4- The Swara Aspect of Gayaki

Dr. Ibrahim Ali 

Ustad Amir Khan gave utmost importance to refinement of swaras, in his vocal style. This refinement was based on his practice and his judgment about the timbre [quality of sound], interval [pitch difference between notes], and shruti [microtone or the sound between swaras]. That is why his gayaki is considered to be swara salient, i.e. in the mutual proportion of swara, laya and lyric, the swara is given top most place in musical expression.


In his view, the basis of melodiousness of swara phrases was in the combination of two perceptions, merukhand and gradual improvisation. This perception provided form to the structure of his swara aspect and he decorated it with fine embellishment, based on his sense of aesthetics.


Keeping himself away from miracles of layakari [rhythmic variations], Khan Saheb firmly believed on the effect of swara and he considered satisfactory the success achieved by it only. Because of swara dominance in his gayaki, it had the effect making the audience fascinated, tranquil, grave and inward looking.


In the vocal style of Khan Saheb, along with the mood generated by the raga, attractiveness of the swara depended on the fine use of kan swaras linked with swaras. These kans are present in bandish, alap, sargam and even in tans also. Always the first swara of each alap has the touch of another swara [generally of the lower swaras]. Mostly he has applied kan swara for decoration of swaras comparing to murki, gitkari, jamjama etc, because it was more suitable for his tranquil and compassionate mood of his gayaki. The purpose of application of kan swara was to make swara phrases more expressive. Besides it, kan swaras were helpful in presenting nyas swara in different ways, so as to provide variety, despite repetition. It is well known that shruti of a Swara is changed by application of kan swara, and the effect generated by it is also changed. In a program of Akashwani Indore, while paying homage to Khan Saheb, what Thakur Jaidev Singh said in appreciation of application of swara in his vocal style, is quoted as follows: -

“The most important peculiarity is embellishment of swaras. He never applied swaras in flat manner in his life, and I think that this is the inadequacy in today’s gayaki that we disgrace the swaras. The swaras are applied by totally stripping them; that is why they have no effect. Because the art of music is such that it differs in many ways from other forms of art. But mainly it differs from other arts in technique. In that technique there is no aesthetics. When by admixture of technique, a painting is created, or a poem is created, then it gets beauty. It is the peculiarity of music that there is beauty in its technique also. Sing only swaras without words, it has also beauty. That is, it is as beautiful in its technique, as in its presentation. This is the specialty of music. Hence, his technique had such mood and such expression that one would remain hearing only, but has no words for its applause.”


Khan Saheb had especially acknowledged the importance of fine quality and expression in application of swaras. In this context, following quotation gives expression to his belief: -

“In music, his [Ustad Amir Khan’s] first belief is that more delightfully the swaras are applied, more effective becomes the raga. If a child is called with affection, he goes to any unknown person and thinks him to be his own. Similar is the case with creating effect in music. Because of this belief, Khan Saheb shows dominance of delicate feelings in his music. Because of this basic concept of music, he maintains his gayaki and he is very cautious about the art of khayal gayaki. He considers the whole gayaki as an impression. After listening to his music, it seems that he does not believe in uncontrolled demonstration of musical embellishments.”[i]


In the very beginning of his raga presentation, application of swaras is soothing. The reason is that, in the melodious atmosphere created by sound of Tanpuras, tuned minutely, when Khan Saheb started raga introducing alap before bandish, then the action of reaching shadj for the first time, was very artistic. From there, the form of raga also started taking shape.


Whatever action was there to create the state of surprise and excitement was found in the vocal style of Khan Saheb, even it was based on swara aspect instead of laya. He did not surprised the audience by application of ateet, anagat or tihai [three tier method], but with the stability of swaras, he created peculiarity by usage of shrutis with meed and andolan, creation of swara combination beyond imagination and by application of swara phrases composed joining the swaras of different octaves. In the context of refinement in microtonal interval, komal gandhar produced in Raga darbari and abhogi, and komal nishad of bass octave in raga ramdasimalhar, are worth considering. Similarly, he stabilizes komal rishabh in such a fine manner in raga marva that while attention is centered on it, the effect of shadj of Tanpura is obliterated. In the ragas [chandra kauns etc], where he has stabilized shudha nishad, the same effect is generated. It is to be remembered that komal rishabh and shudha nishad, being nearest to the shadj, if one accomplishes them with caution, it is possible to produce such an effect.


Of course there is tranquility in his gayaki because of his deep voice and the act of  joining the swaras with meendin addition, prolonged stabilization on swaras in alapchari, is also one of the reasons. As he improvised raga by keeping discipline of gradual progression, it was not sufficient for him to accept the vadi [dominant] and samvadi [subdominant] as the only place of stay. While maintaining the entire form of a raga, in addition to vadi-samvadi, he dwelt on some other swaras, for example, dhaivat in raga abhogi, and gandhar in raga ahir bhairav etc.


Though he could present fine vocal activities, such as khatka, murki, gitkari etc very effectively, but despite being much applauded, these fine vocal activities could not dominate his gayaki and as per his nature, he maintained the importance of tranquility in his gayaki. That is why, weaving the descending swara phrase with melodious murkis, staying on a particular swara with dexterity, he pacified all the excitement and impatience. During improvisation, a pause of few seconds [silence] was a purposeful object to save basic theme of gayaki from waves of excitement. Especially in vilambit khayal set in jhumra tal, the period of rotation being extensive, the portion of mukhda [opening profile] and sam [first beat] comes later, therefore the pauses falling in the middle, save the alap from unwanted continuity. During these moments of pause, sound of tanpura coming from the background, provides enough tranquility. Probably this was the reason that he did not accept assistance or swara application by disciples and others, during his performances. As in his technique of swara application, kan comes in a natural way; the same position is of meend. During alap, whether a swara phrase belongs to an ascending order [arohi] or descending order [avrohi], he did not break his voice in between, nor did he accept change of swara in striking manner. Thus in such condition, meed is automatically included in swara phrases. He had his own method of applying meed also. Some times his meed moves from one swara to another in such a slow and melodious manner that an impression of some other swara is created in between. For example in swara phrase of raga jayjayvanti'(d g m g r)'while coming from ga to re with meed, an impression of komal gandhar is also felt in the middle. He Had unique method of presenting a swara with stressful khatka, and from the same moment applying a descending swara phrase with meed. For example, see the swara notation of raga darbari and refrain of raga jayjayvanti in vilambit khayal as follows:

Swara phrase in raga darbari:

n n p m p, n, ([p] g – m r s).


Refrain of vilambit khayal of raga jayjayvanti:


                           ' rsdngr,-gmp'                    |      '([m]gr)'                                                                        'Ay---,-maaee'                  |      'saa--'                                                    3                                                               |        X

Khan Saheb applied andolan to the swaras very gently to prevent from any jolt or roughness. This is the reason that his application of komal gandhar in raga darbari and komal rishabh in raga ahir bhairav [even keeping the tradition of andolan] seems different from others.


Khan Saheb also used khatka [a musical embellishment noted in bracket in Bhatkhande Notation System] as usual, but he provided it a special form by joining it with sam [the first beat of tal rotation]. That is with the emphasis of sam, giving stress on a swara by khatka effectively, and going down on descending swaras, was his method. For example, such applications of khatka can be observed in bandishes of raga darbari [mori aali], raga charukeshi [laaj rakho tum mori], raga darbari [mori palakan son mag jharun] etc.


The qualities of other fine embellishments of swaras have already been mentioned.

[i] Sangeet-May 1973, Article: ‘Ustad Amir Khan Aur Unkee Kala’, writer: Prof. Chandrakantlal Dass.