Khan Saheb — Ustad Abdul Karim Khan

Written by Praveen Karadagi on 11 November 2020

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan—considered to be the founder of the modern Kirana Gharana—was a noteworthy vocalist of Kirana Gharana style in Hindustani vocal classical music. He was pivotal in popularizing Kirana Gharana in Karnataka. Ustad ji was born in Kirana, a village in Uttar Pradesh on November 11 in 1872. Known to create a sublime atmosphere through his soothing voice, he had a great musical career from the very beginning. 

Initiation into Music

Abdul Karim Khan came from a family of Hindu musicians who later embraced Islam. Ustad initiated his taalim (music education) from the age of 5 under the guidance of his father, Kale Khan, an outstanding Khayal singer, and his uncle Abdul Khan (his father's younger brother). He gave his first public concert at the tender age of 11. 

Musical Journey

Abdul Karim Khan became court singer in the Royal Court of Baroda, Baroda was ruled by Gaekwads then. Besides his unmatchable vocal skills, Ustad ji was also an accomplished Sarangi, Veena, Sitar and Tabla player. After his stint at Baroda, he continued his journey to Mumbai, Poona, Miraj, and Karnataka.

Abdul Karim Khan was often invited to Mysore to perform at the Royal Court of Mysore, where he learnt nuances of Carnatic music from the masters at the court. He was awarded Sangeet Ratna by the Maharaja of Mysore.

He used to sing for the theatre (Natya sangeet) and was a prominent artist in the recordings of Gramophone Company of India.

In 1913, Abdul Karim Khan established the "Arya Sangeet Vidyalaya" and taught underprivileged students. In 1917, he started a branch in Mumbai. Later, in 1920, he permanently settled in the musical city of Miraj

Singing Style

The most important trait of Ustad ji’s Gayaki was the precedence of Bhava (expression) over the lyrics (words). He sang the words so softly that the musical expression of any composition he performed was prominent while the words got dissolved into notes.

Meend, lengthy Aalaps, Gamaks and Sapat Taans were his speciality in singing. He was an expert in Thumri, Marathi songs, and Bhajans. 

He incorporated many elements of Carnatic music into Hindustani music. Khan Saheb’s contribution to promote a mutual understanding and a connect between Hindustani and Carnatic music was phenomenal. He was among the very few Hindustani artists who gained an indepth understanding of Carnatic music in those times. He even recorded a Thyagaraja Kirti. He used Sargams extensively in his singing and popularized Raga Abhogi from Carnatic music in North India. Abdul Karim Khan's popularity reached South India as well, and he performed in various places across India. 

Listen to his extremely popular “Piya Bin…” in Raga Jhinjhoti

And Jamuna ke teer — Raag Bhairavi

Ustad ji’s Legacy

From among any other musician, perhaps it is Ustad Abdul Karim Khan whose Parampara (teaching tradition) boasts of the most popular Hindustani singers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pandit Sawai Gandharva, Heerabai Barodekar, Behere Buva, Suresh Babu Mane, Abdul Wahid Khan, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Roshanara Begum are some of his disciples, with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Kesarbai Kerkar carrying on his legacy. 

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan passed away on October 27th 1937 near Pondicherry while traveling to a concert. 

Every year in Miraj, a musical gathering is organized in the memory of Khan Saheb where many established and young classical musicians perform.