaro Bundu Khan of Delhi gharana.

With father and grandfather both having obtained the honor of Pride in Performance for outstanding achievements in the field of music, IIn the early years of his career, Mazhar worked for the National Bank of Pakistan.

He says: “I worked in a bank for 19 years. But one fine day after reciting the Quran Sharif, a voice inside me said that I had to quit my job and devote myself entirely to music. And since that day, I have dedicated myself to music.

The Express Tribune interview with the classic ustad was more like a script of lyrics and musical notes. The maestro gives free rein to alaaps and bandits in the environment as he mixes notes and ragas to explain the pattern. His deep voice, sleek delivery style, and poise are enough to merge his audience with the words he sings. In an age when classical music is fading, ustad Mazhar carefully and easily uses his vocal intonations, voice and mood to bring classical music to life. What makes him even more special is his humble and down-to-earth demeanor. Perfect intonation, respect for the structure, the grammar of the raga, the clarity of the taans or fast melodic passages, and preventing the raga and the composition of the khyal from losing their original character and turning into thumri, are some- one of the characteristics he mentions. He demonstrates his vocal and tonal range which he had developed according to the instructions he had received and the practice regime he had followed from his great ustads of the famous Delhi gharana.

STF: Why do people lose interest in pure classical music?

UMK: Classical music is serene. There are three levels of music: composition, ghazal performance, and song. Classical music was well received until it was considered fine art. But it lost value after the 1980s after its inclusion in showbiz. This kind of work needs a refined skill and a careful understanding of its art. Rather, ghazal is the interpretation of memorized words. People these days do not have time to learn the skill and prefer to sing or listen to single notes.

STF: Some singers say they can literally see the colors of the notes. Do you visualize them too?

UMK: Of course, the notes are very powerful. You can visualize it through dedication. There are two aspects of music: the melody or the tune and the rhythm or the bit. The melodic aspect of Indian classical music is called musical notes. There are 12 notes and it’s really no joke to learn them all. One can only understand the depth after 20 to 25 years of painful riaz.

STF: What is your favorite raga? How do you go from one raga to another in a composition?

UMK: Each raga has its own sweetness. But I love bhairvi, piloo and purvi. These are euphonic. The transition is the variation of scales called chal or move which connects two ragas. Those who have practiced can detect the transition easily.

STF: Please explain the structural requirements of the old raga system.

UMK: The parent scale of the structural diagram is based on 12 thaats or scores. These are Bilawal, aiman, khamaj, bhairav, poorvi, marwa, kafi, asavari, bhairavi and tod. Previously there were 72 of them, then the number of scales has been reduced to 52 and now we only practice 10. The old composers used to experiment with new ragas. Now we barely have time to create new things.

STF: Are you in favor of introducing new ragas into the traditional system?

UMK: You can do compositions in a raga, but you cannot create new ones. We lack the spirituality of the composers before. We can make new compositions like ghazals and geets from a raga but we cannot create new ragas. In Pakistan, music is based on only 20 to 25 ragas. We have drawn a line. Most people cannot explain the number of notes in a raga. So how can we create something new?

STF: Why are people today more interested in the fusion of styles than in pure classical music?

UMK: There is a misperception of the word. Fusion is a question of the use of instruments. As the guitar replaces the sarangi and the drums are used in place of the traditional tabla to produce treble. But the traditional arrangements of ratings remain intact.

STF: Say something about thumri styles. It is generally believed that the thumri form cannot be presented well by all artists, as it requires a different sensibility which is not easy to find.

UMK: Thumri is a light form of classical music primarily woven into a light-measuring scheme made up of words and rhythms. It belongs to the textual genre of classical music, but to some extent higher than the Ghazal vibe. Thumri is characterized by his romantic or devotional lyrics, and by a greater flexibility with the ragas but obviously not as simple as ghazal. Anyone with knowledge of ragas can sing it.

STF: Before the score, there was only a classical Hindustani Sangeet; How has the once common musical tradition of Pakistan and India changed and diverged over time?

UMK: Music was practiced in Arabic long before and will continue until the world exists. Classical music is a product of the great Hindustan. Hazrat Amir Khusrau was the pioneer of some of the most melodic ragas and a poet of great merit. He introduced classical music to this subcontinent. He also invented ragas. There is nothing like Indian or Pakistani. It’s just the territorial limit and identity.

STF: There is a list of major khyal gharanas like Agra, Delhi, Gwalior, Patiala, but WHY only Banaras is often called thumri gharana?

UMK: Indeed these gharans presented high or low khyals. But Banaras was famous for the brothel dance or mujra. It was not possible for the performers to dance to the rhythm of the Khyals. Therefore, a more crafty genre of music, thumri, was adopted to achieve perfection in the dance, which became famous as Banaras ki thumri.

STF: A large number of notable singers – Baden Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Bundu Khan, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan and many others – were also sarangi players. So why has the sarangi fallen out of favor as an accompanying instrument among singers?

UMK: Pakistan has some of the greatest sarangi players in this world. But my grandfather Ustad Bundu Khan was considered the greatest of all. He was affiliated with Radio Pakistan and Ustad Nathu Khan was affiliated with Pakistan Television. In 2009, NCA Lahore organized a concert and invited 16 sarangi masters. Only 10 were able to perform while others could not. Now there are only five sarangi masters, two live in Lahore, two in Karachi and one in Islamabad. Sarangi is on the verge of extinction. There should be a planned movement to teach art to young people in order to keep the tradition alive.

STF: Tell us about a particular memory from your childhood. How did you feel when you first performed on stage?

UMK: The first time I played on stage was between 1970 and 1971 on the occasion of my grandfather ustad Bundu Khan’s birthday at the age of 5 when my brother was three . We performed aiman and jodhpuri. My first professional performance was for Radio Pakistan in 1977. Then I never looked back.

STF: If new things happen during a performance – that are nothing like what you have done before, would you keep trying them even at the risk of failing?

UMK: Yes it happens but I have never failed by the grace of Allah. I remember once again, while performing in Delhi, I was asked to sing Ataullah Isakhelvi’s theva. Attaullah sahib followed bhairavi but I played there in malkos. He was appreciated and well applauded.

STF: What is important to make ragas beautiful and interesting?

UMK: A lot of it depends on the practice. The more you practice, the more you excel. It is important to do riaz. It refines the melody and the voice at the same time. Only then does the music become beautiful and interesting.

STF: You are part of the Delhi gharana of classical singers. What are the specific qualities of the followers of this singing school?

UMK: I belong to Delhi Gharana. My ancestors have been in the service of music for 800 years. My father ustad Umrao Bundu Khan is the recipient of the Pride of Performance while my grandfather also received the Pride of Performance and Sitara-e-Imtiaz. I received the pride of Pakistan from the United Nations. The peculiarity of this school is that it produced masters of almost all instruments and classical singers.

STF: You’ve spent your whole life singing. Was it worth it in terms of the financial benefit?

UMK: I was a banker for 19 years until 2002. My father was my first teacher. I was 13 when he died in 1979. I went to India and learned music from 22 ustads in my family. I have obtained many honors. I feel accomplished and have no regrets in my life.