Bindu Chawla has worked tirelessly to preserve the memories of her father the eminent teacher and vocalist Amarnath. A few years ago she brought out a stately volume Conversations With Pandit Amarnath – a series of interviews that Amarnath informally gave his daughter on vocalism and musicology. A set of CDs followed – rare recordings of Amarnath in concert and an insightful lecture on his guru Amir Khan’s technique and style. And now there is another book – what seems like impromptu memories faithfully recorded by his devoted daughter and transcribed. This bilingual edition preserves the flavour of spoken Hindustani and provides a functional translation in English on the opposing page. In these memoirs Amir Khan comes across as tentative and human, capricious and mysterious in daily life, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible yet at other times warm, open and with a lively sense of humour.
This is a far cry from the public image of the maestro, the tall and dignified vocalist, ‘the lonely tower’ – music critic Chetan Karnani’s apt description, who moved audiences by his meditative music. In the sleeve notes for a commemorative album on Hindustani music, the late Sheila Dhar who was a fan, wrote that Amir Khan ‘never projected his music when he sang, but just tuned his inner self…and the eloquent silences between his effortlessly sculpted melodic lines all speak of deep, but perfectly controlled emotion’.
Two recurring themes run powerfully through these memoirs. One is Amir Khan’s resentment at being slighted for his humble background. His father Shahmir Khan was a sarangi player in Indore and could not boast gharana lineage. Amarnath reports that things came to a head when faced with taunts of the well-known sarangi player Shakoor Khan of the Kirana gharana, Amir Khan broke his silence and challenged his competitors to a music duel. The other theme is the refusal of contemporaries to acknowledge Amir Khan’s genius in forging an individual style. Amir Khan borrowed and absorbed from senior vocalists like Wahid Khan, Rajab Ali Khan and Aman Ali Khan. However his raga elaboration, critics like Kumar Mukherjee have pointed out, was closest to the Kirana style pioneered by Wahid Khan and in later years Kirana votaries have tried to incorporate Amir Khan as one of their own. Amarnath firmly believed that Amir Khan laid the foundations of a new gharana – the Indore school – and that no one dared call it anything else as long as the maestro was alive. There is an entertaining account of how after the maestro’s death, Amarnath was summoned to the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta where he was closely questioned by an eminent panel of musicians about Amir Khan’s unique style. Amarnath reports that despite the hostility he fared well and unlike Abhimanyu managed to return to Delhi triumphant.
There is also plenty of material on Amir Khan’s personal life in these memoirs. His first wife was sitar maestro Vilayat Khan’s sister and they had a daughter but according to Amir Khan the marriage ran into trouble because he never received the respect due to him as a musician from his illustrious in-laws. He settled with his second wife Munni Bai in Delhi but for reasons unknown this marriage too was dissolved. Their son settled in Canada. Amir Khan’s quest for a stable family life led him to marry again, this time with Raisa Begum. Their son Hyder Amir later became a successful actor in TV serials and was known as Shahbaz Khan. Both Raisa Begum and Hyder (as a toddler) feature in the Films Division documentary on Amir Khan. Amarnath was clearly closest to Munni Bai but he quaintly refers to all the wives as ‘Ammi’. There are also amusing anecdotes about Amir Khan’s fondness for drink and non-vegetarian food and how he relaxed by reading popular crime fiction with titles like Behraam Dakoo, Yehudee kee Ladki, Hunterwaalee, Goree Lailaa etc.
The book though is primarily about Amarnath’s devotion and a testimony to how the guru-shishya parampara is idealized in music memories. Throughout the text Amarnath addresses Amir Khan as ‘Maharaj’. It was in 1942 that he heard Amir Khan sing over the radio and this left him mesmerized. However formal acceptance as a disciple was a long and uphill task and the maestro finally relented in 1949 when in the compound of the Delhi AIR in the presence of other musicians, Amir Khan tied the sacred thread on young Amarnath’s wrist. But learning was not easy and Amarnath had to face the moody rejections and barbs of his teacher on many occasions. As his training progressed, Amarnath unravelled the secrets of his guru’s vocalism. After Amir Khan’s death Amarnath became one of the principal teachers who imparted training in the authentic Indore style.
Accounts of Amir Khan’s impact on indulgent Calcutta audiences already exist and for this reason the book is a must-read since it gives a peep into the less documented life of the maestro in Delhi. Bindu Chawla should be congratulated for making available these memoirs to the lay music loving audience. The book is well produced and there are many interesting photographs including a rare one of Amir Khan cradling a surmandal.
Partho Datta is Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Library, New Delhi.