A decade ago, I produced an LP and CD of the music of the great singer Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. The notes for that release were derived in large part from Michael Kinnear (b. 1945; d. 2019)’s beautifully-researched bio-discography. The notes that follow are largely a further condensation of Kinnear’s amazing work. (Kinnear's book an a 90-minute collection of out-takes and test pressings is available here: bajakhana.com.au/downloads/sangeet-ratna-the-jewel-of-music-khan-sahib-abdul-karim-khan-a-bio-discography/
Abdul Karim Khan’s familial musical lineage is thought to have extended back to the end of the 16th century to Dhondu Nayak, a Hindu musician who was active in Gwalior and to a family of Sufi qawwali devotional singers and sarangi players who began as folk musicians and refined their music over generations. He was born Nov. 11, 1872, the eldest of four siblings to a Sunni family in Kairana in Uttar Pradesh. For at least 250 years, through a complex network of familial relations, Abdul Karim Khan’s family handed down the technology of music, from elder to younger, one note at a time.
Abdul Karim Khan’s early training came from Bande Ali Khan (b. 1829; d. July 7, 1895 - a relation to the Dagar family of dhrupad singers) who insisted that Abdul Karim Khan change his focus from sarangi (accompanying fiddle) to voice. By the age of 11 Abdul Karim Khan and his brother Abdul Latif Khan were concertizing, and by the time he was 16, Abdul Karim Khan’s father took him to the court of Mysore to visit an uncle who was working there as a sarangi player. Around the age of 18, Abdul Karim Khan's first marriage was arranged to a cousin named Gafuran (b. 1873; d. 1973). Shortly thereafter he went on tour to the courts of Kathiawar, Junagarh, Wadhwan, and Jaora. Four year later, he and his brother Abdul Haque settled in the court of Baroda, a hub of intellectual, political, and artistic activity.
At Baroda Abdul Karim Khan’s duties included both singing and teaching, and his work as a teacher included transcription. Barely literate in Urdu, he had help from a nobleman’s wife named Hirabai Mane (who died of cholera in early 1898) and then subsequently her daughter Tarabai. During an emotionally charged period, Tarabai and Abdul Karim Khan, according to legend, scandalously eloped at night along with his brother Abdul Haque and a servant. In 1901, they arrived in Miraj, where Abdul Karim Khan found work but then contracted cholera himself. Tarabai nursed him back to health, and they were married. The first of their seven children was born in 1902 while Abdul Karim Khan was on tour.
During the early decades of the 20th century, the centuries-old patronage system of classical court musicians began to break down, parallel to the adoption of melodies from the courts by theatrical musicians. Abdul Karim Khan, meanwhile, apparently driven out of necessity to earn a living began performing upper-class “art” music to popular audiences, often in small towns and sometimes charging only whatever the audiences could offer by throwing coins in a jar. For several years, as a young father, he worked as an itinerant musician offering an exceptionally elevated music to the democratic masses. Around February 1905, he recorded about 32 performances for the British-owned Gramophone Company in Bombay, less than a year after recording had commenced in India. His being an exile from the court system as a result of his marriage to an upper-class Hindu woman, his exceptional work ethic, and his place inside a quickly shifting political climate in India set the stage for his subsequent status as one of the India's foremost voices, both highly refined and immediately available and sweet to the ear of practically anyone who heard it.
Continuing to study music theory and instrument-building, and while touring western India almost constantly, Abdul Karim Khan formed a music school in 1908. Between teaching and touring over the next several decades, he he found patronage from a number of sources, notably the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar Bahadur (b. 1884), who requested that Abdul Karim Khan record in “Canarese” (the colonial term for south Indian languages). Abdul Karim Khan ultimately fulfilled that wish in December 1935 by recording two sides in Telugu (both included on this collection), although they were not issued until 1938, months after Abdul Karim Khan had died.
During the First World War Abdul Karim Khan performed many benefit concerts in aid of war relief and moved his family from Kolhapur to Bombay, where he continued to teach, concertize, and involve himself in the complex musical controversies of the times, including the introduction of the harmonium as an accompanying instrument (supplanting the sarangi). His wife ran the music school while raising the children whom Abdul Karim Khan adored and taught, presenting two of the boys in concert at the ages of 3 and 5. Tarabai was assisted in the school by Abdul Karim Khan’s cousin Abdul Wahid Khan (b. 1882; d. 1945), an opium-loving, sexually promiscuous, self-indulgent eccentric who felt strongly about the role of Muslims in Hindu-dominated India. The marriage between Tarabai and Abdul Karim Khan frayed. Tarabai and Abdul Karim Khan disagreed about religious matters in the raising of the children, and Tarabai suspected Abdul Karim Khan of infidelity on his tours.
After over 20 year of marriage, Abdul Karim Khan learned by telegram at the age of 49 that his wife had left him, had taken their children aged between 8 and 18, and given them new Hindu names. Making matters worse, his mother showed up begging for him to return to his first wife Garufan (who is said to have remained faithful to him until her death at 100 years old). In sorrow, rage, and pride, he he went back on tour, taking with him two sisters, students of his, that were the same age as his eldest daughter. One of them, Banubai, became his third wife by 1929. His children meanwhile endured a variety of fates. Several of them became performers. One son, Suresh Babu Mane, died during experiments with alchemy. One daughter, Hirabai Berodekar (b. 1905; d. 1989) was trained largely by Abdul Wahid Khan and became a deservedly revered and popular singer of the 1940s-50s.
Abdul Karim Khan’s tours in the 1930s took on the quality of a variety show. His dog Ustad Tipu made regular appearances as a howler. One suspects that it was Abdul Karim Khan himself who was howling internally at the loss of his family and the tumultuous political times that would soon result in the separation of India from the British Raj and the bloody Hindu-Muslim conflicts that surrounded the 1947 partition of the former colony into three nations.
Although he apparently recorded for the French-owned Pathe Company in the mid-10s (no copies of those recordings now known to exist), he refused to offer his voice in the service of the British owned EMI company that dominated the subcontinent for several decades. It was only in 1934 that he was persuaded (following recordings by his children) to record for the German owned Odeon company (under the auspices of the Ruby Record Company of Bombay) that in a flurry of activity from March 23, 1934 to December 22, 1936, he cut dozens of performances over four sessions. (Among them, were two instrumental recordings performed on been in 1936 that were first rejected by Odeon for release but issued later because Abdul Karim Khan stated he’d withdraw from his contract if they were not released; he intended to use the proceeds to erect a tombstone for his teacher and uncle Bande Ali Khan.)
The majority of them were issued as 12” discs by Odeon from 1934-41 and then subsequently reissued by Columbia between 1942-50. Many were significant commercial successes, and LP, CD, and cassette reissues have occurred sporadically since then, and most of his recordings circulate online now, mostly in bad sound quality. No definitive collection of the material has yet been made, despite Kinnear's great discography.
Between those 1934-36 recording sessions, Abdul Karim Khan continued to tour intensively. With another recording date set for the end of 1937, Abdul Karim Khan performed in Madras in October, and on his way to visit the philosopher and nationalist Sri Auribindo in Pondicherry, Abdul Karim Khan complained on the train journey of chest pains. He died of heart failure at a train station 35 miles south of Madras on October 27, 1937 at the age of 65. The news was carried over All India Radio and crowds gathered to greet his casket on its way to Miraj. (The “Canarese” recordings were the first of the material “in the can” released after his death.)
It would be difficult to overstate Abdul Karim Khan's posthumous reputation. The influence of his discs reached some of the greatest mid-20th century singers including Bhimsen Joshi who said he was moved to seek musical training as a result of hearing Abdul Karim Khan's recordings. Abdul Karim Khan is generally regarded is the most influential progenitor of the Kirana gharana (lineage) that has included the singers Rosham Ara Begum, actor and early playback singer Firoz Dastur, the eccentric genius Pandit Pran Nath, sarangi soloist Ram Naryan, and influenced hundreds of other celebrated performers.
Given the opportunity, I should say that during a six-month period twenty-five years ago as a live-in servant to the artists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in New York City, I first encounter the image of Abdul Karim Khan along with his cousin Abdul Wahid Khan on a shrine Young and Zazeela kept in their New York City loft near what had been the bed where their teacher Pandit Pran Nath had slept. That image of Abdul Karim Khan staring disinterestedly from beneath heavy eyelids and an elaborate turban stuck in my mind, although I was unable to hear any his recordings until a decade later. The researcher Suresh Chandvankar provided me with a copy of Michael Kinnear’s book on AKK. Any listener who encounters these recordings for the first time here, or who hears them in a new way, must consider Young, Zazeela, and Chandvankar as the conduits who originated the onward dissemination of this experience.