On Whole World Music on January 11, 2009, Craig Burk gave this introduction to raga Marwa, sung by Ustad Amir Khan.
In the realm of classical music of Northern India and Pakistan, the term Ustad is synonymous with Master or Maestro. And Ustad Amir Khan was certainly a master. He is considered by musicians, critics, and connoisseurs alike to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest vocalist of the Hindustani classical tradition of North India.
Amir Khan was born to a musical family in the city of Indore in 1912. He devoted his life to developing a new vocal style, in fact, a new school of musical thought in regard to North Indian raga.
Raga is a word that many of you know. To put it very simply, a raga is founded on a unique combination of notes on which the musician may improvise. It may be compared to the key or mode in which western music is structured, for example, the Phyrgian mode for flamenco improvisation.
Ustad Amir Khan’s style was rooted in an extremely detailed and subtle development of a raga. He would begin this exploration not by working in individual phrases but in individual notes, using his rich voice to explore the shadings of each note in a very leisurely and contemplative manner. This very deliberate approach could result in the performance of a single raga lasting up to two hours.
Although Amir Khan was killed in a car accident in 1974 at age of 62, his legacy lives on. His approach to improvisation has had a great impact on many Indian musicians, not only vocalists but also the late Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and the late Ustad Vilayat Khan, two of the greatest masters of the sitar.
While Amir Khan’s influence has been great, his own music remains very unique. And at this point, I will quote from the liner notes of Amir Khan CD entitled Ananya*, a Sanskrit word that means “Like no other.”
The singer Ustad Salamat Ali Khan of Pakistan once said, “No one can ever imitate Amir Khan because through his songs, Amir Khan established communion with the Almighty. Unless one can reach that level, one is hopelessly bound to explore technicalities and that is all.”
In support of his view, Salamat Ali Khan recounted the events in a musical soirée in New Delhi sometime in the mid 1950s. For some reason, the instrumentalists played first – all the great names of instrumental music. This was to be followed by the vocalists – Salamat Ali Khan first and then Amir Khan as the next and final item on the program.
Salamat Ali recalled, “I was nervous about having to follow such a galaxy of stars, but Amir Khan Sahib gave me courage. ‘Instruments are made by men,’ he said to me, ‘but the human voice is the creation of God. With a voice as good as yours, sing in God’s name and you will beat the instrumentalists hollow.’”
“I was so inspired by this that I sang as never before. There was great applause at the end but what counted most was that Amir Khan Sahib embraced me as I came off the dais and congratulated me on my performance. But the applause must have gone to my head. I felt that after my recital, any music would sound a bit flat and even Amir Khan Sahib, as great as he was, surely could not match my performance.”
“I asked him what he was going to sing. ‘Nothing very much really,’ replied the Khansahib. ‘You have already won the battle for the vocalists. I shall just sing Marwa for awhile, that is all.”
“Now we all know how well Amir Khan Sahib sang the raga Marwa, but that night, something happened. I don’t know what! After fifteen minutes, his music had transcended everything that I had done. After half an hour, I could remember nothing of what I had sung just a short time before. It was as if there were only one raga in all of music and that was Marwa.
“Khansahib sang for about ninety minutes, and then stood up and left the stage. There was no applause. No movement in the audience. We were all spellbound for awhile before round after round of applause followed. No. There was no request for another item. We all knew better than that! So what had happened? Simply, a miracle!”
“Look I have a very good voice. I work harder than most and they all say I have talent. But these allow a man to go only so far. That evening, Amir Khan Sahib gave us glimpse of how far one can go --- hand in hand with the Almighty!”
So now, let’s listen to a much shorter version of Marwa. This is from Ustad Amir Khan’s first LP recording, made in 1960. This performance lasts only 18 minutes not two hours as in some of his concerts, but such are the limitations of one side of an LP record. And I recommend that you turn up the volume a bit on your radio to really feel the rich voice of one of the truly great musicians of the world.
Now, Ustad Amir Khan Sahib sings the raga Marwa.
*Ananya is on the Navras record label.