Kairana: How this UP town's glorious musical past faded into its troubled present
Kairana was once a town known for nurturing the venerable Kirana gharana of Indian classical music. Now it's spoken of more for prevailing communal tensions.
Mashkoor Ali Khan was just five when he he bid goodbye to Kairana to stay with his guru and father, the sarangi legend Shakoor Khan who was then working at AIR, Delhi. It was only holidays that were spent back in the small town off Delhi, fussed over by his mother and the rest of the family that had stayed behind.
In Khan’s memory, the days spent in Kairana had a dream-like quality. There was clean air, peace, great food, fresh produce from its farms, picnics by the Yamuna, fishing and informal musical soirees held at the homes of Kairana clans, singing, been and sarangi.
“It is the mornings I remember the most. They were beautiful. And we would begin our day remembering both Ram and Allah,” says the senior ustad who now teaches vocal Hindustani music at the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata.
There is little in Kairana today that resembles the warm, generous, secular town of Khan’s childhood. Last June, it was the troubled centre of a communal campaign stirred by BJP MP Hukum Singh who claimed that 364 members of Hindu families had fled the town fearing violence at the hands of Muslim criminals.
The town voted last week for the Assembly elections and Singh denied talking about any Hindu exodus, moving focus instead to crime. But Kairana had become a generic name for real and imagined communal exoduses, like “there will be other Kairanas” and so on.
This was a very different place from the west UP town bordering Haryana that was the homeground of the Kirana gharana which produced legends like Abdul Karim Khan, Abdul Wahid Khan, Sawai Gandharva, Hirabai Badodekar, Prabha Atre and Bhimsen Joshi. Younger artistes such as Jayathirth Mevundi too claim links to Kairana, directly or indirectly through an interlinked network of gurus.
The name Kairana itself shortened to Kirana as Abdul Karim Khan, the man who took its musical system to western and south India travelled, seeking audiences, students and patrons in the early years of the 20th century. Interestingly, the great gharanas of Hindustani music took roots in the small towns and kasbas of UP, Haryana and Rajasthan. Some of them are now reduced to crummy semi-urban sprawls troubled by both communal riots as well as crime. Etawah, Kurja, Ajrara, Rampur, Sahaswan, Meerut, Sonepat, Panipat, Chhaprauli and Kandhla are no longer names that evoke images remotely musical — but they once nurtured some of the greatest Hindustani talents.
“Once the great courts of Agra and Delhi fell apart, musicians spread out seeking patronage from the smaller rajas and nawabs in the area. These feudal lords ensured that musicians did not want in material needs and had the time and peace of mind to polish their art,” says Jaipuri Atrauli singer and scholar Shruti Sadolikar who currently is vice chancellor at the Bhatkhande University of Music in Lucknow. Her father Wamanrao Sadolikar was the disciple of the legendary Alladiya Khan.
Kairana became one such feudal refuge for musicians. But according to Bonnie Wade, the late professor in the music department at Berkeley and writer of Khyal: Creativity Within North India's Classical Music Tradition, the Kairana story went further back. He traces it to Emperor Jehangir who resettled the disciples of legendary singer Gopal Nayak living in Gatahi town after it was flooded by the Yamuna. They were moved to Kairana.
But these creative clans of Kairana came into prominence with their prodigious skills, especially at vocal music, been and sarangi, in the 19th century. They travelled extensively, performing in royal courts across the country but they returned home after long circuits.
“Those days they didn’t do the kind of hectic, back to back concerts we do now. They would take up a couple of programmes and then retire to their homes to rest, recoup and work on their music. Gaane ko chamkate the. And for that Kairana was ideal because it was quiet and had none of the distractions of big towns. You ate well, slept, meditated, did riyaaz and readied for the next concert tour out of Kairana,” says Khan.
But this pattern of long concert tours and prolonged R&R stopped being viable as years passed and the feudal system fell apart further. There were growing audiences for Hindustani music elsewhere in the country, all across Maharashtra, its contiguous districts now in Karnataka and of course Kolkata where the nascent recording industry was located. Further, the concert format was changing and moving out of durbars and into more plebeian, remunerative spaces. Much later, there were jobs to be had at All India Radio.
Places like Kairana and Etawah could no longer hold or sustain talent and only small stubs of musician families stayed on. And so far moved were the gharanas from their roots that a whole lot of music lovers were stunned to discover that the venerable Kirana of the gharana was Kairana, the town that was in news for the same reason as Muzzafarnagar.
Musicians say that the art itself remained secular. “There was intermingling of music systems and cultural experimentation that included elements from local practices as well as what the invaders brought with them. Today it is hard to tell them apart because they took to each other like water and colour,” says Sadolikar.
In both music and social interaction, she says, there was no trace of communal division. Many of the legends of those times, including Aladiya Khan and the Kirana clans, do trace their ancestral roots to Hindu ascetic musicians and talk of conversions carried out for the sake of patron kings.
One work that disputed a perfect state of communal harmony was Janaki Bakhle’s Two Men and Music. It discusses Brahminical opposition in Pune to the singing of Hindu devotional text by Muslim singers, quoting Abdul Karim Khan’s disciple and biographer Balkrishna Kapileshwari. (Ironically Khan also, she says, faced the ire of Muslim musicians for teaching a large number of brahmins. And conservative backlash for allowing his daughters from his Hindu wife Tarabadi too many freedoms.)
Bakhle refers to the “Hinduising rhetoric of the Hindu Mahasabha” in those years, the prototype of the saffron groups today that are now active around Kairana and the rest of western UP.
But Mashkoor Ali Khan says Kairana’s musicians and network of disciples were comfortably and deeply secular. “That is true,” reiterates Sadolikar. “Even today after the first bhog is offered during Diwali, the very first box of sweets is sent to Alladiya Khansaheb’s family. In music, we don’t seek gurus or shishyas by religion but by their artistic greatness.”
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