It’s not uncommon to have multiple generations of a family of musicians captured on disc – though the case of the Khan family is extraordinary in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that a full three generations of Khans were recorded on 78 rpm records, dating to the very earliest recording sessions in India. The family tradition still continues, with numerous members active as professional musicians.

Imdad Khan (1848-1920) was the very first solo sitar instrumentalist to be recorded on disc. Born in Agra and raised in the nearby town of Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, Imdad Khan studied with his father, Sahabdad Khan, who familiarized Imdad with sitar, sarangi, and khyal, the North Indian classical singing style (Sahabdad’s brother Haddu was a famed khyal singer). He also studied with veena master Bande Ali Khan (1830-1890). Gradually, Imdad transformed Indian sitar playing, creating his own, incredibly popular style. In fact, he became something of a celebrity. His patrons were wealthy landowners and members of the Calcutta elite (such as Sourindo Mohun Tagore of the Bengali Tagore family), and he even played for the Queen. Yet his most impressive legacy is the entire school of music that stemmed from his performances and teachings – the Imdadkhani gharana – which, as sitar playing goes, is at least partly based on khyal vocal performance. It’s still very much in vogue to this day.

This short sitar solo, “Sohini Qawwali,” was recorded in Calcutta on December of 1904 by the Gramophone Company. The engineer was William Sinkler Darby. This was only the second time recording engineers from England had visited India, yet the market was exploding. According to scholar and researcher Michael Kinnear, the Gramophone Company had learned its lessons from the first tour of Asia (1902-1903), and was ready to record better artists and improve the company’s standing in the marketplace. Plus, smaller independent labels had already begun to set up shop and snap up popular artists. On this particular recording tour, Darby and his assistant Max Hampe started in Calcutta (recording, among other things, 6 tracks by Imdad Khan), after which they moved on to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai (Madras), Colombo in Sri Lanka, Yangon (Rangoon), and eventually back to Calcutta where they recorded a Tibetan music troupe. Darby and Hampe recorded some very important performers on this trip along with Imdad Khan, including Abdul Karim Khan, female singing legend Gauhar Jan, shehnai master Talim Hossein, Sikh musicians and singers, and even two performers from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Instrumental solos weren’t as commonly recorded during the first decade of the 20th century. And the subtleties of the sound of the sitar, in particular, seem to have been difficult to capture during the acoustic recording era. Yet, at about 108 years later, we can still experience the master at work.

Imdad Khan – Sohini Qawwali

Imdad’s son, Enayat Khan (also spelled Inayat, Enayet, etc.) was born in 1894 and studied under his father, who taught him both the sitar and the surbahar, also known as the bass sitar. The surbahar’s origins trace back to ca. 1825-1830 in Lucknow. It has fixed frets and a wider neck than the traditional sitar. It generally has 6-8 strings (4 for melody and 2-4 for drones) and 13-17 sympathetic strings. Enayat was more commonly a sitar player, yet I chose here an example of his surbahar playing – an alap (an introduction) to the Bageshri raga. He died young, in 1938.

Interestingly, Enayat Khan recorded this piece in early 1933 thanks to the newly established Megaphone label. Megaphone, launched by an entrepreneur named J. N. Ghosh, had its origins ca. 1910 as a gramophone machine and harmonium manufacturer. However, by the late 1920s, Ghosh wanted to compete with the Gramophone Company, issuing 78s of artists he felt were ignored by the massive label, including Enayat Khan. By July of 1932, Ghosh began recording and releasing his own Megaphone discs, though they were pressed (rather poorly, I’m afraid – at least my examples are!) by the Gramophone Company at their plant in Dum Dum. Over the next 25 years, Megaphone released thousands of discs. Ghosh died in 1958, and his nephews took over the company – in the 1980s, they were making Megaphone cassettes.

Enayat Khan – Bageshri (Alap)

Born in 1928 in Gouripur in what is now Bangladesh, Enayat Khan’s son, Vilayat Khan, became one of the most important and well-known sitar players of the 20th century, carrying on and expanding upon the musical traditions of his father and grandfather. I recently read a section of an ethnomusicologist’s article stating that there was no proof that Vilayat Khan studied with his father before his death. In fact, Vilayat Khan recorded his first 78 for the Megaphone label at age 8! His father died one year later and Vilayat continued to study with his uncle Wahid Khan, a renowned surbahar player, as well as his mother and mother’s father. Vilayat’s career was long, was well-documented and often peppered with hyperbole. The word “unique” is frequently used when encapsulating his life, as well as “legendary” and “revolutionary.” He toured the world over, won numerous honors (some of which he famously refused, claiming that the judges were unfit to judge his or anyone else’s talent), and was prolifically recorded. He’s also well-known for providing the soundtrack for the 1958 Satyajit Ray film The Music Room (Jalsaghar). He passed away in 2004 from lung cancer. This piece, the Mishra Khamaj raga, was recorded in 1952, and Vilayat Khan is accompanied by tabla master Alla Rakha (1919-2000).

Vilayat Khan – Raag Mishra Khamaj

Many members of the Khan family are still performing today, including Imrat Khan (also the son of Enayat), Shujaat Khan and Hiayat Khan (both sons of Vilayat), Irshad Khan and Wajahat Khan (both sons of Imrat), and Shahid Parvez Khan (the son of Enayat’s brother Walid).

Technical Notes

Imdad Khan
Label: HMV
Issue Number: P 61
Matrix Number: 2622h

Enayat Khan
Label: Megaphone
Issue Number: M.C.C. 25
Matrix Number: 0E 1525

Vilayat Khan
Label: HMV
Issue Number: N.92565
Matrix Number: 0JW 2899

Thank you to Ajith Raman, Bill Dean-Myatt, and the works of Michael Kinnear.

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