Ragascape III – Surbahar, Sources.

Surbahar, sources: in this third article the musicians who contributed to the development of the surbahar & its music are described & placed in a historical context.

Bahadur Shah IIIt was in 1858 that Bahadur Shah II surrendered to the British at his royal palace in Delhi.  Not long thereafter he was exiled to Rangoon where he passed away in 1862.  Although the cap was definitely sealed on the Mughal Empire with the dethronement of Bahadur Shah II, the British did not hesitate to behead his sons, presumably to ensure that no one could ever lay claim to the small estate that remained a part of the Mogul dynasty to the very end.

At this very same time Ashiq Ali Khan was born into a family of musicians in Varanasi, the holy city 350 miles southeast of Delhi.  His ancestors had come to Varanasi some fifty years earlier in the company of Jahandar Shah, the eldest son of Bahadur Shah II.  Jahandar had been gifted a piece of land in Varanasi; and along with his family, friends, and court musicians  he left the Red Fort in Delhi and proceeded to Shivalaya, a small enclave within Varanasi not far from the banks of the Ganges. Amongst these court musicians were two brothers Jaggu and Makku Khan. They were dhrupad singers and grandsons of Nayak Dhundu, the renowned court musician of Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658).

Ashiq Ali KhanJaggu Khan had four sons, one of whom was Sadiq Ali Khan. He was trained as a dhrupad singer but died prematurely when his own son Ashiq Ali Khan was still a child.   It then became the responsibility of  his uncle Waras Ali Khan to continue  Ashiq Ali’s training. Little is known about Waras Ali Khan’s blood lineage, but we do know that he was adopted by Makku Khan and Bade Mohammed Khan, a famous veena player. We also know that, as an adopted son, he learned veena  well.

Due to the early demise of Ashiq Ali’s father, it became the responsibility of Ashiq Ali Khan’s uncle, Waras Ali, to provide his musical training.  He could not give him the vina transmission, as it was a strictly held belief that to teach veena  to anyone but one’s own son could lead to misfortune and unknown disease.   As a result, Waras Ali decided to teach him the surbahar, an instrument related both to sitar and veena.


Although the surbahar looks like an oversized sitar, it has a deeper, more powerful and sustaining sound. The gourd of the surbahar is much larger and flatter than that of the sitar. It is shaped like a tortoise shell and was referred to in ancient texts as a kachipa (tortoise shell) veena. Although the left hand technique is similar to the sitar, the right hand technique is the same as the veena. This technique on the surbahar requires the use of three mizrabs (plectrums) whereas the veena only requires two plectums. There is no other school of surbahar in India to this day that knows this technique based upon the stroking patterns of the veena. All other schools play with one plectrum in a way similar to sitar.

You may listen to examples of these stroking patterns on the CD “The Surbahar – Windows to the Heart” (in links below).

Waras Ali Khan also taught his own son the veena. That lineage remained intact until the latter part of this century.

Barkatullah KhanAshiq Ali Khan became an extraordinary surbahar player and was invited to play at the courts and homes of numerous patrons. He would have only played surbahar had it not been for the arrival in Varanasi of the renowned sitar player from Mysore Ustad Barkatullah Khan.

Barkatullah Khan had received his training from Amrit Sen, the famous Jaipur Senia sitar player and grandson of Maseet Sen.

Maseet Sen made the sitar into a classical instrument with its own repertoire of compositions based on the dhrupad tradition. His compositions and those styled after the form he created are known as Maseetkhani. In fact until the time of Maseet Sen—about the middle to the end of the eighteenth century– sitar had not been thought of as a solo instrument. Although the history is a little unclear, sitar was perhaps used to accompany vocal music. Until the end of the eighteenth century, veena had dominated the instrumental music scene.

Maseet Sen was a direct descendant of the legendary Mian Tansen and son of Rajras Khan. Nowadays there are still some musicians who claim to be Senias. Unless they are blood descendants of the lineage that begins with Tansen, they are fooling themselves. They may be students or disciples; but unless they have the blood line connection, they cannot claim to be Senias. Neither Ashiq Ali Khan nor his son Mushtaq Ali Khan were Senias. They did however maintain the  Senia heritage. They knew the original compositions of Maseet Sen and his descendants. They maintained the  purity of the style which included gatkari, toras, fikra, and mukra. Unlike the modern sitar which has nineteen or twenty frets, the Senia sitar had only seventeen frets. You may You may now listen to a Maseetkhani composition that was composed by Maseet Sen, transmitted orally through seven generations, and  ultimately played and recorded now by Mushtaq Ali Khan in the Raga Mian ki Malhar. This is an example of a Maseetkhani composition wch has four parts: stayee, antara , sanchari , and abhog.

Mushtaq Ali Khan & Ashiq Ali Khan.When Barkatullah Khan arrived in Varanasi and met Ashiq Ali, he was anxious to hear his surbahar. Undoubtedly impressed by his playing, he invited Ashiq Ali to accompany him to Kathmandu where Barkatullah Khan was a favorite of the King.   Ashiq Ali agreed and so it was that his sitar instruction began and the great legacy of Maseet Sen fell into the ears of Ashiq Ali Khan.  At this point Ashiq Ali Khan became the beneficiary not only of his blood lineage dating back to the time of Nayak Dhondu, but also of the Senia lineage of Sitar. Although there is no recording of Ashiq Ali Khan existing, the older connoisseurs of Indian music have always attested to his great knowledge and artistry.

One story goes that it was impossible for a listener to hold back tears when Ustad Ashiq Ali played raga Bihag (a sweet evening melody characterised by  profound warmth and tenderness).  Such a legend could only grow around a musician who had attained a deep realization of inner tonality and feeling.

Ustad Barkatullah Khan did make one recording in the early 1900’s. It was recorded at a time when tape recorders did not exist.  It is provided here for research purposes only. You may listen to this short example of the Maseetkhani tradition by clicking here. (Barkatullah Khan’s Bhopali recording).

Mushtaq Ali Khan:

Mushtaq Ali Khan & surbaharOn June 20, 1911 Ashiq Ali Khan’s wife gave birth to a son at the very same home in Varanasi that Jahandar Shah had given to Makku and Juggu Khan a hundred years earlier. They named him Mushtaq Ali and he was destined from childhood to inherit  his father’s musical treasury. At the age of six  his lessons began and within a short time he adapted the technique of sitar. Over a period of several years, his training evolved into a 14 hour-a-day practice routine.  Beginning at 4 am, Ashiq Ali would wake his son, put his hands in cold water and strap one kilo of lead around each wrist. Mushtaq Ali Khan would then have to perform one thousand scales repeatedly while his father counted.  If there was even the smallest mistake, the count would begin again.

Ashiq Ali Khan was around fifty-five years old when his son was born and was eager to teach him and  pass on his knowledge quickly.  At the age of twelve, Mushtaq Ali began his study of the surbahar. Although Mushtaq Ali Khan was destined to be a sitar player,  his father insisted that he study all aspects of traditional Indian music.  He learned the Dhrupad compositions of his own family lineage that originated with Nayak Dhondu as well as many khayals, tappas, and thumris. He took an extensive training in pakhawaj, the two-sided hand drum used to accompany dhrupad, veena , and surbahar. He also became a skilled tabla player.

Mushtaq Ali Khan - concert.During the early l900’s outstanding artists were still being patronized by maharajas. Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan entered the court of Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh for a short period, but he found court life restrictive and realized that his musical goals could not be accomplished in such an environment.

He was an independent thinker and never compromised his ideals for wealth or fame. Many contemporary musicians and scholars have always remarked that Mushtaq Ali Khan sacrificed his own welfare and benefit for the purity of his musical tradition.

The great sarod maestro Buddhadev Das Gupta commented, “The Ustad was a firm believer in tradition and up to his last performance, never departed an inch from his principles, stubbornly refusing to compromise his ideals for the sake of easy popularity.”

Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan record cover.In l929 Mushtaq Ali Khan moved to Calcutta. He  became an instant success. Highly acclaimed at the Allahabad Music Conference in l931, he began to receive invitations to play throughout India.  He was one of the first artists to play on All India Radio and continued to record for them until the very end of his life.

Mushtaq Ali Khan dedicated his time to preserving and sharing his musical heritage. He gave interviews, lecture demonstrations, seminars and performances at important universities, educational institutions, and radio and television stations throughout India.

In regard to the characteristic quality of Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan’s music, here are some quotes from some notable musicians of his time.

Sunil Bose, vocalist and resident of the Sangeet Research Academy, wrote: “…it was not only pedigree or the association with the heredity of Nayak Dhondu and the Senia Gharana, but also Khan Saheb’s own internalisation of the values of classicism and traditions which marked him out as a true Ustad (master) in the old world mould… Simplicity and elegance marked Khan Saheb’s music and approach to performance. This simplicity was born not out of an abhorrence for complexity, but from the realisation that the pristine purity of raga embodied the true ethos of Indian classical music, and this pristine purity is manifested not through jugglery of contours of these ancient matrices, but by the beauty of structure… Intellectualism in musical performance comprises the exposition of the raga personality with mastery in which the Baaj (playing technique and style) never eclipses the rasa (inner mood and feelings) of the Raga… This fundamental truth about Indian classical music was the focal point of Khan Saheb’s musical philosophy…”

Tejpal and Surinder Singh wrote “Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan was no ordinary musician. He had learned his art  with  devotion, practised it with dedication and performed it with a sincerity that never sought to impress but always illustrated the beauty and vitality of Indian classical music in its pristine glory.”

He never let jealousy or competitiveness interfere with his quest for maintaining the truth of Indian classical music. He arranged music concerts for the musicians and promising artists of his time. In fact he presented for the first time Pandit Ravi Shankar to the Calcutta music scene and highly appraised his performance.

He helped poor and disabled artists and started a hospital fund for artists who could not afford inpatient care.

Mushtaq Ali Khan passed away on July 20, 1989 in Calcutta.

Mushtaq Ali Khan recordings set of 13 rare audio recordings from 1934 onwards, collected by Steve Landsberg.
Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan live rare 1971 video playing raga bhairavi (alap & gat) with colleagues & students (thanks to Doodarshan, Tóth Szabi & Debu Chaudhuri for the Youtube two-part vcr-recorded videos, re-encoded into a single video by The Flower Raj).

Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan
Mian Tansen
Sunil Bose
Tejpal Singh and Surinder Singh (several performance videos on Youtube).
Shah Jahan
Bahadur Shah II (last Mughal emperor).

Surbahar: Windows to the Heart (Steven Landsberg, Phillip Hollenbeck)
Night and Beyond: Ragas of Indian Music

Radio Flower Raj serves internet radio for discerning listeners – classical Indian music, news, interviews & more. We specialise in finding rare & exotic recordings, primarily of classical Indian music, but also of music made by travellers to and from India over many years.

Ragascape is the web site of Steve Landsberg & this article is the third in a series of four (from Ragascape with revisions & additions):
Ragascape II – Swaras, Ragas, Rasas The Path of Indian Music: this second of four Ragascape articles focuses on the central themes of Indian music including tonality, melodic formation and their relation to the character and feeling content of ragas.
Ragascape I – The Tambura It seems appropriate to write the first ragascape essay on the tambura, as the all-encompassing sound of this instrument is the source from which arise the melodic centers (notes) of Indian music.


1 Response to “Ragascape III – Surbahar, Sources.”

  • This is a unique history of a very special part of the Indian Classical Music panorama, great work Steve!

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