Bhendi Bazaar Gharana: Bombay and Hindustani Classical Music

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    This is the lesser-known story of three brothers and their adopted city – of how they made music in the narrow lanes of a big city, and made history by giving Hindustani classical music a home in Bombay. But first, some background.

    The roots of Indian classical music can be traced to the annals of Vedic history. Over time, inspired by the many rulers and conquerors that came to India, and the complex interaction between people of several races and cultures, Indian music marinated in their influences and, eventually, a rich tapestry of harmony was woven with Hindustani classical music.

    Improvisational patterns prevailed in the genre and written notation, when used, was indicative at best. There were thousands of ragas (sequences) connected to different times of the day – a different raga for sunrise and sunset, some meant exclusively for the quiet of the night, some to herald a new day at dawn, and others to welcome the night at dusk. The ragas would be played in various moods – from peacefulness to praying, from furious rage to a quiet temerity. One single raga could be performed for two, sometimes three hours.

    It was towards the late 1600s that Aurangzeb imposed restrictions on music, decreeing the withdrawal of imperial patronage of musicians. The ban lasted all the way till the end of his reign, in 1707 CE. His oppressive policies, coupled with a string of weak successors, ultimately contributed to the eventual weakening and collapse of the Mughal Empire. Many musicians, who were previously used to receiving their patronage from the royal court, migrated to princely states and stayed there.

    Competition between these princely states was fierce and, consequently, so was the rivalry between the state musicians. Each one developed their own quality and techniques of music and jealously protected them as if they were state secrets.

    Hindustani classical musicians founded their own gharanas (school of musical ideology) in their new homes, where their musical ideology and its spiritual significance would be passed down generations and stay within the founding musicians’ families. The identity of the music was marked by its place of origin and practice.

    Tradition dictated that the musicians of one gharana would only practice in their own style. In true guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student custom), training would take place from a very young age at the teacher’s house and take several decades to complete. Once the student had mastered the gharana’s ideology and techniques, and was able to evolve the music, trainees would, in turn, take their gharana and its legacy forward. Classical music became an inheritance. The training imparted and years of vocal strain would sometimes take a toll on the teachers and render the musicians unable to practice their art.

    Against this background, it is only natural that the words ‘Hindustani classical music’ tend to evoke powerful images from the palaces of Gwalior and havelis of Jaipur to the minarets of Agra and colours of Benares (Varanasi), with peacocks dancing in gardens to the accompaniment of sarangi and tabla. It is hard not to picture rigorous riyaaz (practice) of breath control and performances by pandits and ustaads in royal concerts held in the courtyards of palaces.

    It is incredible then, that Bombay, an undisputedly cosmopolitan city with decidedly urban roots, became home to a gharana of Hindustani classical music. The 19th century was an exceptional time in the city’s coming of age. The merchants of Bombay, keen on pouring some of their resources back into the city that gave them their livelihood, were willing to provide patronage to the arts in order to create and consume culture.

    Everyone from everywhere who could bring something to the table was welcome – snake charmers, acrobats, theatre troupes, you name it. There was dancing, and opera was imported from Europe for the elite. While there was no dearth of popular entertainment, Bombay also took it upon itself to patronise classical music. As the British widened their reach for territory and profit, several autonomous royal courts crumbled, and their performers lost their patronage. Musicians began to frequent the city of Bombay, and some stayed to make it home.

    So, around the year 1870, three brothers of immaculate pedigree – Nazim, Chajju and Khadim Hussain Ali Khan, the sons of Ustad Dilawar Hussain Khan – decided to move to Bombay from Bijnaur near Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

    To meet the housing needs of the labour and working class in the Bombay Harbour, an area behind Crawford Market, an elite bazaar at the time, was developed in dormitory fashion. And so, Bhendi Bazaar, a distortion of ‘Behind the Bazaar’ was born. The Khan brothers chose to live here, near the theatre district of Grant Road and the houses of ill-repute of Kamathipura.

    The three brothers had spent decades training, first under the tutelage of their father, Ustad Dilawar Hussain Khan in Moradabad, and later under Inayat Hussain Khan of the Rampur Sahaswan Gharana and Ustad Inayat Khan of the Dagar Gharana. Bombay’s musical networks welcomed the brothers with open arms and they soon found recognition for their scholarship and became sought-after performers.

    Naturally, their adopted city became a muse for their art and inspired them in ways only great cities can. The Ali Khan brothers developed their own technique, distinguishable for its slow, open-throated singing. Their improvisations of the raga were based on the Khandmer or Meerkhand principle of Hindustani classical music, which involved combinations of a limited number of notes being used to bring out the mellifluousness of the raga.

    Their bandishes (compositions) were delightful blends of lyrics, notes and tempo, and they practiced individually designated rhythm play, with incorporations of some ragas from Carnatic music. The Khan brothers earned a reputation as the ‘Bhendi Bazaar-waleys’ and the gayaki (singing) evolved into the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana, when their music began to be passed down over generations to their disciples.

    While some say there are similarities between the bandishes of the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana and those of the Gwalior Gharana, the originality of its singing technique was uncontested and found universal acclaim. So was the presentation of a khayal (rendition of a poem with without accompaniment, followed by improvisations of the phrases). Sung in an open voice, the rendering of a khayal in the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana required immense breath control. There was also a lot of emphasis on pronunciation.

    The second generation of the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana was perhaps its most prolific. Chajju Khan’s son, Aman Ali Khan, followed in his family’s footsteps and became an iconic composer of Hindustani classical music in the style of the gharana. He is said to have composed 400-odd bandishes, reflecting the Bhendi Bazaar gayaki, with all its nuances and in all its glory. Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey, two stalwart vocalists in the Hindi film industry, trained under Ustad Aman Ali Khan. Many fifth-generation disciples of the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana were popular artistes on All India Radio and their commercial records were well travelled.

    Although several tentative attempts have been made to revive and popularise its gayaki, continuity of the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana continues to be a problem for its musicians. The gharana’s proponents have often refrained from public performances and left the gharana and its music largely unpublicised. Some had the misfortune of untimely deaths, leaving behind fewer disciples. Others, still, slipped into obscurity since they were never recorded. Their compositions are long forgotten, with the city of their gharana moving on to echo the music of the times.

    Today, the historic Bhendi Bazaar neighbourhood is being regenerated via a development scheme on a scale previously unseen in India. Residents will get homes in skyscrapers and businesses on street levels will move to malls and arcades. Ancient buildings that withstood the torrent of centuries are being demolished and the lanes which echoed the Bhendi Bazaar gayaki now resonate with the sounds of drill machines and jackhammers. The statistics are remarkable, but there is the question of wiping out its heritage.

    But all hope is not lost. Some recordings of later disciples of the gharana are freely available on the Internet. The development scheme too has launched a project to record the history of its residents and conserve the elements that form a part of Bhendi Bazaar’s heritage. Swaramandakini, an archival website project undertaken by Sudhir Gadre, the son of Mandakini Gadre (a practitioner of the gharana), contains some excellent live recordings of bandishes of the gharana and is documenting the legacy of the music and its practitioners. And so, one way or another, the music lives on.


    Isha Maniar is a lawyer turned writer, based out of Bombay, the city she writes in an about.
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