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Interpreters of melody


IN HARMONY: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Ayaan and Amaan (sitting), are part of a long musical tradition.

Indian music is full of family stories. The Khans trace their heritage back to medieval times.

Sometime in the middle of the 18th century, horse trader and music lover Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash arrived in India with an Afghan rabab (a string instrument). He settled in Rewa and over the centuries his descendants honed the instrument till it changed from a staccato-sounding lute to the present-day melodic sarod. Sarod master Amjad Ali Khan is the sixth generation of musicians in the Bangash family. His sons, Amaan and Ayaan, can boast of being sarodiyas with a long ancestry. But spotting the first family of music, especially classical music, is a fraught task. Most established musicians will trace their ancestry back to Mian Tansen or the court of the Thanjavur Nayaks, if not further. But then, given that it's art passed from generation to generation, this is to be expected.

The family of veteran sarangi player Ustad Sabri Khan claims to go a generation further back than the Bangashes. Sabri Khan's great, great, great, great grandfather, Ustad Kallan Khan, was a sarangi player in the 16th century. It's a tradition the family has hung on to.

"If any generation had let go, we would have lost this music forever, " says patriarch Sabri Khan. Today, the Khan family not only plays sarangi like it has over the last many centuries but also does it on platforms that Kallan Khan would never have dreamt of.

Sabri Khan's son Kamal is quite comfortable on the classical stage, but when he wants to reach out to younger, more restless audiences, he plays fusion and world music with his sarangi. He has introduced a guitar string into his sarangi to give it a more contemporary sound. "I keep the two worlds apart - the strictly classical and the experimental. I would be betraying my heritage by playing it in a mixed format, " he says.

Kamal's nephew Sohail Khan, the eighth generation musician in the family, plays the instrument on an even more interesting stage: the rock show. Sohail plays the sarangi and sings for Advaita, a Delhi-based alternative rock band. "The youth are weary of the standard Indian sounds like the sitar, and are intrigued by the music of the sarangi. I am surprised at the popularity of the instrument, " he says.

There are other families from the classical world that have stuck to the passion of their forefathers. The Nasir Khan clan from the Agra gharana has a widespread musical network. The extended Ravi Shankar family has many heavyweight musicians - the sitarist himself, daughters Anoushka and Norah, his late son Shubho, ex-wife Annapurna Devi and, of course, father-in-law, the illustrious Allaudin Khan.

In the south, there are the multi-talented Gurcharans who sing and play the flute. The N Rajam-T N Krishnan family of talented violinists, some playing in the Carnatic and some in the Hindustani style, live on both sides of the Vindhyas.

The family matters not just in the field of classical music. The Mangeshkars of Mumbai are a formidably talented bunch. Father Dinanath was an accomplished classical and stage singer, and his daughters, Lata, Asha, Usha and Meena inherited his talent in varying degrees. Son Hridayanath is a bigger name on the Marathi popular music scene than in Bollywood. But this is one surname that you cannot escape if you are a music lover.

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