An unbroken lineage going back to the 12th century: that's the legacy of the late tabla doyen Ustad Karamatullah Khan, who passed away in 1977 after a lifelong commitment to music.
"To carry the weight of the legacy of 32 generations and do it ever so lightly is no joke," says renowned octogenarian sarod maestro Buddhadev Dasgupta. Though frail in health, his spirits pick up as he remembers Farukkhabad gharana's Karamatullah Khan, who passed away when he was just 60.
"Just the mention of his name brings memories of his divine tabla," he adds while addressing a gathering on the occasion of a special tribute to the late legend at the National Council of Performing Arts, Mumbai this weekend.
In fact, there was a time in the 50s and 60s when no top artist would perform without him, remembers well-known vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan, part of the line-up at the event.
"Imagine his formidable talent that he would be the accompanist of choice for the late sarod maestro Haafiz Ali Khan saheb (father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan), sitar maestros Enayat Khan saheb (father of the late sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan), Pt Ravi Shankar and Kathak legend Pt Birju Maharaj," he points out. "These are giants in their arts. If all of them insisted on him, can you begin to fathom his exceptional greatness?"
International Kathak legend Pt Chitresh Das, who grew up in the Kolkata of yore, sheds more light on the man. "I grew up watching Ustad Karamatullah Khansaheb performing in all-night concerts in Kolkata. I also saw his father perform. I danced with Ustad Karamatullah Khan when I was just 20 years old at the grand New Empire auditorium in Kolkata. (Karamatullah's son) Sabir was just three years old then. It's a great feeling to have performed with three generations of this family," Das says.
Vocalist Begum Parveen Sultana echoes him. "Music is the only way to pay tribute to a soul as great as him. We can only hope and pray dua for a man who was an exceptional guru, musician and human being. In classical music, the main requirement is surrender and complete bhakti for the art. Without that, there can be no sukoon in your art like the kind Ustad Karamatullah Khan found."
In this, Karamatullah was taking a leaf from his father, the late Ustad Masit Khan, the unparalleled tabla legend of his time who also performed with most if not all top musicians, such as vocalist Ustad Fayyaz Khan saheb and Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan. In fact, he was primarily responsible for popularising the tabla in West Bengal through disciples like the late Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh and, of course, his son who brought in a new dimension as he blended his tabla technique effortlessly with vocal, instrumental and dance, not to mention his solo performances with equal ease.
As India's top names from the world of classical music come together on one platform, his son and heir to the Farukkhabad legacy, Ustad Sabir Khan, who will a lead a tabla quartet with his three sons, admits to being overwhelmed by the love and respect for both the gharana and his father. A tinge of bitterness escapes him though."I wish some of this had come in his lifetime. Despite being a pioneering artiste and composer, he never got his due."
Stating that his father was so devoted to his art that he barely had time to chase honours like the Padma awards, the son says, "But the fact that he is remembered and recognised by music lovers for the unparalleled rich legacy he has left behind is perhaps the best possible award."
This is not a son's indulgent hyperbole. Other tabla legends like Ustad Zamir Ahmed Khan point out how no tabla player in the world can be free from the Farukkhabad gharana influence. "Many others have hogged the limelight and become media darlings but the true connoisseurs know when they begin playing how much they borrow from our gharana's teachings."
The Farukkhabad gharana of tabla was created in the 12th century by a Rajput court musician, Akaasa, who later converted to Islam and changed his name to Mir Akaasa. Sabir Khan credits him with introduction of bols into percussion. The first bols introduced were tat-dhit-thun-nan. "It began with pakhawaj and later these techniques were brought into tabla too."
Mir Akaasa died in 1189 AD. He was succeeded by nine sons and a daughter. He passed on his legacy to his eldest son, Ustad Bilawal Khan, who in turn passed the torch of the gharana to Ustad Ali Bux (famous for his kran bols). This tradition continued till the 26th descendant, Ustad Haji Vilayat Ali Khan (1779-1826). It was he who named this gharana after the province he settled in — Farukkhabad.
Soon after his seven pilgrimages to Mecca, Haji Vilayat Khan gained fame for his famous battle of tabla gats with Ustad Salaali Khan saheb who had challenged Ustad Bakshu Khan saheb of the Lucknow gharana. In order to save his pride, Bakshu Khan saheb requested Haji saheb, who was also Salaali Khan saheb's uncle, to fight the battle with Salaali Khan saheb, on his behalf.
A fortnight-long battle ensued where many gats (authentic compositions of the gharanas) and jodas (pairs of such compositions) were exchanged, Haji saheb played a unique gat (gat of Gazi) whose joda Ustad Salaali Khan saheb could not come up with. Haji saheb was declared the winner.
As a reward, Ustad Bakshu Khan saheb gave his daughter in marriage to Haji saheb, who in return gave Salaali Khan saheb his own daughter in marriage along with 14 authentic gats known as jahezi gats as dowry. Ustad Sabir Khan — the 33rd generation of this unbroken lineage is followed by his sons Arif, Asif and Ameen Khan who take after him.
There is a huge variety in the repertoire of compositions owing to the tremendous creative output of great composers such as Haji Vilayat Ali Khan, Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan saheb, Ustad Nanhe Khan saheb and Ustad Karamatullah Khan. This is of course discounting the huge number of new gats.
Little wonder then that the oldest school of tabla has such a rich and varied repertoire.
Earlier known as the purbi baaj (eastern style), characterised by an extensive use of resonant strokes the playing style contains similarities to the techniques of the pakhawaj certain bols, such as dheredhere, takataka.
Mir Akaasa (founder) (1132 - 1189)
Ustad Bilawal Akasa (1151 - 1208)
Ustad ALi Bux (kran) (1182 - 1255)
Ustad Bairam Khan (1204 - 1260)
Ustad Dhamman Khan (1236 - 1292)
Ustad Tajalmulh Khan (1260 - 1297)
Ustad Bunda Khan (1284 - 1329)
Ustad Asgari Khan (1306 - 1348)
Ustad Ali Raza Khan (1331 - 1371)
Ustad Ali Ahmed Khan (1355 - 1398)
Ustad Ramzan Khan (1378 - 1438)
Ustad Bakshu Khan (1397 - 1508)
Ustad Ali Asgar Khan (1425 - 1480)
Ustad Neyaz Khan (1450 - 1525)
Ustad Daulu Khan (1496 - 1548)
Ustad Waheed Khan (1517 - 1565)
Ustad Altaf Khan (1534 - 1574)
Ustad Jannesar Khan (1546 - 1609)
Ustad Dilawar Khan (1570 - 1646)
Ustad Yawar Khan (1602 - 1653)
Ustad Nasru Khan (1628 - 1677)
Ustad Bhurey Khan (1648 - 1691)
Ustad Enayat Khan (1676 - 1732)
Ustad Murad Khan (1705 - 1747)
Ustad Inam Ali Khan (1731 - 1790)
Ustad Shetab Ali Khan (1759 - 1816)
Ustad Aman ALi Khan (1779 - 1826)
Ustad Haji Vilayat Ali Khan (1803 - 1873)
Ustad Nesar Hussain Khan (1824 - 1877)
Ustad Nanhe Khan (1847 - 1902)
Ustad Masit Khan (1872 - 1974)
Ustad Karamatullah Khan (1917 - 1977)
Ustad Sabir Khan (1959)
Arif Khan (1986)
Asif Khan (1990) Ameen Khan (1992)