The last few days of mine have been dominated by the ITC Sangeet Sammelan, a prestigious music festival here in Calcutta. Apart from being an opportunity to listen to some of the greats of Indian classical music (see clip of Pt Ulhas Kashalkar) it has also got me reflecting on the complex and subtle nature of the social structures and hierarchies which hold sway over the way in which Hindustani musicians interrelate. A complex set of variables dictate how one locates one’s self within this milieux and governs the way in which one should behave towards others. It’s all about whose disciple you are, how old you are, how long you have been learning, and which lineage you are connected to. This festival environment, with so many artists of different traditions and of different levels of seniority gathered in one place, provides plenty a moment in which such interactions can be observed!

A crucial social organisational structure in the world of Hindustani music is the concept of a Gharānā. A Gharānā groups musicians together and gives them a sense of belonging. Its meaning often encapsulates the sense of a lineage, either ancestral or teacher-discipular, in which a distinct musical style and/or repertoire is preserved and which is often named after and associated to a particular place or region in which the Gharānā was founded e.g. Delhi, Benares, Punjab etc.

The Gharānā system developed in the early 19th century, a time in which Hindustani music largely flourished among the Muslim Ustāds (great masters and teachers) who often belonged to castes of hereditary musicians and who kept music alive within their family clans or Birādarīs. The musicians of this period who gained some acclaim, were often employed as court singers by rulers of the princely states of North India. Others were employed by wealthy land owners, by religious institutions for devotional music or in red light districts to accompany dancing girls and courtesans. In this competitive environment, Gharānā association was a matter of prestige and the clan mentality created a support network to bolster each musician’s claim to fame.

Each Gharānā has a figurehead, or Khalīfā, being the eldest male of direct blood lineage to the founder who has received training and who is considered to be the leading custodian of the somewhat secretive knowledge and musical repertoire of the Gharānā. His juniors or disciples will all revere him. This manifests outwardly in behaviour such as the touching of feet and the presentation of Nazarānā (money and other gift offerings) at musical gatherings. Musicians of a similar age on the other hand, will refer to each other as bhāīs (brothers) and treat each other as brothers.

A poignant example which perfectly highlighted the complex structure I am attempting to describe was when Pt. Venkatesh Kumar of the Kirana Gharānā was greeted after his performance by Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan of the same Gharānā. Despite both men being in their early sixties and, in fact, the performer being elder by some years to the latter, he touched the feet of Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan as a mark of his acknowledging him as the Khalīfā of the Gharānā. This is due to the latter being a descendant of the Gharānā Biradari and the performer, Pt. Venkatesh Kumar, only being connected to the Gharānā as a disciple. Thus blood lineage supercedes the factor of age in establishing the hierarchy. Interestingly Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan allowed the former to show his respect in this way but then responded by saying “ham bhāe hai” (“We are brothers”) thus also acknowledging the performer’s seniority in age.

Such are the things which I find myself contemplating upon within the microcosm that is the world of Hindustani Classical Music!