I’ve been god-fearing from the beginning. And I am grateful to him that I have been lucky,” is the first thing Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan says, sitting in the small room of what constitutes the Ameer Khusro Institute of Dilli Gharana on Ansari Road in Old Delhi. The classical vocalist wears, as usual, a sherwani.
From the walls of the room, the giants of Dilli Gharana, who are framed in photographs, look at us. Pointing at a photo, he says, "That’s my guru and father Ustad Chand Khan Sahab. He didn’t have a son, so he adopted me.” In another photo are his father-in-law, Ustad Hilal Ahmed Khan, and his biological father, Ustad Zahoor Ahmed Khan, "sons of Ustad Chand Khan’s younger brothers.”
Few are as blessed as this singer who was born in the lap of music and into a family that has defined Indian classical music for centuries. But, as he says, although music is a legacy gifted to him, it did not come easily. "I have served not only music all these 60 years, but also my teachers, with whom I have spent most of my waking hours - responsive to their emotions as well as to the nuances of singing they have taught me.” He says his biggest support in life has been Zohra Khan, his wife, with whom he has grown up.
Iqbal Ahmed Khan was born and brought up at Mausiqui Manzil, a 200-year-old building in Old Delhi, where he lives with his family now. "Artistes from all over the world came here to meet the then Khalifa of Dilli Gharana, Ustad Chand Khan Sahab. They either stayed with us or at the Haji Hotel in Jama Masjid.” He is the current Khalifa of the centuries-old Dilli Gharana of Indian classical music.
It’s here that he heard the great musicians of his time, and grew up with an understanding of the taans, surs and taals. "It was a privilege. In 1961, Bhai Lalji Lahorewale visited us. So we had a mehfil. He was one slim man, must have been 80 years old. But he sang effortlessly! Senior artiste Qadarbaksh Khan sang the bandish Nevar Ki Jhankar in Chhayanat raga for us. My father asked me to concentrate on how he rendered it. I still remember it.”
And, he continues with another anecdote: "One of the visitors was the legendary rudra veena exponent Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan. He didn’t stay with us, but at the hotel. When he visited us every evening, he saw me flying kites. He wondered, in front of my father, if I ever do riyaaz. My father asked him not to worry, and said that the little one’s mind was at the session. Khan sahab started playing and at one point, deliberately went off tune. I turned around immediately and looked at him, still holding the string of the kite, and started chanting, 'You have gone out of tune!’ I must have been 10 years then.” Lesson to remember
Along with music, his ustad has also trained him in humility and kindness. "When I was 12, I was admonished for impertinence at a gathering in Jaipur. It was already evening when I sat down to sing. My guru went for his evening namaz. Senior musician Hidayatullah Khan, about 70 years old then, played the tabla with me. Somebody told me that he could make singers go out of rhythm. I took it as a challenge and started a bandish. At one point, I sang in a manner that made it impossible for him to keep pace with me. He began to cry. A child had humiliated him! My guru, back from the namaz, slapped me in front of everyone.'Have I taught you so that you can insult your seniors?’ he thundered, and then asked the senior musician to forgive me.” He chokes as he narrates this tale.
His tales also reveal that the training sessions were extremely rigorous. He remembers that he was made to go through only two ragas for the first 24 years of his life as a singer. Puriya at night and Komol Rishabh Asavari in the day. And, how much has he been able to pass on to his students? He unravels a secret, "There comes a wave in time when an ustad reveals, like an epiphany, some nuance that is otherwise often inexplicable. This wave doesn’t occur twice. I have been able to give to my students as much as they have been able to receive.”