[1] Initial Training by Father-Shahmir Khan

At the early age of ten, Amir Khan started receiving training from his father, Shahmir Khan. Though Shahmir Khan himself was an established Sarangi player, he wanted to make his son a vocalist. Though Shahmir Khan was professionally a Sarangi and vina player, he had studied art of singing also along with instrumental. His guru [teacher], Chhange Khan, was a vocalist, who was his father. From very childhood, Amir Khan’s grasping power was adequately developed. Whatever he had opportunity to listen, vocal or instrumental, and whatever swara phrases taught by his father, he had wonderful capability to reproduce it instantly.


During this period of initial training, Shahmir Khan started to make him practice of paltas [permutations] based on meru khand system, which is very hard and complex method. Thus, it was but natural that at that early age, such practice seemed to be boring to Amir Khan. Except the training given by father, to hear or sing anything else was prohibited. In this context, a recollection narrated by his younger brother, Bashir Khan, is worth mentioning.


“Father started giving training to brother, Amir Khan. From the very first day, he persisted for preparation of meru khand. To sing anything else was not allowed. In total, 5040s tans were taught and were got crammed. Brother used to get annoyed very much. A drama company had come to Indore. Whole of the city was crooning its songs. But brother was to keep away from every thing except khand meru. When father went for Namaz [prayer of Muslims], brother used to croon songs of Marathi dramas. Once he was caught and was beaten severely.”[1]


On attainment of adolescence, the physical process of breaking of voice began. The voice was not fit for singing in such condition. Then Amir Khan thought that botheration of practice to sing was now over. As is generally seen, at this stage, practice of singing is halted for one or two years. But Shahmir Khan took advantage of this period by handing over Sarangi to Amir Khan, as per rich tradition of Sarangi playing in his family. Being a genius, he began playing Sarangi skillfully in a very short time. He wanted to take down on Sarangi, every swara phrase which he had learnt during his training of vocalism. According to Bashir Khan, Amir Khan was a good Sarangi player, this fact is known to very few people. He was not satisfied himself by this progress achieved in Sarangi playing. Because of being ambitious, it seemed to him that to become a vocalist would be a right aim for him. The reasons which were in the back ground of his mentality are worth noting.


During training of Sarangi playing by father, Shahmir Khan, Amir Khan had bitter experience of father’s short temperament. Such behavior of his father was just in conformity with the behavior of Ustads of those times. Amir Khan’s close friend and Sitar player, Mr. Ramnath Shrivastava, who  himself was also learning Sarangi playing along with Amir Khan from Shahmir Khan, have expressed his recollection: -


“In childhood, we both learned together Sarangi from Shahmir Khan. Once, on incorrect playing, his father [Shahmir Khan] struck forcefully on his neck with a box. Then Amir Khan proceeded towards vocalism leaving Sarangi.”[2]


By this event, Amir Khan was so much affected that he decided to become a vocalist. For this, he got support of his younger brother. In beginning, he started practice of vocal in secret, in which Bashir Khan gave him accompaniment on Sarangi. During training of Sarangi playing from his father, he used to learn gayaki ang [instrumental technique similar to vocalism] and specialties of ragas. This knowledge helped him in practice of vocal.


In another context, Amir Khan had to face an insult for being son of a Sarangi player, which made firm his determination to become a vocalist. Giving account of this event, a famous harmonium player of Indore, Mr. Bapurao Agnihotri has written: “Once in Indore, at a street called Gafoor Ki Bajariya, a music program was held. At the time of Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar [3rd], Ustad Nasiruddin Khan Dagar was his court musician. It is said that at the place of music program n Bajariya, there Amir Khan Saheb saw a book, named meru khand, and he took it and started reading; but Nasiruddin snatched the book from him saying that it was of no use for a child like him. Amir Khan was deeply hurt by these insulting words and then and there he decided that in any way he would become a vocalist of high standard. So what was to do then! He asked his friend Ramnath to bring that book from anywhere and Mr. Ramnathji Shrivastava [of India Hotel], who was his close friend, copied the book within few days by his own hand and gave it to Amir Khan.”[3]


Acharya Brihaspati has also narrated an incident of similar type in this way: “Amir Khan was a child at that time. At that time, a very eminent dhrupad singer lived at Indore. One day, he was teaching paltas [permutations] of khand meru to students of his family. Amir Khan reached there coincidently and the subject was changed. How could practice of khand meru be carried on in the presence of son of a Sarangi player? Amir Khan, even though a child, could understand actual thing and was deeply hurt.”[4]


By this event, Amir Khan evidently realized that depending upon ‘Sarangi’, an instrument associated with infamous persons and considered suitable only for accompaniment; no honorable place could be achieved in the society and among artists. He saw that his predecessors, two great artists of Kirana Gharana, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan, though originally trained as Sarangi players, proceeded in the field of vocalism and earned name as founders of a gharana of vocal music that is Kirana Gharana. Accordingly, Amir Khan left Sarangi playing and started his endeavor to become a vocalist and subsequently became famous as a founder of Indore Gharana.


Alap, behlava, meed, gamak, tans, khatka etc elements which are applied for embellishment of a raga have almost similar form, both in Sarangi playing and in vocalism. Hence, it was not difficult for Amir Khan to enter into one field leaving the other. The first aim before him was to culture the voice suitable to the desired style. Besides, there is tremendous scope for expression of sentiments in vocal, in comparison to any instrument. Probably that is why, in the three modes of music [vocal, instrumental and dance], vocal is ranked as first.


In early age [ten years], when Amir Khan’s initial training started, at that time he was made to practice of singing for a very short duration; but as he started entering adulthood, the duration of his practice started increasing. In an interview, he himself says: -

“My training started at the age of ten from my father. I was young; he made me sing for half or one hour. He made me sing for an hour each in morning, in afternoon and in evening for years together. Afterwards I came to understand. I questioned him one day, why you ask me to sing for an hour only? He said: ‘it is not right to sing more at present. The mind will not be able to respond for the purity of the swaras by practicing more; hence, sing less now’. This process continued till 1937, that is, till the death of father.”[5]


During the period of initial training, along with all the parts of khayal gayaki, father Shahmir Khan made him practice very hard paltas of meru khand.


Pt. Amarnath wrote: “Shahmir Khan became a disciple of Bhindi Bazar musicians to understand the Merukhand system, Amir Khan received this Merukhand Taaleem [teaching] through his father.”[6]

This riyaz [practice] of meru khand paltas subsequently became helpful in the development of peculiar vocal style of Ustad Amir Khan. This process of training under ‘the teacher and the taught tradition’ [guru-shishya parampara], continued uninterrupted until his father’s death; thereafter he never became ceremonial disciple of any established contemporary vocalist by accepting anyone’s tutelage.


He had not availed any formal school education. Mohan Nadkarni mentions in an article: “Although he had no formal education, he was well versed in Urdu, Persian and Hindi. He had basic knowledge of Sanskrit. He had studied works of many Indian mystical saints also. It is amazing but fact that because of this combination, he tended to execute difficult research in various styles of North Indian music.”[7]


After studying his whole life, we find that this lack of formal education didn’t hinder the development of his personality and his carrier in music.


[1] Maharashtra Times-5th September 1976, ‘Amir Khan’ part 2, Writer: Vasant potdar.

[2] Kalavarta-February/March 1989, P.34, ‘Jab Amir Khan Saheb Gate-Gate Ro Pade’ [When Amir Khan Saheb started weeping while singing], Writer: Ramnath Shrivastava.

[3] Kalavarta-February/March 1989, P.19, ‘Gambhir Vyaktitva Kay Sath Prakriti Ka Gayan’, Writer: Bapurao Agnihotri.

[4] ‘Sangeet’-March 1974, P.9, ‘Aik Darun Aghat, Aik Aur Patra’, Writer: Acharya Brihaspati.

[5] ‘Sangeet’-November 1971, P.26, ‘Sangeet Sadhakon See Bhent: Ustad Amir Khan’, Interviewer: Shambhunath Mishra.

[6] ‘Living Idioms in Hindustani Music: A Dictionary of Terms and Terminology’-P.55, ‘Indore Gharana’, Author: Pt. Amarnath.

[7] ‘Madhyavarti’-P.35, ’Amirkhani Shaili’, Author: Mohan Nadkarni.