Khan Saheb - Ustad Abdul Karim Khan

Written by Praveen Karadagi on 11 November 2019

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan considered to be the founder of 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 the year 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 an outstanding Khayal singer Kale Khan and uncle (father's younger brother) Abdul Khan. His first public concert was at the tender age of 11. 


Musical Journey


He was court singer in the Royal Court of Baroda, Baroda was ruled by Gaekwads then. Apart from his unmatchable vocal skills, Ustad ji was also an accomplished Sarangi, Veena, Sitar and Tabla player.  After Baroda, he continued his journey to Mumbai, Poona, Miraj, and Karnataka.


He 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 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 he established "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, Bhajans. 


He incorporated many elements of Carnatic with Hindustani style. Khan Saheb’s contribution to promote mutual understanding and a connect between Hindustani and Carnatic music was phenomenal. He was among the very few Hindustani artists who gained an in depth 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. His popularity reached South India as well and 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


Of any other musician, perhaps it is Ustad Abdul Karim Khan who’s 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. 


He passed away on October 27th 1937 near Pondicherry while traveling for a concert. 


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