Over the next several months, you will see a few guests here at Excavated Shellac. I’ve asked a number of like-minded friends, whose collections are varied and excellent, to drop by and give us an example of a favorite piece of music of theirs that revolves at that fast speed. They have provided the words, image, and music. (I have provided the audio cleanup and mix, unless otherwise noted.)
Generally regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important Hindustani classical singers, Abdul Karim Khan was born in 1872 into a family of musicians in the village of Kirana in Hayrana state in north-central India. The kirana gharana (school) of singing extends to his ancestors but it is most commonly associated with his style because of his (relatively) prolific teaching, performing and recording in the first part of the 20th century. A notable branch of the school was founded by his cousin, the brilliant, eccentric, hearing-impaired, opium-loving, Sufi-devoted Abdul Wahid Khan who was Pandit Pran Nath’s guru and therefore the originator of the kirana school as it exists in the post-psychedelic United States.
Abdul Karim Khan studied sarangi with his family before leaving his home, never to return, as a teenager, in search of a guru. During this time, he approached Bande Khan (grandfather to been player Zia Mohuiddin Dagar and singer Zia Fariduddin Dagar) in search of been lessons. (Sarangi was primarly an accompanist’s instrument and been was a soloist’s instrument.) Bande Khan told him to study singing. As a singing duo with his brother Abdul Haq, Abdul Karim Khan was appointed as a court musician by the raja of Baroda state in Northwest India, but when Abdul Karim fell in love with one of the prince’s daughters, Sardār Māruti Rāo Māne who was his student at the time, the class difference between the royalty and musician-servants forced the two lovers to abscond in order to stay together. They landed further south, in Bombay, where Abdul Karim taught, sang and, in 1905, recorded about thirty performances for the Gramophone company. That same year, his daughter Hirabai Badodekar (later a renowned singer herself) was born. (YouTube clip here.)
Over the next twenty years, his style was informed by a number of visits to Karnataka state in the South, close contact with singers in the gwalior gharana, and changes in the economics of music caused by the crumbling of the courts under British colonialism. Abdul Karim Khan saw that a musician could no longer simply inhabit a court as a paid servant, and became an innovator in charging admission for classical concerts. His family moved in 1913 to Pune, where he founded another music school. In 1922, his wife left him, also resulting in a split with Abdul Wahid Khan (who was related to Abdul Karim by marriage). The event is said to have marked a shift in his style to slower, more contemplative singing. Meanwhile, during the period of increasing modernization and the anti-colonial struggle lead by Ghandi (and radical politics generally), Abdul Karim Khan refused to record again until the mid-30s, when he accepted offers from the minor Ruby Company and the dominant and British-owned Gramophone company’s primary competitor, German-based Odeon. From 1934 until 1936, just a year before his death, he recorded several dozen pieces. La Monte Young said in the first issue of Halana that Abdul Karim Khan died on tour in a railway station by simply turning to the man next to him and saying “I’m going now,” then pulling down his turban and dying on the spot. For Young, it was an example of utter mastery and control.
Abdul Karim Khan’s voice, like his recorded output, is notable for just this sense of mastery, but both are filled with a lightness and sweetness which one does not often associate with the most serious musicians. He chose repeatedly to sing light pieces, bordering on the folksy, making his name as a singer of the relatively modern and fanciful khayal rather than the older and more devotional dhrupad, and he rarely gave in to the kind of heroic and almost macho qualities one hears in Abdul Wahid Khan’s very few recordings or the most ferocious recordings of Abdul Karim’s most renowned spiritual heir, the brilliant Bhimsen Joshi (YouTube clip here.). He was a noted and early classical exponent of romantic thumris. For me, there is something touchingly feminine about his voice. If you’ll forgive a level of psychological speculation, it feels as if within himself he was reconnecting with his lost daughter and wife (or evoking that kind of unifying bond to his listeners) even in the relatively austere classical performance presented here, made for the Ruby Record Company in March of 1934, just three years before his death, with Shankarrao Kapileshwari (harmonium), Shasuddin Khan (tabla) and Balkrishna Kapileshwari and Dashrath Buwa Mule (tambouras).
My copy of this record is a post-war (and probably post-Indian independence) repressing. (HMV acquired Ruby in 1946, so despite going with an indie label, the Brits wound up owning his voice anyway. Such is the music biz.) His music, or some part of it, has been reissued every decade or two since his death, but remains woefully under-heard and certainly under-appreciated in the West. A bio-discography, which I have not yet been able to lay hands on, was authored by Michael Kinnear and published a few years ago in Australia. I’m grateful that a summary of it was posted here.
“Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s recording of the composition ‘Jamuna ke tir’ in Raga Bhairavi stands as one of the great masterpieces of music. When I first heard the recordings of Abdul Karim Khan I thought that perhaps it would be best if I gave up singing, got a cabin up in the mountains, stocked it with a record player and recordings of Abdul Karim Khan, and just listened for the rest of my life.” – La Monte Young
Issue Number: BEX 259
Matrix Number: RS 601