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Depicting the Real Amir

Partho Datta

By Amarnath. Translated from the Hindustani by Bindu Chawla
Pandit Amarnath Memorial Foundation, Delhi, 2008, pp. 176, Rs. 500.00


Bindu Chawla has worked tirelessly to preserve the memories of her father the eminent teacher and vocalist Amarnath. A few years ago she brought out a stately volume Conversations With Pandit Amarnath – a series of interviews that Amarnath informally gave his daughter on vocalism and musicology. A set of CDs followed – rare recordings of Amarnath in concert and an insightful lecture on his guru Amir Khan’s technique and style. And now there is another book – what seems like impromptu memories faithfully recorded by his devoted daughter and transcribed. This bilingual edition preserves the flavour of spoken Hindustani and provides a functional translation in English on the opposing page.   In these memoirs Amir Khan comes across as tentative and human, capricious and mysterious in daily life, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible yet at other times warm, open and with a lively sense of humour. This is a far cry from the public image of the maestro, the tall and dignified vocalist, 'the lonely tower' - music critic Chetan Karnani’s apt description, who moved audiences by his meditative music. In the sleeve notes for a commemorative album on Hindustani music, the late Sheila Dhar who was a fan, wrote that Amir Khan 'never projected his music when he sang, but just tuned his inner self…and the eloquent silences between his effortlessly sculpted melodic lines all speak of deep, but perfectly controlled emotion'.   Two recurring themes run powerfully through these memoirs. One is Amir Khan’s resentment at being slighted for his humble background. His father Shahmir Khan was a sarangi player in Indore and could not boast gharana lineage. Amarnath reports that things came to a head when faced with taunts of the well-known sarangi player Shakoor Khan of the Kirana gharana, Amir Khan broke his silence and challenged his competitors to a music duel. The other theme is the refusal of contemporaries to acknowledge Amir Khan’s genius in forging an individual style. Amir Khan borrowed and absorbed from senior vocalists like Wahid Khan, Rajab Ali Khan and Aman Ali Khan. However his raga elaboration, critics like Kumar Mukherjee have pointed out, was closest to the Kirana style pioneered by Wahid Khan and in later years Kirana votaries have tried to incorporate Amir Khan as one of their own. Amarnath firmly believed that Amir Khan laid the foundations of a new gharana – the Indore school – and that no one dared ...

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