The spacious hall of the Muir Central College of Allahabad University was packed to its capacity. Musicians, as well as listeners from all parts of the subcontinent, had assembled to participate in the All-India Music Conference held in 1935. The stage was occupied by a galaxy of outstanding musicians (Ustads and Kavis) including Faiyyaz Khan, the Sun of Indian Music, Abdul Karim Khan, Mushtaq Husain, and Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, the star singers and Alauddin Khan, the talented Sitar player. Ustad Faiyyaz Khan had finished a solo recital of vocal music and the atmosphere in the Hall was tense with excitement. Meanwhile, an unimpressive, frail-bodied musician with a small wooden instrument hung across his shoulders, was seen climbing up the platform. He squatted on the carpet and started tuning his small stringed instrument. Those who did not know him laughed at his coming after Faiyyaz Khan, the Star musician of the subcontinent. He started playing on his Sarangi (a stringed wooden instrument) in low tones, steadily raising it, till he reached the zenith of his performance. His hand holding the bow moved with mechanical rapidity and the instrument began to emit fire all around. The entire audience seemed to be spellbound. The old enchantment hovered over the stage casting a mesmeric spell over the listeners, who were brought to their senses only when the performance came to an end. This instrumentalist was Ustad Bundoo Khan, whose solo performance of Sarangi thrilled the audience and according to Wordsworth:
“The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.”
It was Bundoo Khan’s unique performance long remembered by the listeners’ as Shelley has rightly observed :
“Music when soft voices die?
Vibrates in the Memory!”
Among the luminaries in the realm of classical music in the subcontinent during the present century who could draw and keep huge audiences spellbound for hours together, Ustad Bundoo Khan occupies an eminent place. From a gifted Sarangi player living in penury once, he became one of the most talented instrumentalists of the subcontinent. Bundoo Khan’s is a dramatic life story. Endowed with many attributes essential for a successful musician, he combined in him the rare qualities of musical lineage, inherent taste, intelligence, musicianship, devotion, and determination, which enabled him to rise to the great heights of professional ability and popularity.
The classical music in the subcontinent is passing through a transitional stage. The era of the great legendary Ustads, the princely patronage and of marathon recitals lasting for hours, is giving place to concerts and film music. But this vanishing era is of color and romance in which the musicians brought to the art of music dedication and a great deal of gracefulness. It is hard to forget the performances of the late Abdul Aziz Khan of Patiala, the great vichitra-veena player, of Inayat Khan Sitaria of Faiyyaz Khan, the vocalist and above all of Bundoo Khan, the veteran Sarangi player. They gave the vocation of music a heroic mold and trailed clouds of glory wherever they went.
Born in a family of traditional musicians of Delhi in 1882, Bundoo Khan got his early training in music from his father Ali Jan Khan, a well-known Sarangi player. But the man who was mainly instrumental in raising Bundoo Khan to such great heights of instrumental music was his maternal uncle and later father-in-law, Mamman Khan, the veteran Sarangi and Sursagar player.
The story of the musical training of Bundoo Khan is a story of devotion, perseverance, and endurance for the sake of art. He made pilgrimages throughout the country learning the art wherever available. A glance at his life shows his mastery by a rare combination of talent and perseverance. Starting his training at an early age of 8, his musical gifts were evident at an amazingly early age. According to his maternal uncle Mamman Khan, the musical training in his family started from the day a child was born. Their family house used to be a conservatory of music wherein one corner a vocalist was seen singing and in another an instrumentalist was found practicing on his musical instrument. This practice continued throughout the day and these strange sounds reached the ears of the newly-born child, who developed a taste for music from his very infancy.
Bundoo Khan started his training in music at an early age of 8 and completed it at the age of 20. He states: “I practiced hard day and night at the cost of my sleep. Music became the sole aim of my life. All my miseries and joys were engrossed in music”.
The young Bundoo Khan once demonstrated his skill before a selected gathering of family members. Flushed with success, the young musician expected praise from his ustad (master), but Mamman Khan remained unmoved. This non-appreciation disheartened him momentarily but soon led him to greater efforts towards perfection of his art. He practiced hard and a few months after, when he gave a solo performance of instrumental music before a special audience, he thrilled his master beyond imagination. Mamman Khan embraced the young musician with joy saying, “My son! now you have learned the intricacies of this art. Music requires refinement of taste. However expensive a dish may be, unless it is tasty, it is useless”. Bundoo Khan was hardly 13 at the time.
Bundoo Khan attached to the princely Court of Indore and remained there for 27 years. He studied Sanskrit in order to have access to classical music of ancient India. His devotion to music had impaired his health. The only thought which haunted him consistently was, How to attain perfection in his art. He had lost his sleep. Whenever he passed through the streets of Delhi, he had his Sarangi hung across his shoulders hidden under a sheet worn by him, In the way, he continuously moved his thin fingers over the strings of the little instrument.
Bundoo Khan was a maestro, universally respected by all classes of musicians. He accompanied all the great singers of his time, including Aladiya Khan, Allabande Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, and Faiyyaz Khan. They considered it a privilege to be accompanied by him. He would never let a soloist down. It was a pleasure to watch him playing on his instrument. A stream of music seems to emanate from his little instrument flowed into the hearts of the listeners, transporting them to a state of ecstasy in which they lost all sense of time and space. He seemed to be so much absorbed in his art that in moments of deep exultation, he partially closed his eyes and instinctively sung with the instrument. His dreamy eyes together with the enchanting music cast a spell over the listeners.
Music demonstrates diverse moods-sorrow or delight, the fury of serenity, exultation, or ecstasy. An experienced musician demonstrates these diversities to his advantage at different moments. Bundoo Khan knew this secret of success, hence his demonstration was never boring. Every time he played the same tune in a different way, which gave freshness to his art. Once questioned about the secret of his success, he said: “Each rag mirrors a different feeling. If it is a good piece of music, do not expect it to mean the same thing to you each time you listen to it”. The change of his tunes was at times deceptive, involving among other intricacies the sudden switching from slow ones to incredibly fast ones.
He introduced many musical innovations. He introduced what is known as ‘Meendh soot ki Sargam’, in which the musician in the midst of recurring melody shifts from one note to another with bewildering alacrity.
Bundoo Khan was a mobile encyclopedia of music. He had mastered more than 500 rags (tunes), with their intricacies and differences, while hardly any oriental musician could master more than 50 rags. Bundoo Khan’s achievement in this sphere of musical art looks extraordinary. He possessed a brilliant memory and explained the differences of the rags in special musical demonstrations.
But the greatest achievement of the maestro lay in his making an insignificant instrument like Sarangi into Sau-rangi (hundred tuned instrument) a powerful musical instrument that could produce diverse tunes. This wonderful instrument in which he combined different musical instruments and could produce all sorts of tunes, bear the unmistakable stamp of his genius. Like harmonium and piano, he introduced tapping in this new instrument. He used an incredibly small Sarangi with steel strings instead of a gut. Once questioned by a Hindu vocalist about the usefulness of the insignificant instrument carried by him, Bundoo Khan retorted, “I can make any piece of the wood speak if I so desire”.
There was hardly a musical form he did not attempt on his little instrument whose tune was smooth and silvery, which cast a hypnotic spell over the listeners. “His name will always be associated with the Sarangi”, says a well-known writer on classical music, “as the name of Casals is associated that of cello, of Segovia with the guitar, of Wande Landowska with harpsichord, of Lionel Tertis with the viola”. Each one of the abovementioned musicians was responsible for the emancipation of his instrument. Bundoo Khan, too, raised the insignificant Sarangi from a position of subservience to human voice into an important solo instrument. Throughout his life, his dear Sarangi rarely left him. At home in his daily outings and even during his sleep, this little instrument was always found beside him. Even during the closing years of his long life, he devoted a major part of his leisure time in practicing on sarangi.
Bundoo Khan was also a musical theorist. His book, Jauhar-i-Mausiqi was known in Hindi as Sangeet Vivek Darpan, was published both in Urdu and Hindi languages in June 1934. Dealing with classical music of the subcontinent, it elicited high appreciation from all classes of classical musicians.
As a man, Bundoo Khan was gentle, amicable, and unassuming. He was simple like a child and humble like a saint. He was generous to a fault. Unlike most of the assuming orthodox musicians who are reluctant to part with the secrets of their art, Bundoo Khan gave out his art and his mind freely. Throughout his life, he never missed an engagement.
He was a man of sterling qualities. Unlike other artists of his class, he never cared for worldly wealth and prosperity. Despite the persuasions of the late Sardar Patel, Home Minister of India, and the offer of Rs. 1,200 a month made by the All-India Radio, he preferred a life of poverty in Pakistan, the land of his dreams, living as a refugee in a small house in Lalu Khet, Karachi, till his death on January 13, 1955. With him snapped another link with the past. His death created a void in the classical music of the subcontinent which would hardly be filled in the near future.