The Agra Gharana:

Among the Pillars of Raga Sangeet Parampara


NOTE: Originally published in the LearnQuest Annual Magazine published in March 2017.

Gharana and Gayaki

Musical traditions were passed on through family lineage in the early years of their evolution. In the early nineeenth century, khayal music came to be established as the predominant genre of North Indian classical music, also known as Hindustani music or Raga Sangeet. Although dhrupad music was still widely prevalent, and although khayal compositions already existed before this period, it was only in the nineteenth century that khayal obtained its formal structure of presentation and gradually evolved to the forefront to being recognized as the face of Raga Sangeet. From time to time exceptional musicians from different parts of North India rose to the forefront with their performing skill, musical prowess and scholarship as well as their remarkable innovative contributions to the khayal tradition.  Over  time,  more  musicians  of  their  families  successfully  carried  on  their legacy and that distinction of style and aesthetic ideology. These families formed the early gharanas. ‘Gharana’ literally means ‘family’. As these musicians and their styles became popular among audiences, patrons and fellow-musicians of the time, they came to be identified with - and assumed the names of - the regions, cities, princely states or kingdoms to which they belonged, such as Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur, etc.

In time, persons outside of the musical family lineage became students of gharanedaar musicians and went on to carry forward the traditions.  Musicians  also relocated to various other kingdoms, cities and towns. The family system of gharanas slowly  waned  with  time and  exposure and with the gradual dismantling of the social  and economic factors that had previously led them to be closed and rigid.

Consequently, the term Gharana today implies a group of musicians following a distinct style and common musical ideology  or  philosophy,  owing  no allegiance  to  any  particular  family  of  musicians or place of origin. Some contemporary scholars suggest the use of the word Parampara, which merely means tradition or a branch thereof, as a replacement, freeing it from the dated allusion of a rigid family clique.

Gayaki  refers to those very stylistic patterns and ideologies that the musicians of a gharana/parampara adhere to. In other words, it refers to the style of rendition and the basic features of a gharana such as their repertoire, their ucchaar (pronunciation and enunciation), their proclivities to emphasize certain specific areas of performance such as  nom-tom-alap,  layakaari,  taan  or  bol baant, the tempo of their presentation, and other such aspects that distinguish one gharana from the other.

It is broadly acknowledged that there are four principle gharanas of Hindustani music – Gwalior, Kairana (Kirana), Agra / Agra-Atrauli and Jaipur / Jaipur-Atrauli. There have been new additions such as Patiala, Delhi, Bhendibazar, Rampur-Sahaswan, Banaras, Mewati, etc; but these are largely offshoots of the four principal gharanas.

The Agra Gharana - A Historical Perspective

The  predecessors  of the  khayal paramapara of  the Agra  gharana were  dhrupad singers. Both anecdote and researchlead  to  NayakGopal,  an  immensely  gifted  and  scholarlymusician,  who  is  said  to  have  been a contemporary of Ameer Khusrau, another seminal personality in the field of music. Legend has it that Nayak Gopal, at the behest of Khusrau, migrated from the princely state of Devagiri (Daulatabad) to Delhi, where he initiated a distinct musical tradition which came to be known as the Nauhar bani of dhrupad (The word bani, similar to the word gayaki, denotes a distinctive system or discipline of music). His descendants later moved to Agra. Sujan Das, who later converted to Islam and came to be known as Haji Sujan Khan, was one of Emperor Akbar’s prized court musicians.

Six generations later, the tides of this tradition took a turn that is today considered a blessing to the world of music. And this turn began with the tremendous pain and agony of a young boy in this family, Khuda Baksh. He had a gruff and seemingly unmusical voice, considered unfit for dhrupad singing and for the highly refined vocal qualities developed by his ancestors, the Nauhars.  Although  extremely  passionate  about music, to his dismay, he was refused musical training and nicknamed ‘Ghagge', alluding to his gruff voice. Out of desperation, and armed with a strong will,  he  went  to  Gwalior  and  sought  the help of Nathan Khan Peer Baksh, one of the most respected musicians of that era and one of the founders of, not only the Gwalior gharana, but of the currently prevalent form of khayal itself.

With over twelve  years of training,  he returned to Agra as a fine musician,  displaying a  masterful blend of his ancestors’ dhrupad traditions and the khayal traditions of Gwalior. His sons Ghulam Abbas Khan and Kallan Khan, and his nephew Sher Khan were his primary disciples, who in turn developed innumerable masterly musicians.  

During that period, social class and matrimony too played an important role in the growth of musical traditions. Marriages between families of musicians brought about an exchange of musical ideas and repertoire. Musicians placed such a high value to their ragas and compositions - their only true wealth - it is believed that these were, in many cases, part of dowry that was paid from one family to the other.

In the mid 19th century, there were several such marriages between this family and the musicians of Atrauli, the family of Mehboob Khan, another towering musician of that time, known today by the bandishes he composed as Daras Piya. As a result, several musicians, either born out of such marriages or born in the Atrauli music family trained from Agra gharana masters. This naturally brought about a slightly modified gayaki, which came to be known as the style of the Agra-Atauli gharana. This distinction, however, was mostly made only amongst the very discerning and scholarly listeners, and in popular parlance, it was simply known as the Agra gharana.

By the advent of the twentieth century, Ghulam Abbas Khan’s grandson Faiyaz Khan (1886-1950) had risen to be preeminent figure in the pantheon of Agra gharana musicians. Sher Khan’s son, Natthan Khan, grandson, Vilayat Hussain and great grandsons, Khadim Hussain and Latafat Hussain, Faiyaz Khan’s nephew Sharafat Hussain, were some of the other  prominent vocalists from this gharana.  Zohra Bai (1868-1913) deserves special mention for being one of the first and foremost female vocalists of this gharana. She was not only one of the most influential and respected musicians of her time, but also one of the first Indian classical musicians to have been recorded.

As mentioned earlier, by the twentieth century, even musicians outside of the family lineages had begun to study music from these  gharanedaar musicians and the term  gharana gradually came to be used in the context of a musical lineage defined by pedagogic connections, rather than a family lineage.  Bhaskarbua Bakhle, S. N. Ratanjankar, Jagannathbua Purohit, Ram Marathe, Chidanand Nagarkar, Dinkar Kaikini,  K. G. Ginde, S. C. R Bhat, Jitendra Abhisheki , Babanrao Haldankar, were such Agra musicians, among many, who attained remarkable fame as popular performers. Currently, veteran musicians, Lalith J Rao, Arun Kashalkar, Purnima Sen, Vijay Kichlu and Ghulam Husnain Khan (Raja Miya) as well as Waseem Ahmed Khan continue to carry on this tradition.

The music of the Agra Gharana: An Aesthetic Perspective

Since the purpose of this article is to introduce general music lovers to the Agra gharana and its heritage, and not to be a scholarly thesis on the gharana’s gayaki, it would be unfair to delve too deep into the technical details and jargon in order to explain the gayaki. But there are some pointers that will help a listener, even a newly initiated one, to be able to identify the Agra gharana style and appreciate it.

One of the first points of distinction in the music of Agra gharana is the nom-tom alap: Alap and vistaar refer to the musical exploration of a raga and elaboration/development of the raga respectively. While most others gharanas engaged in alap/vistaar within the canvas of a composition and a tala cycle, Agra gharana retained the dhrupad system of doing the alap/vistaar as a precursor to the composition and tala. This form of raga-alap/vistaar is called the nom-tom-alap since it uses syllables like nom ta na naa, ri te na na, ta na nom, etc. So the listener  can easily identify the Agra gharana style by the lengthy nom-tom alap-vistar in a raga presentation. However, the Agra khayal singers modified the nom-tom-alaap of the dhrupad style. Among other changes, this nom-tom format allows for more flexibility in moving between its various sections (namely, sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog), and is more lenient than dhrupad in its use of ornamental movements or alankaars such as murkis.

The compositions or bandishes of the Agra gharana too have a unique quality to them: The opening line or phrase of a bandish is known as the mukhda. Mukhda literally means face, and in this context, it would mean the face of the composition or the raga itself. The term mukhda also denotes the part from the opening of the bandish until the Sam (the first beat of the tala cycle). It is constructed in a way that shows an important characteristic feature of the raga and also allows for both melodic as well as rhythmic variations or layakaari. The uniqueness of an Agra gharana bandish is that almost every line of the bandish can be used as a Mukhda showing a new angle of the raga and increasing the scope for more layakaari or rhythmic play.

There are more distinctive stylistic elements such as the use of double and quadruple notes in taans, numerical taan patterns in varying multiples of 8 such as 4-4-4-4, 3-3-2-3-3-2, 3-5-3-3-2, etc., unique bol-taans using whole clusters of words of the bandish, a characteristic techniques of voice production in the higher notes known as Pukaar (which literally means calling out or appealing to) and many more. These are just as difficult for an author to articulate as it is for a listener to understand without audio demonstrations. However, these pointers should serve as an adequate window into the glorious gayaki of the Agra gharana.

The Resilience of the Agra gharana: A Critical Perspective

Faiyaz Khan was one of the most popular musicians of the early twentieth century. He was also responsible for the furtherance of the gharana’s musical legacy by his immense contribution to its repertoire, presentation formats as well as vocal technique. He was called the “Aftaab-e-Mousiqi” - “The Sun of music”. All music gharanas of the time were influenced by him.  There  are  instances  of  young  men  and women being so deeply inspired by a single performance of his,  that they went on to  become  reputable  musicians in the years to come,  their  own  musical personalities based, very evidently, on Faiyaz Khan and his music.

However, although the power of Faiyaz Khan’s music led to the widespread popularity of the Agra gharana across the country, it was also, arguably, the biggest challenge for the generations to come. The past few decades have seen  a  decline  in the  number of  Agra gharana  musicians  at the top of the charts. Modern day scholars and musicologists attribute this to a variety of possible reasons such as: the shadow of Faiyaz Khan's personality,  voice  and  creativity  was remarkably overpowering for even the best of the musicians of that gharana, who always had to tend with comparisons to the maestro; a tendency to try to give the audiences a taste  of  the  maestros  brilliance  prevented  many  outstanding  Agra  musicians  from  reaching  their  full  potential  in  the  public  domain;  an unwillingness on the part of several musicians of this gharana to adapt to changes  in the music industry such as sophisticated microphones  and  auditoriums;  the  music / sound  industry’s  inability  to  understand  and provide the required  technical  support  for  the  unique  voice production and presentation of this gharana; their steadfast and  admirable  adherence  to  their  presentation  formats  despite  evolving  new and packaged formats of presentation; etc. However, this gharana remains to be widely regarded  for this very adherence to authentic raga structures and traditions and is a true connoisseurs’ delight.

It is a big responsibility for all musicians to reduce the gap between the music that is enjoyed by the connoisseurs and the masses.  The bigger challenge,  however,  is  to  achieve this  without compromising on the quality and content of one’s music in order to please the listeners. It is critically important that pure, serious and traditional music is brought out to the general public. The music must be made more accessible by means of providing better education to the audiences and equipping them with more information to be able to appreciate the depth in good raga sangeet rather than mere flashy, showmanship.

Several younger musicians are currently training in the music of the Agra gharana from very senior gurus, and with their exposure to social media and other platforms to reach out to wider audiences,  it is  only a matter of time before the Agra gharana will once again rise and soar in the field of music.


  • The Khayal Gharanas of Hindustani Music, Vamanrao Deshpande, Popular Prakashan, 1973
  • Sajan Piya, N. Jayawanth Rao, Sajan Milap, 1981
  • The Lost World of Hindustani Music, K. P. Mukerjee, Penguin Books India, 2006
  • Aesthetics of Agra and Jaipur Gayakis, Babanrao Haldankar, Popular Prakashan, 2001