Home / Feature / Preserving Indian Classical Music in Bangladesh and the UK: Analysis

Preserving Indian Classical Music in Bangladesh and the UK: Analysis

27By Piya Mayenin

Classical music, Indian and Western have been preserved from about the 15th and 16th century respectively which demonstrates the timeless appeal of classical music as opposed to ‘quick fix’ pop music. One could use the analogy of a gourmet meal being the former and fast food, the latter that simply doesn’t last long.

The world of Indian classical music is in decline in India, Bangladesh and the West. Artists do not want to venture into something that it is not in demand. In Bangladesh a classical festival is held every year round about in November where most of the singers are Indian. Media advertisement of pop over classical music everywhere is one of the key reasons of decline in Classical music.


In Indian Classical Music ‘ragas’ create objective universal ideas allowing for a greater degree of personalisation than the subjective deterministic western compositions. Each and every performance and vocal style is thus different. As stated by numerous learned musicologists in the East and West music conference1964 in New Delhi, Indian classical music focuses on the artists spiritual, mystic and inner strength. The goal of a performance which is built on colours scales and melodies is to create a mood that elevates the mind into a trance like state. Monophonic ragas as opposed to polyphonic western compositions are assigned to specific times of the day or night and seasons. There are thousands of ragas. Initially classified into ragas, raginis and putras they have been re-classified by Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande and have been arranged to fit into 10 basic ‘thaats’ in the 1930’s similar to the Carnatic ‘melakarta system of raag arrangement. Bhatkande borrowed ‘laxsman geet’ from Carnatic music scholar Ventakamakhin and explained ragas in an easy to understand language and grammar. Indian classical music is not necessarily instrumental but vocal. When a vocalist is accompanied by a ‘tabla’, the raga is experienced in a framework of ‘tala’.

Gharana is significant and is usually is named after the place where a great guru with a great voice passed down to his shishya, his unique ‘household’ style. It is said that at least three generations need to pass before a gharana is established. (V H Deshpande 1973). In ancient times Samraya system which included “Shivmat”, the “Bhramamat” and the “Bharatmat” (Pranjpay, 1992) acknowledged the later gharana system including Miyan Tansens Gwalior, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali Khans Sham Charasia Gharana revived in mid 20th century, Amir Khan’s Indore gharana of the 20th century, Bade Ghulam Ali’s Patiala Gharana (one of the most influential gharanas) in late 19th century and 17th Nayak Gopal founded the Kirana gharana which was revived by Abdul Karim Khan in the 19th century while Alladiya Khan created the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana.

Other styles not referred to as gharana can be seen through Delhi‘s Sufi saint Amir Khusro Dehlavi of the Chisti order of Sufis who is credited for fusing PersianArabicTurkish and Indian musical traditions to create Qawaali as we know it today, in the late 13th century in India. The stormy voice of of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan since 1973 introduced Qawaali to international audiences.

Miyan Tansen, who lived at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, is credited with codifying North Indian vocal music, notably the dhrupad style, learned from his teacher Swami Haridas, (disciple of Purandara Dasa). He composed ragas Darbari Kanada, Miyan ki Todi, Miyan ki Malhar and Miyan ki Sarang. Among the greatest North Indian vocalists before the partition of India and Pakistan were Bade Ghulam Ali Khan from Punjab and Amir Khan from North-central India. While Ustaad Vilayat Ali Khan was noted for his dhrupad singing, his sons Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan ( debuts in 1941) were probably amongst the greatest interpreters of ‘Khayal’ which means imagination or fiction in Arabic emerged over the centuries as a more free style and romantic version of the older extant vocal religious and aristocratic style ‘dhrupad.’ Sadarang pen name for Niyamat Khan was active in the 18th century. He and his nephew Adarang changed kheyal into the form it is today and composed many kheyals. An even more romantic version of kheyal is ‘thumri’.

Interest in the West

Bangladesh-born sarod player Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 concert in New York first conjured up interest in the West for Indian classical music. His album Music of India – Morning and Evening Ragas (1955), containing Rag Sindhu Bhairavi and his own Rag Pilu Baroowa, was the first Indian classical recording and the first recording of ragas on an LP. The popularity of his and Ravi Shankar’s concerts led to a stream of recordings in the sixties, mostly featuring EPs from 1961 to 1964. Ravi Shankar another disciple of Ali Akbar Khan’s father Allaudin Khan, became the star of Indian music. With See My friends (1965) by the Kinks in Britain and American rock band Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966) ‘raga rock’ was created with the influence of Shankar and the hippy culture of the time. Ustaad Alla Rakha another lead player of East meets West style, recorded a duo with jazz drummer Buddy Rich, Rich A La Rakha (1968). His son, Zakir Hussain, also a virtuoso of the tablas, went on to star in two of the most progressive projects of world-music; Mickey Hart’s Diga Rhythm Band: Diga (1976) and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti. While Zakir Hussain’s Making Music (1987), featuring Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansur, Jan Garbarek on saxophone and John McLaughlin on guitar, was a milestone in jazz-Indian fusion. In 1989 John McLaughlin hired an Indian percussionist, Trilok Gurtu, the son of vocalist Shobha Gurtu, who had already played with Don Cherry and with Oregon. Gurtu’s own Usfret (1988) offered an intense mix of Indian vocals, jazz-rock and world-music.

In the 1970s Debashish Bhattacharya reinvented the Hawaiian slide guitar as a raga instrument (Rag Ahir Bhairav (1993)). A younger influential sitar player was Nikhil Banerjee. Shahid Parvez one of Inidas most celbrated musician especially for the vocalistic phrasing of his raga improvisation and Vilayat Khan represented vocals at the end of the 20th century. Vocalist Lakshminarayana Shankar has worked extensively in both traditional music from India, and in jazzfree improvisation and popular music, notably with singer Peter Gabriel in composing hiis Pancha Nadai Pallavi (1990). Violinist Lakshminarayana Subramaniam was devoted to jazz-Indian fusion on Garland (1978) and Spanish Wave (1983). Ilaiyaraaja (born Gnanadesikan Rasaiya) experimented a fusion of Bach partitasfugues and Baroque musical textures and raga on How To Name It? (1988).

Indian music blended with Western music is the belief of Yehudi Menuin, American born British and Swiss violinist who stated that only Indian music is in fact the originating point – the genesis of western music itself. Once stated as ‘primitive formless and rough’ form of music in the heydey of British rule, it is acknowledged by Roger Ashton, musicologist, that there are only two forms of fully developed system of the art of music in the world: Western and Indian.He further observes that the Indian Music system is both ‘perfect’ and ‘perfected’ and there is no room for further improvement. (Deshpande 1987)

So why is there decline after the acceptance and internationalisation of Indian Classical music?

Perhaps we can find an answer in the teaching of Classical Music. V H Deshpande has written about the corruption of Indian Classical music by moving away from guru- Shishya teachings and artists adapting performances for undisciplined listeners. Also the disruption in gharanas (some gharanas have been better at continuing their gharana than others). Of course great artists start of with one gharana and when they are mature enough musically they venture into acquiring teachings of other gharanas and every artist as an individual will develop what suits him or her. For example, Dr Prabha Arte acknowledges influences from the the great Amir Khan of Kirana gharana and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of Patiyala gharana.

The change in the international scene means that where audiences of 25 – 50 were gathered now masses fill the grand halls. Whereas once kings provided food and shelter for ordinary people who would become classical singers now the wealthy provide entertainment in the form of festivals and artists corrupt the music in order to meet the demands of the masses.(Despande) Allaudin Khan is said to have remained true to traditional music the longest in the West. It is the writers opinion that love and potential for classical music ought not to be compared with the size of the audience. This is the foundation of artist who refuse to corrupt music for acceptance.

Institutions provide music sometimes at reasonable prices but for one to one teachings fees become somewhat hefty. Visibly the one-to-one guru-shishya has been replaced. However the written form of music and understanding theory is no doubt an asset but the problem remains where prices are high and demand has been created only for the wealthy, the loss of firm foundation and accessibility is seen as a danger. The lack of performers turning into teachers and the craze and publicity of pop music thus undermines the music with a history of over a thousand years. This is evidenced by the undermining of classical music used in Indian movies also.

What is paramount is that the guru-shishya parampara (tradition ) be retained so that the purity and history of Indian classical music be retained with it. This need for teachers of classical music in the UK and elsewhere is a dire one.

Access for All in UK.

Students who have potential sometimes find it difficult to achieve anything meaningful merely because the system has changed. Institutes providing certificates are an expensive project. Whereas once the Kings paid for creating artists, one now has to pay (quite steeply) for himself. For those lucky enough to come into touch with a good teacher it is a blessing for them.

Three gems of the classical world who are the first in the UK working tirelessly to teach and spread music to the ordinary people in UK, must be mentioned.

Fida Hussain Khan, accomplished singer and harmonium player, described as the best harmonium player in Europe, arrived in the UK in 1960. Mastering harmonium with the renowned Ustaad Jandhe Khan, (classical singer and musician known for using raga Bhairavi and Asavari for his compositions), he also mastered vocals with Ustaad Barkat Ali Khan of Patiyala gharana. Fida Hussain Khan met Ustaad Alla Rakha in his daughters home in the UK at around 1960 and developed a loving relationship with him. He played as accompanist alongside Alla Rakha and became his student in 1963. Fida Hussain Khan was the first teacher to start offering classical, semi classical and other music to the residents in London through private lessons.

Late Pandit Haridas Ganguly arrived to the UK in 1963 and passed away earlier this year (2015) He was the Grandchild of late Nakuleswar Ganguly, sitarist and only man ever to receive the title “Thumri Samrat”. Late Pandit Binod Bihari Ganguly was his uncle. And first teacher. He also took ‘taalim’ (teaching) from Chinmoi Lahiri and mastered the art of kheyal singing from Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, inheriting Patiala gharana kheyal and Benaras gharana thumri. In his house in Upton Park students have learned with him.

Mahmudur Rahman Benu, mentored by Waheedul Haque, Sheikh Luthfur Rahman and Zahedur Rahim in Chayanaut in Bangladesh. Renowned for his participation in the liberation war of 1971 through empowering East Pakistanis (Now Bangladesh) with musical and moral support, he then came to the UK in 1973 in order to pursue a PHD. It was around 1978 he started to teach music and in 1980, he formed Chayanaut in Leeds and carried on offering classical music tuition (and other genres) ever since and in London continues to do so in different venues to reach people of different areas. With a sea of musical knowledge and a preserver of the Classical scene in Bangladesh, Mahmudur Rahman Benu continued to preserve this in the UK.

Given the countless benefits of classical music including; meditation, developing creativity, humanity, connecting minds and souls to enjoy ‘art for arts sake’, let us be thankful for the few providers of classical music in Bangladesh and the UK and classical artists who continue to gift us music to relish with pride and joy and who ought to consider becoming teachers to continue to gift thereby preserving a history of laborious invention of pure genius and beauty. It need not be an elitist rendezvous and proper promotion to masses is beneficial rather than being dictated by the masses.

Piya Mayenin

BA (Hons) PGDL

Student of Classical music…