The Dilli (or Delhi) gharana of vocalists and instrumentalists may be the oldest school of Hindustani music if the present khalifa (head of the house) Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan is correct. He insists that it is even older than the Gwalior gharana of Dhrupadiyas started by Raja Man Singh Tomar.  Iqbal sahib says Dilli artistes sang Dhruvaur Padh from Ameer Khusro’s time (13th-14th century). But all that is in the past. The present is a trying time for all gharanas of Hindustani vocal and instrumental music and the future is uncertain. Dilli gharana is no exception.

The assault of modernity changed the Hindustani ecosystem in fundamental ways. Independence knocked out a major pillar with the end of princely states and the zamindaris, which drew a line under many of the smaller schools entirely dependent on wealthy patrons. Some have vanished altogether. The loss is hard to quantify, although diversity would be an obvious casualty. Most of all, it is the musicians who have been hit, economically and artistically. Thrown upon their own resources they also lost the leisure they had to develop and advance their musical heritage.

India after independence also offered new opportunities and many performers have benefited enormously from ticketed audiences, recording contracts, concerts abroad and a rush of students willing to pay high prices for lessons. But the rewards are unevenly distributed and the gharana system remains under stress.

For one thing, earning a steady living has now become a full-time exercise that takes musicians down paths their forbears never trod. Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan has performed his vocal riyaaz religiously since the age of five; that was 60 years ago. He says that in order to keep the home fires burning he has worked as a composer for TV serials and composed complex yet aurally attractive ghazals. The hard work it entails, and the distraction from his true passion, has brought him little more than a middle-class life.

Ustad Asghar Husain, a talented violinist and a pupil of ustad Zahoor Ahmed Khan, Iqbal Khan’s father, has done fairly well for himself. He built his house with his earnings in a just about middle-class locality of Lakshmi Nagar in Trans-Jamuna, Delhi. He is clearly more in tune with the times than his khalifa or his colleague ustad Saeed Zafar Khan, a fine sitarist.

Ustad Chand Khan.jpg

Ustad Chand Khan of the  Dilli gharana. Photo: Special arrangment

Asghar Hussain’s tone on the violin is sweeter than most contemporaries in the tradition. Even at quick tempi he does not lose his tunefulness or “sureelapan” (soothing sound).  The same characteristics are present in his personality. He does not criticise his colleagues or seniors past and present. Instead he talks about their strengths. Even a conversation with this wizened journalist is an opportunity to improve his lot. He is ready to present his musical talents on every medium available, from studio recordings to the government-owned All India Radio (AIR) broadcasts, lecture-demonstrations at educational institutions, to live performances at music festivals. He is good enough to be invited to the major venues of Hindustani music but he never turns down an invitation to play at lesser ones. He has also travelled quite a lot abroad.

Saeed Zafar Khan is also a Dilli gharana ustad. The sitar is his instrument. Both he and Asghar Husain acknowledge ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan as their khalifa. Saeed Zafar Khan lives modestly in a flat behind Golcha cinema in Daryaganj, Old Delhi. His small music room is light and airy. It has a little kitchenette and a tiny bathroom. The space is quiet and comfortable. He is teaching a student, Abhishekh Verma when I meet him. His main source of income is a job with AIR. Asghar Husain is also an AIR employee with a similar Top Grade artist rating. Iqbal sahib on the other hand has broadcast from AIR for the last 50 years but never tried for a permanent job. Though a Top Grade artist, he insists on his autonomy. Thus, the three reasonably well-known artistes who feature in this piece earn a living, hold their heads high and continue to pursue their artistic goals in a focused manner.

But this is not just about contemporary musicians from Dilli gharana or about musicians in general. The genesis of their art is in the gharana and these seem to be under siege in various ways. A gharana acquires its name because of the quality of a musician who lives or has lived in a particular part of north India. This quality is a product of his musical environment.

Any musician from a gharana had to be a performer and teacher of high quality capable of providing the grounding to create artistes—singers or instrumentalists as the case may be—as good if not better than himself. Many of these gharanas had distinctive styles and some had greater prestige than others. These are qualities at risk as urbanisation and the shrinking world flatten all landscapes, economic, ecological and artistic.

The gharana in its heyday was a peculiar, closed-system construct. In pre-independence India it was located in a specific area and its musicians were in the care of a Maharaja, Nawab or Raja as the case may be. Performers from Rampur gharana or Gwalior gharana were protégés of the respective ruler, for instance. Many were also AIR artists and made gramophone recordings. They were able to retain their individual styles and the talim received from their teacher. As times changed and the system collapsed, the imperatives of money became more urgent. The necessity of finding a balance between sustaining art with the imperative of supporting a family became paramount.



here are several violin recitals by ustad Asghar Husain on YouTube that give a clear idea of his command of technique, sweetness of tone and sound but unobtrusive raagdari or knowledge of a raga or melodic mode. A true Hindustani musician reveals the “spine” of a raga in the pakkad or the opening ascending and descending figures. Asghar Husain does this in a simple but telling manner.  He then builds up a composition step by step, layer on layer. His sense of laya and tala comes from his highly regarded tabla player father ustad Anwar Husain Khan of the Farrukhabad gharana, the home of luminaries like ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa.

Asghar Husain came to the violin after starting on the tabla. As the latter is an accompanying instrument his father felt that if Asghar had to make his mark as a soloist he needed to choose another instrument. So he became a shagird or pupil of ustad Zahoor Ahmed Khan, an excellent but underrated violinist of Dilli gharana and son-in-law of ustad Chand Khan, a master khayal singer and previous khalifa of the gharana.

Zahoor Khan was a pupil and nephew of the great sarangi nawaz of Dilli gharana Umrao Ustad Bundu Khan. The sarangi is an instrument that replicates the human voice and in the hands of a master can capture the nuances of khayal singing, namely, meend, gamak, khatka, murki and many kinds of taan. Apart from the deeper intricacies of raagdari that were a part of his vast repertoire, Bundu Khan taught Zahoor Ahmed how to incorporate the sarangi baaj or musical vocabulary into his violin.

He was the son of the stalwart ustad Jahan Khan, a sarangi player and pupil of Bundu Khan sahib. The violin came into Dilli gharana via the khayal singer ustad Mamman Khan, then in the employ of the Maharaja of Patiala, at whose court he learnt the instrument from a “foreigner”, probably an Italian.



he violin was something of a novelty in Hindustani music when Zahoor Khan started out. Only V.G. Jog, a pupil of the great ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar and D.K. Datar, grandson of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, played ragas on the violin in the 1940s and 50s. There is a rare recording on YouTube of a duet in raga Malkauns featuring Bundu Khan Sahib on the sarangi and his pupil Zahoor Khan on the violin. It is a treat for the ears; the gradual exposure of the night raga and its colours and contours should be heard by every lover of Hindustani instrumental music.

Zahoor Khan passed on his knowledge to Asghar Husain who, over time, evolved into an ustad himself. Nowadays he guides PhD students in the writing of their thesis. He tunes his violin according to the western mode, that is, in the standard G,D,A,E note-pattern. His teacher also tuned the instrument in the same way earlier. As the violin is a western instrument its tonal characteristics ought to be respected, Asghar Husain feels. He also learnt the technique of playing in the western style for three years, just out of curiosity.

Ustad Iqbal Ahmed 1.jpg

Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan of the Dilli gharana. Photo: Special arrangment.

Asghar Husain’s first teacher was ustad Gauhar Ali of Rampur. He learnt from him for a year before going to Zahoor Ahmed Khan, who was also with AIR, like his father. Zahoor Khan had the advantage of Chand Khan Sahib for a father-in-law. He learnt the “architecture” of khayal singing from the master, and also its uniqueness. He incorporated these aspects of Dilli gharana–khayal into his violin playing. Asghar Husain too benefited greatly from his violin ustad’s knowledge of raagdari, particularly violin baaj.

Asghar sahib remembers being called to play at 1 a.m. at an all-night concert in memory of “Mridanga Acharya” Nana Saheb Palse, the great mid- to late 19th century percussionist. It was at Damo, Bakayun under the aegis of the Madhya Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. It is now a 123-year-old festival. Asghar Husain’s violin cast such a spell that he was allowed to leave the stage only at 3.30 a.m. He has played all over India in the last 35 years.

His virtuosity has been recognised in many forums. Among the awards are the Tarana Sangeet award (there is a photo of him receiving it from Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj), Dilli gharana Ratan award, Swarmani award, and this year, the Haridas Sangeet Ratan award.  All in all life, musically and materially, for him has been satisfactory. 



he first gharana of vocal music was known as the “Qawwal bacchon ka gharana”.  It is generally accepted that the roots of Hindustani music lie in religious/spiritual chants. With advent of Islam in India and the influence of Sufism which absorbed the poetic and spiritual humanism of medieval Hindu Bhakti poetry, a new form called qawwali was created which drew its musical sustenance from Raaga or Margiya sangeet.

The earliest exponents of qawwali were thoroughly trained in the grammar of Hindustani music. To this knowledge they added vocal acquisitions from Arabic and Persian music and arrived at a poetic amalgam of native Hindu musical traditions and Bhakti verse and its equivalent from a more catholic Islamic literary/philosophical tradition. In the present day qawwali has morphed into a folk form from a musically rigorous, raaga-centric one.

Traces of its singing style can be found in a vocal rendering of raga Alhaiyya Bilawal by Chote Ghulam Ali Khan sahib of the Kasur gharana, released by EMI Pakistan 40 years ago. His style is introspective, more in keeping with the Sufiyana tenets of Meer Hasan Sawant all those centuries ago than with his court-musician brother Meer Bula’s worldly aesthetics.

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib’s ustadi or technical expertise and attendant fireworks, though sounding marvellous in his voice was the extroverted expression of the Dilli gharana style whose influence spread far and wide in Punjab. The singers and instrumentalists in the Patiala court played and sang in the style of Dilli gharana, which was a school of Kalavants (musicians educated in the religious/spiritual texts as well as raagas) who had their roots in dhrupad, an earlier musical tradition.



stad Saeed Zafar Khan leads a modest but musically committed life. As a sitar soloist he has played all over India, is a regular broadcaster with AIR and features in concerts on Doordarshan. His association with AIR goes back to the time when his father Zafar Ahmed Khan worked there. He remembers that his father sang and also learnt from ustad Bundu Khan sahib, and the knowledge he gained he added to his sitar playing.

His claim to an illustrious musical lineage is legitimate. Like ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan, he traces it eventually to Meer Hasan Sawant, a Sufi-philosophy-inclined devotee or mureed of Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer.

He started playing in early childhood. A black & white photo shows him as a shaven-headed infant with a small sitar. His father Zafar Ahmed was an AIR Top Grade musician and a demanding teacher. He says, “Mere walid (father) gaate the aur sitar bhi bajaate the” (sang as well as played the sitar). He also learnt from the doyen of the gharana, Bundu Khan sahib whose repertoire of ragas and various bandish (compositions) in them was vast. But his father was initiated in the art of sitar playing by ustad Shamsuddin Khan, both a beenkar and a sitariya. “Mere walid ka haath sitar par rakhwaya unke taya Chand Khan sahib ne ustad Shamsuddin Khan se.”

Sitar in the Dilli gharana came through two different paths. Mamman Khan, a sarangi player in the court of the Raja of Datia decided to create a new instrument out of sarangi that broadened its tonal range. The ruler of Datia was impressed enough to name it “Sur Sagar”. The baaj (musical vocabulary and technique) for this instrument was created by Mamman Khan and it fed the sitar playing stream of Dilli gharana, as did the baaj of beenkars. Saeed Zafar, like his father before him, plays khayal bandish (vocal music compositions) on the sitar instead of gat (compositions exclusive to instrumental music) that are played by sitarists from the other gharanas. Sitar-violin duets by Saeed Zafar Khan and Asghar Husain make for an unusual blend of sound, both arresting and tinged with restraint, but with a tinge of pathos. The emotion is felt just below the surface of the music the two have made together. Their contrasting personalities too come out in their duets. Asghar Husain’s is more assertive, and Saeed Zafar’s more introspective.



sghar Husain is a happy traveller. He has been to 17-18 countries. He rattles them off, Canada, the US, England, France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Indonesia, not forgetting the Gulf countries and a few in Africa.  Zafar Khan too has travelled a bit; he has played in the US, UK, France, Germany, Dubai and other places.  He has played in all the top grade festivals. He is, however, a reluctant traveller. He exclaims, “I get homesick in 20 days when I am abroad, Yaar let me get known properly at home first, I say to myself!” 

Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan has travelled to many countries as India’s cultural/musical ambassador. He has sung in the US, Canada, Germany and the erstwhile Soviet Union. He began singing at the age of five and over the years was recognised as an exceptionally absorbent musical mind. He began to accompany his great-uncle ustad Chand Khan, from the age of 15. It was with this singular teacher that Iqbal sahib had his real teaching at home and on the concert stage. He mastered rare compositions in different, often complex ragas, gifted to him by his teacher.

It is important to understand the temperament of each of the three artistes featuring in his article. Asghar Husain is the most outgoing and willing to go with the times without compromising on his music. He is perfectly willing to recognise what YouTube has to offer and use it to get known and get offers. He is willing to give lec-dems at any decent venue and demonstrate his art to rank beginners, an in-between kind of audience or the cognoscenti alone.


Saeed Zafar Khan, a siatrist of the Dilli gharana. Photo: Special arrangment.

Saeed Zafar is a dedicated teacher and more than willing to help a deserving student learn the sitar. He does not appear to like public speaking though he has done his share of it. Iqbal Ahmed Khan is a dedicated teacher, and when pressed, a fluent public speaker. His nature is essentially introvert, though he tries hard to push forward the music of Dilli gharana.

Ustad Iqbal Ahmed is quick to point out that he got a Sangeet Natak Akademi Senior Fellowship only after he turned 60.  He is (justifiably) nettled that no one from Dilli gharana has an SNA award or for that matter a Padma Shri or a Padma Bhushan.  Surely ustad Chand Khan or Zahoor Ahmed Khan, even Nasir Ahmed Khan, deserved to be honoured by the government. Regardless, he continues to serve the cause of Dilli gharana and Hindustani music.


An artist of his quality surely deserved better. He used to conduct workshops on behalf of SPIC MACAY right from its inception. He was moved by the fact that university-educated people were involved in this (idealistic) attempt to popularise Hindustani music. He was then paid ₹75 for his labours and a second class railway ticket for travelling to different cities and towns. The people who ran SPIC MACAY drew decent monthly salaries from the establishments they worked for, some were even from wealthy backgrounds and doing business successfully. Iqbal Ahmed was a hard working freelancer trying to make both ends meet. 

He started in 1962 as a teenager broadcasting on AIR and was paid 50 rupees a performance in the ‘B’ category.  He then was promoted to ‘B-High’, then to the ‘A’ grade and finally a notch higher. The radio fee was small (to put it mildly) but it provided vital exposure to a singer or instrumentalist.  He made his debut on Doordarshan in 1965 when it was in its infancy. There was no colour then, and telecast time was limited to two hours in the evenings.

He did gain recognition in his late 20s among connoisseurs in Delhi who heard him in the intimacy of a mehfil or small private soiree. His sound training and unusual repertoire of bandish made listeners respond to his music with pleasure and respect.

Khayal singing in the 1960s became more exuberant, outgoing. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi of Kirana gharana became the star performer with his electrifying taan and theatrical stage presence, not to forget his tayyari and extraordinary long breath.  Pandit Jasraj, great-grandson of ustad Ghagge Khan of Mewati gharana too became famous because of his ebullient singing. Pandit Kumar Gandharva of Dewas turned a medical exigency to create a new style comprising short, telling phrases to his huge musical advantage. Only ustad Sharafat Hussain Khan of Agra, with superb technique, and a sober temperament, made a mark among rasiks of the time with his considered art.  From Dill gharana, only ustad Nasir Ahmed Khan with his very quick taans, especially in the upper register, became something of a star. Iqbal Ahmed Khan sahib’s thoughtful singing was best suited to the intimate mehfil.

All this happened before the advent of Internet and YouTube, which have changed the game in profound ways, most obviously by providing a hitherto unprecedentedly universal platform for their work. It is no longer necessary to buy a ticket or a recording, or even to be ni a particular place, to listen to music. All that is needed is a computer and an Internet connection. It is a power all three acknowledge and recognise.



ouTube puts at the fingertips of the music lover a vast archive of easily accessible Hindustani music. The generosity of devotees of Hindustani music has made it possible for recordings of forgotten masters of the past to be downloaded for hearing, “cleaned” to enhance listening pleasure. Affordable software has made it possible to remove unwanted hiss, crackle and noisy scratch sounds from old 78 RPM records. It is also possible now to correct awry “pitch” in old tape-recordings in which the tape has been stretched, rendering the voice or the sound of an instrument wobbly, as the case may be.

Ustad Asghar Husain is most enthusiastic about the medium because it has enlarged the numbers of his listeners several fold. There are many recordings on YouTube that show his art to advantage. His playing in ragas like “Jhinjhoti”, “Chayanat” is sweet, even touching. It is unhurried even at faster tempo. His sense of form is sure.  Like his khalifa Iqbal Ahmed Khan and confrere Saeed Zafar Khan, however, he is aware of the implications of exposure on YouTube. It is a medium ripe for plagiarism. For instance, potential musicians with a smidgeon of formal training from a teacher can take off on their own by stealing material from worthy senior musicians by listening to their recordings, available freely now. The earlier slog of getting a cassette or CD is no longer relevant. Recording technology has changed dramatically and so has dissemination of information. You do not even have to own a computer with Internet connection to listen to musicians you like; access to a cyber café or a library with desktop computers and headphones is enough.

The perils of such a lazy path to stardom are obvious. Formal music is an extremely rigorous process requiring hundreds of hours of repetitive practice under a teacher. In Hindustani music terms that is seena-ba-seema talim, indispensable to learning the nuances and intricacies of this music. It is helpful to listen to musicians from other schools of music in concert, on the radio and of course, YouTube. But the deeper, more subtle aspects of ragas and compositions in them, in varying moods, different talas and laya can only be learnt from an ustad or guru, because there is also a philosophical aspect to music-making that cannot be learnt from listening to other musicians live or through recordings. Seena-ba-seema, the literal handing down of musical knowledge from teacher to pupil, is still seen as the ideal method of transmission even by institutions like ITC Music Academy, Kolkata, where a student is assigned an ustad/guru and learns to sing or play an instrument in the traditional way.  Ustads like Nisar Hussain Khan, Latafat Husain Khan, Girija Devi of Benares among others have taught talented students on a regular basis at this institution.



usicians, particularly vocalists, learnt from each other even 70-80 years ago. It was said in certain quarters about ustad Rajab Ali Khan of Dewas that his gayaki had the fragrance of ustad Alladiya Khan’s vocal style although he belonged to the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Professor Deodhar’s star pupil Kumar Gandharva also picked up elements from Rajab Ali Khan sahib’s style. Ajoy Chakraborti, an ITC Music Academy alumnus, has aligned himself with the Patiala gayaki, meaning that of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar no doubt learnt from Pandit Ram Marathe, but there are elements of his own in his fine singing as well. The list goes on.

Krishna Bisht, one of the luminaries of the Dilli gharana, was a much loved pupil of ustad Chand Khan. In her seventies now she was a professor at the department of Hindustani music in Delhi University. An old and distinguished broadcaster over AIR and Doordarshan, she never had to bother about patronage, from the state or otherwise. She has always been regarded as a musician’s musician. She was highly regarded as a khayal singer and has many pupils including the talented Mallika Banerjee, formerly of AIR, now with IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University). Krishnaji is disappointed that a genuine singing talent like Fareed Hasan, maternal grandson of ustad Nasir Ahmed Khan, is not being sufficiently encouraged. She feels Fareed has what it takes to revive the prestige of Dilli gharana.

Saeed Zafar Khan likes the quiet introspective life. He teaches a few deserving students. His son Sohail (Suhel on YouTube) is a PhD student of music at Delhi University. He too is a performing artist, and can be heard in duets with his father as well as playing solo. Talking about his sitar playing Saeed Zafar says it is in four parts. First, in the alaap portion, it is reminiscent of Chand Khan sahib’s way of doing it; then reflections of his father Zafar Khan sahib’s baraabari ki taan; Zahoor Khan sahib’s laykaari ki taan and finally, vocalist ustad Nasir Ahmad Khan’s “teesre saptak ki taan”.

He further elucidates, “hamare yahan sitar mein khas stroke ka kaam hota hai”. Apart from this, meend (the gliding note) sooth and “silsila waar bharna” or a step by step progression in a given composition, is also an integral part of his playing and that of Dilli gharana. He is also an eclectic and open to influences.  He likes the playing of his father ustad Zafar Ahmed Khan, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and also the brilliant maverick ustad Halim Jaffar Khan. He feels if “you like an element in a great musician’s playing it is nice to absorb it and make a part of your style”. It is also his way of paying tribute to the masters of sitar he admires.



nother major challenge comes from the changed quality of the new listener and aspirant. Buddhadev Dasgupta, sarod exponent and engineer by training observed a few years ago about young musicians, ‘’They want to start performing within a couple of years of learning the instrument. They don’t bother to get acquainted with the character or ‘mizaj’ of a raga before playing it. They think they have understood it because they can render the external form of the raga clearly.’’

 A pupil of the illustrious Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain Khan of Rampur-Sehswan gharana, Kailash Pandey a talented, scholarly gentleman-amateur observes, “The emphasis is on externals.” Without naming individuals from his gharana, “they are doing rigorous riyaaz in rendering taan but they have little grasp of the raga, the composition sung in it or of the bhaav or sentiments expressed in the sahitya.’’ He elucidates, “These people do not understand the subtleties of the language in which compositions in particular ragas were written. In Hindustani music sur and sahitya go together.’’

Asha Rani Mathur, music connoisseur and the moving force behind the uniformly excellent quality of the Hindustani music recorded under the Music Today label, says, “The greatness of a gharana was determined by the quality of the performers and their individuality. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of Kirana gharana sang beautifully but differently from his pupil, Sawai Gandharwa, whose charismatic shishya, Bhimsen Joshi, sang in a completely individual style. Gangubai Hangal and Hirabai Barodekar, daughter of Abdul Karim Khan sahib, belonged to the same gharana but sang beautifully in her distinctive style. Kesarbai Kerkar was a terrific singer in the Jaipur-Atrauli style of Ustad Alladiya Khan. Her guru, behen Mogubai Kurdikar, also highly accomplished, sang quite differently from her. Kishori Amonkar, Mogubai’s daughter and pupil, became a brilliant singer in her own distinct style.

“These days singers want to hear applause, the louder the better!” Asha Rani exclaims. She remembers hearing a callow Wasifuddin Dagar accompanying his revered uncle Zahiruddin Dagar in the rendition of a 50-minute alaap in the majestic raga Darbari at Kamani auditorium, Delhi, 25 years ago. She thinks there would hardly be an audience today for such a grand performance.

Asha Rani Mathur is caustic about concerts cramming in three artists in a single evening. “These concerts resemble a five-star chef’s tasting menu, where a platter with morsels of various dishes is served to be tasted but not a full portion of any dish!” It is the audience that determines the shape of a performance and concerts are time-bound.

They start at 6.30 p.m. and end by 9.30, maximum, 10 p.m. There’s no time for the audience to absorb the finer points of a singer or instrumentalist’s art nor are they keen to go beyond mere virtuosity. New ways of listening and of performing have evolved over the last 60-70 years. Hindustani music today is undergoing yet another transformation determined by the quality of time available both to the performer as well as the listener.

The system is in a state of flux, as it has been, more or less, for the last 70 years. At this point the strains are more evident. But the future, it is hoped, will bring happy tidings in its wake.