Gharana in Hindustani Music

The concept, practice and continuation of gharana singing in the not too distant past was a very distinct reality to practicing and performing Hindustani musicians. It was as real as the air one breathes. The musicians were proud to belong to one gharana or the other and went about the task of keeping the gharana gayaki alive, thriving and intact by imbibing and practicing its most prominent and defining tenets/principles. It was this internalization of the main tenets of the gharana subconsciously first and then consciously that took a long time because the gurus rightly believed that it was the only way to learn music which could not be pontificated or theorized. This was ‘musical samskar’. The more the samskar the more possibility of internalizing the gharana gayaki.

Old masters rightly believed that music is a ‘shravana Vidya’, a Vidya of diligent and careful listening. As the learner progressed, the guru would draw his attention to the subtle nuances which could not be spelt out but only carefully heard and imbibed. When the learners had become sufficiently versed in the gharana way of singing, they strutted about in the mantle of the gharana which they carried with great loyalty and dedication. (I can visualise them as belonging to one akhaada or the other – training houses for wrestlers in the past. Incidentally, my guru and his elder brother were avid followers of wrestling bouts and they could appreciate the various “daav and pech” of different wrestlers.)

To the musicians of the past, gharana was something sacrosanct. They swore by their gurus and the gharana tenets. For them, gharana was an inalienable way of life – of musical living. For the numerous practitioners of a particular gharana, the concept was like a well-guarded family secret not to be made light of. Any follower deviating from its principal tenets or seriously tampering with them was totally unacceptable, not only to the guru but to the knowledgeable listener too. If it was an unintended deviation it was quickly corrected by the guru or duly guided by the senior proponent of the gharana. Minor variations, so long as they did not harm the overall structure of the gharana, were permissible – depending on the individual practitioner’s talent and imagination. What was unacceptable was trespassing into the territory of another gharana. Gharana Gayaki was a religion to be studiously adhered to. True, there were fanatics and there were liberals, but not the libertines who sauntered into any other gharana gayaki as they wished.

It is mistakenly thought that gharana is a bandikhana / a prison. In fact, there is immense scope for individual talent in the practice of gharana music. Back then also, no two musicians of the same gharana sang like the other. That is, they did not imitate each other but went ahead by singing to their strengths and singing differently without deviating from the main tenets of the gharana. That is because they had thoroughly imbibed the gharana gayaki and maintained it despite individual colours. That is how they perceived the gharana. Despite their individualistic ‘styles’ or ‘mannerisms, their allegiance was always to the gharana and the informed listeners recognized them as belonging to a particular gharana.

Gharanas were systems of singing, constructed by great thought and deliberation behind them. It was not that a master sang and it automatically became a gharana. The master deeply thought and meditated on what would go into this system, what would be its constituent elements, how they would be revealed, what tenets should be followed by those who would represent all these elements.

A lot of thought would have gone into structuring and giving a distinct identity to gharana singing. It would involve a vision encapsulated into a system of presenting a gharana gayaki.

A foundation had to be designed for the edifice to be built on it. It was truly an engineering marvel. Those who followed and imbibed the originator could build their own mansions on this solid foundation. But any fanciful mansion, not supported by the foundation (gharana), would naturally collapse sooner or later. The informed listeners too would not accept such fanciful buildings without a recognizable, solid foundation.

What the originator gave was a distinct personality / pehechan to the system. And he himself had to practice the system to perfection and impart it to his disciples who would continue the tradition with all their individualistic styles. Gharanas are not just styles, but ways of musical behaviour which displayed the lineage.

Thankfully, there still are music connoisseurs who clamour for gharana singing and some musicians who swear by gharana way of singing today. Not all is lost for gharana music.

Long live gharana music!

By Panditji