More Information
Contact Us

Rudra Veena

Peter Weismiller

been and beenkars | peter weismiller 

note:  Peter passed away in 2013.  His Rudra Veenas may be seen at the

Musical Instrument Museum

  Peter Weismiller grew up in Claremont, California and first fell in love with Indian music and the Been in 1969, when he first heard it played in Bombay by P.D. Shah, a pupil of Mohammed Khan Faridi Desai.  He spent nine months studying Been with Mr.  Shah in California in 1971, and then in 1972 began studying Carnatic music with T. Viswanathan and
T. Ranganathan first at California Institute of the Arts and later at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he took a B.A. in Music in 1977.

He moved to Seattle in 1979 for the Masters program in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington where he was also able to study Been with Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, at that time a Visiting Artist at UW.  Afterwards, Peter taught Humanities for many years at the Northwest School in Seattle, during which time he also served for several years on the board of Ragamala and helped organize programs of Asian music for the annual Folklife Festival.  Feeling the call of the Been once again in 2000, he spent three weeks studying with Ustad Asad Ali Khan in New Delhi.

Peter passed away on January 1, 2013.

Peter c. 1969

Click the photo to see it enlarged


The Been and Beenkars: An Historical Perspective


by Peter Weismiller

"He who knows the art of veena-playing and Shruti Shastra can attain God easily."

--Yagnavalka, ancient rishi [0. Gosvami, The Story of Indian Music (Bombay, 1961), p. 295.]

The Veena has traditionally held pride of place in the pantheon of Indian musical instruments.  Veena-playing was recognized as a calling in the Yajur Veda [ Herbert A. Popley, The Music of India (Madras, 1921), p. 8.], musical theorists for many centuries used the Veena's fret system as their standard of reference when discussing a priori pitch relationships [Harold Powers; The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980), p. 79.], and masters of the instrument and its lore are accorded a special respect to this day.  However, while the South Indian Veena is often seen in performance and has no rivals among other plucked stringed instruments (apart from its fretless variants, the Chitra Veena and Gottuvadyam) for its place on the concert stage, the North Indian Veena (or Been, as it shall be referred to henceforth) is rarely heard and has been virtually eclipsed by other stringed instruments, especially the Sitar and Sarod.  Furthermore, while various traditional styles of South Indian Veena playing have been passed on to a good number of able exponents, there are to my knowledge only three eminent masters of the Been performing and recording professionally today who represent different teaching lineages: Bahauddin Dagar (son of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar), representing the Dagarbani; Asad Ali Khan, representing the Kandarbani; and Shamsuddin Faridi Desai, representing the Gauharbani.

Clearly, much has been lost, though it could be argued that much of the lore of the old Beenkars was passed on to players of other instruments and survives in only slightly transmuted form, no more altered than any tradition might be expected to be after having been passed through the hands of
successive generations [Ravi Shankar, My Music, My Life (New York, 1968), p. 55.]. On the other hand, while players of different instruments may draw on the same body of musical learning, each instrument has its peculiar technical possibilities and difficulties; by exploiting the former and minimizing the obviousness of the latter, performers develop idiomatic styles that may be approximated on another instrument, if not truly equalled, though those approximations may thereafter become part of the idiomatic "vocabulary" of the imitating instrument.

Be that as it may, it is not the purpose of this study to bemoan the decline of a great tradition, nor to examine the change and continuity of Been techniques in other instruments; rather, it is to trace the evolution and history of the instrument and its players, insofar as that may be gathered from available sources, and to attempt to analyze some of the factors that have brought the premier instrument of the Mughal and subsequent royal courts to its present status as a musical “endangered species.”  However reverenced the Been may be within Indian musical culture, the fact remains that, unlike the art of the South Indian Veena, the art of the Been may not survive much longer.  The reasons for this are complex, but may be thought of as falling within four general categories: 1) organological; 2) the nature of the music played on the Been; 3) the manner in which the lore of the Been has been transmitted; and 4) patronage.   These categories are by no means disjunct from one another: for example, the physical attributes and construction of the instrument developed to suit the musical needs of
musicians who hoped to remain employed.

The Origin and Morphological Development of the Been

The Been, also known as the Mahati Veena and the Rudra Veena, is identified with the sage Narada and the goddess Saraswati.  While the South Indian Veena is frequently referred to as the Saraswati Veena, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar once remarked to me that this name is proper to the Been as well.   Wherever the truth may lie in this latter issue, differences of opinion as to the proper names for different types of Veenas abound in literature on the subject.  "Veena" has been used since ancient times as a general term for stringed instruments capable of producing melody (for a modern example of this practice see pp. 35-36 in Ravi Shankar, op. cit.), and many references may be found in the Vedas and other ancient writings to variously named Veenas whose characteristics can only be guessed at.  For present purposes, it should suffice to say that the Veenas that bear a morphologically ancestral relationship to the Been are not the Veenas of the Vedas, the most important of which (if sculpture bears true witness) were seven and nine-stringed bow-shaped harps (identified as vipanchi and sometimes chitra veena), and a fretless short-necked ovoid lute (identified as kacchapi and sometimes chitra veena) [B. Chaitanya Deva, Musical Instruments of India (Calcutta, 1978), pp. 144, 159.]

"From the 7th century A.D. to the 13 th and after, these two string instruments disappear from sculpture and are replaced by stick zithers with one or more strings and often with bowl-shaped resonators or supports; these instruments are the direct ancestors of the modern bin...." [Powers, op.cit., p. 78.] These stick zithers are known as the eka tantri (one string) veena, which was fretless and was held in a similar playing position to the been, and the kinnari veena, which was fretted.  "The earliest assignable period for the kinnari veena...could be about the 5th century A.D. when one Matanga lived and wrote a book on music... . (he) is said to be the first one who mentions the fixing of frets to the kinnari veena." [B.O. Deva, Musical Instruments. India, the Land and the People (National Book Trust), p. 91. N.B. that Powers, op. cit., p. 78, dates Matanga from the eighth century.]

"Definite descriptions of this instrument commence from the 11th century onwards, and they give a fairly detailed account of this veena.  There were two 'classical' kinnaris: the laghu kinnari and the brhat kinnari.  As their names indicate, the first one was small (laghu) and second was a larger (brhat) variety. There were also desi (folk) kinnaris of three sizes: brhati (big),madhyama (middling) and laghvi (small).  The laghu kinnari used in classical music had a fingerboard of bamboo nearly 75 cms. long, with two pumpkins.  The fourteen frets were usually of the chest bones of vultures and fixed to the danda (resonating tube) with a mixture of wax and the ashes of burnt cloth.  Over these passed a string of steel or brass and this was tensed by a peg on one side.  The brhati was nearly twenty centimeters longer with a stouter bamboo.  It had three gourds instead of two, and was strung with gut." [ ibid, p. 91 ff.]


Shaarangadeva, in the sixth chapter of his Sangita-Ratnakara, c. 1247, specifies playing techniques (both doctrinal and current) for the kinnari vina.  [Powers, op.cit., p.78] By the time Abul Fazl wrote his description of the Emperor Akbar's musical establishment, the North Indian Veena had emerged as an instrument in its own right: "The Yantra is formed out of the hollow neck of wood a yard in length, at each end of which are attached the halves of two gourds.  Above the neck are sixteen frets over which are strung five steel wires fastened securely at both ends.  The low and high notes and their variations are produced by the disposition of the frets.   The Veena resembles the Yantra, but has three strings.  The Kinnar resembles the Veena, but with a longer fingerboard, and has three gourds and two wires."  [Deva, op.cit., p.92]

Whether the above described Veena is in fact identical with the Been of the time I am at present unable to determine; a study of ancient veenas to be found in museums and private collections would be needed before one could safely make a definitive statement.  In any event, Deva goes on to say that "It was one of the premier instruments of the court of Akbar and Abul Fazl names Shihab Khan of Gwahor  and Purbin Khan as the two court beenkars"[Ibid.]

By way of contrast, it may be noted here that Ustad Z.M. Dagar once informed me that the Been had eleven frets before the 13th century; afterwards, twenty-four.  While I have been unable to find much information regarding the physical evolution of the Been to its modern form from its medieval form, S. Krishnawamy informs us as follows: “It is said that during the period between Amir Khusrau and Akbar, the bin had only twelve frets on which a range of three oc­taves could be played.  Subsequently the number of frets was increased." [S. Krishnaswamy, Musical Instruments of India (Delhi, 1967), p.42]

One thing that may be inferred is that, however many frets the Been had at this time, they were fixed and arranged in semitones: Pandit Ahobala in his Sangita Parijata (early 17th century) “was the first musicologist to describe the values of notes in terms of lengths of the string on the veena.” [ibid., p.29] It should be noted here that Ahobala thus set an important precedent: not long afterwards, a South Indian “…musicologist named Govinda Dikshita fixed the frets of the southern Indian veena so that all ragas could be played. . .before this, the frets were movable, and their number varied.” [Ibid.]

Venkatamakhi soon thereafter published his 72 melakarta raga systern, which he demonstrated by reference to the veena's fret system.  [Powers, op.cit., p.82] Venkatamakhi was more systematic than his North Indian counterparts, however; while a great many new treatises appeared in the North after 1550, “…many of the works in fact dealt only with raga, touching on the tonal system and on the vina as an instrument of reference only to the extent necessary to elucidate their ragas,” though there were some attempts to introduce “a new tonal system based on the fretted stick zither (veena) and try to reconcile it with the tonal material of Sangita Ratnakara...(some) merely reproduce the Sangita Ratnakara tonal material.”  [Powers, op.cit., p.81]

Been and Beenkars in the history of North Indian Music Culture

“I'll teach you [Allauddin Khan] all the dhrupad and dhamar songs," [Wazir Khan] said, "and the technique and different baj (styles of playing) of the been, rabab, and sursringar.”   He qualified his vow, however, by saying he could never permit Allauddin Khan to play the Been, because it is traditionally restricted to the Beenkar gharana — his family — and he warned that if Baba were to play it, Baba would never have an heir and his family would die out.  [Shankar, op.cit., p.55]

On the surface, the above anecdote seems straightforward enough: Wazir Khan was apparently protecting his family monopoly, his ultimate stock-in-trade, and benignly warning Allauddin Khan of a calamity of mystical origin that would befall him if he were to go against his Ustad's wishes on the matter.  On a deeper level, however, the anecdote becomes enigmatic if one knows a little about the history of the Been and its players in modern times, and particularly if one knows what became of Wazir Khan's line: he had a son who was musically trained, but the son went to Baghdad and wasn't heard from again.  [Dr. Daniel Neuman, personal communication, 1982] Wazir Khan's lineage seems to have died out with his been-playing grandson, Dabir Khan (d. 1972).  In any event, it is not my impression that every reputable beenkar was a member of Wazir Khan's khandan, or lineage (please see the appendix for such information as I’ve been able to gather); however, whatever their lineages, it is indisputable that almost none of Wazir Khan's beenkar contemporaries have left us with heirs to their art.


Wazir Khan


Baba Allauddin Khan

The late P.D. Shah, an amateur Been player, once remarked to me that his Ustad, Mohammed Khan Faridi Desai, had claimed that there was a tradition among Beenkars that the Been brought extraordinary suffering of many kinds —as well as extraordinary musical exaltation — to its players.  Faridi said that aside from the practical difficulties attendant on living as a professional Been player, the suffering resulted from a combination of the consuming riaz (discipline) needed to master the Been and its lore, and the mystical power of the Been's sound: together, they tended to render a man psychologically unfit for ordinary human life.  So, was Wazir Khan politely threatening Allauddin Khan with The Ustad's Curse, or warning him about a rather dire reality that had been observed by beenkars over the generations? Or both? It is interesting to note that after his father died, Wazir Khan’s own musical training had been taken over by Haidar Ali Khan, younger brother of the Nawab of Oudh and foremost disciple of two important musicians of the court [Powers, op.cit., p.90]— so Wazir Khan had every reason to understand the danger inherent in a patrilinear transmission as well as the value of the diffusion of musical knowledge beyond one’s family.

The harrowing mystique of the Been aside, more pragmatic reasons for the eclipse of this tradition are not difficult to find.  Essentially, the very strategies and events that rapidly brought Beenkars to pre­eminence among instrumentalists in Mughal times contributed greatly to their equally rapid downfall once the heyday of the courts was over.  The most important of these strategies were the almost exclusively patrilinear transmission of technique and the concomitant hoarding of prestigious esoteric knowledge.  This prestige became relatively valueless once the power of patronage had shifted away from those whose taste and learning were refined enough to fully appreciate the music of the Been.   Another pragmatic reason for the decline of the Been in North Indian music culture is to be found, I believe, in the challenging physical attributes of the instrument itself; but this subject will be dealt with after we first trace the history of the rise and decline of the Beenkars.

As we have seen, Emperor Akbar employed two Beenkars.  While I have found no references to been-playing as a recognized specialty among professional musicians before Akbar's time, Powers informs us that the Been was associated with the Gwalior singers who came to Akbar's court sometime after he came to power in 1562; and that Tansen, the musical crown jewel of Akbar's court, is universally said to have had his musical roots in Gwalior during the reigns of Man Singh Tomar (1486-1516) and his son (1516-1526).   [Powers, op.cit., p.87]  Powers is curiously silent on the subject of Tansen's guru Haridas Swami of Vrindaban, who according to legend not only taught Tansen his great art, but also “. . is credited with having improved the technique of playing the bin and standardised the different styles of music played on it.”   [Krishnaswamy, op.cit., p.42]

While Tansen himself is said to have played the plucked rabab [Powers, op. cit., p. 88], R. and J. Massey inform us that his daughter, Saraswati, became a leading player of the veena, which was her father's favorite instrument.  [Reginald and Jamila Massey, The Music of India (New York, 1977), p.53] Akbar arranged her marriage to a prince named Misri Singh, a veena player and pupil of Swami Haridas.  From this marriage came the lineage of beenkars referred to by Shankar as the "beenkar gharana."   [p. 255 of Daniel M.Neuman, The Life of Music in North India (Detroit 1980)] It may be noted here that the above-mentioned Saraswati is the only woman who is named as a Been player in any of the literature I have encountered, though women playing the Been seem more the rule than the exception in graphic art dating from the Mughal period onwards.

The reigns of Jehangir (1605-1627) and Shahjehan (1628-1658) were brilliant eras for artists of all kinds, including musicians, but quite the opposite was true of the fifty-year reign of Aurangezeb, who came to power in 1658.  Though this austere monarch did maintain musicians to entertain his wives and daughters, he withdrew his personal patronage, and many musicians left his court to seek their fortunes in provincial courts.  [Massey, op.cit., p. 53 ff.] Vani Bai Ram goes so far as to say that Aurangezeb “destroyed and abolished what little music was left in his court” and says that the musicians were “turned out.” [Vani Bai Ram, Glimpses of Indian Music (Allahabad, 1962), p. 6 ff.]

Better times returned with the reigns of Bahadur Shah (1708 – 1719) and (especially) of Mohammad Shah Rangile (1719 –1748), a great patron of music and the last of the Mughals to wield considerable temporal power.  His reign marked a most important turning-point in the history of North Indian music, for his chief instrumentalist, the beenkar Sadarang (born Nyamet Khan, Tansen's great-great-great-grandson), initiated a change in performance practice and, ultimately, musical taste.  Paradoxically, this change both elevated the Been and its players to new heights of prestige and set forces in motion that would eventually eclipse the Been tradition.

Sadarang did this by refining the khyal style to a new elegance, teaching new khyal compositions to his disciples (particularly those outside his family) and having them perform this newly ennobled art before the gratified Mohammed Shah Rangile and his court.  Sadarang was rewarded for his innovations by being allowed to perform the Been as a solo instrument, apparently a rare occurrence before this time.  While Dr. Neuman interprets Sadarang's innovations as having been rooted in a desire for upward mobility [see op.cit. p. 133 – 134], it seems to me that an important question — probably unanswerable at this remove in time — is whether indeed strategy alone was involved in Sadarang's innovations: perhaps his fertile musical imagination simply felt constrained at times within the austere tradition he had inherited; perhaps his choice of vocal music as the medium of his creativity was no less innocent than, say, a Western composer's choosing to write for an instrument he or she does not perform; perhaps his choice not to perform in the khyal style on the Been was due both to veneration for the tradition he had inherited and to the technical difficulties involved in presenting a more brilliant and florid style on his instrument; and perhaps he did not expect to be rewarded in the manner Muhammad Shah decided he deserved.  Furthermore, if Sadarang's motives for promoting a refined khyal style were purely strategic, it would stand to reason that a few hundred compositions, rather than the thousands with which he is credited [Massey, op. cit., p. 54], would have sufficed.

Whether or not Sadarang had a premeditated strategy for upward mobility, the exalted position in which he found himself once his talents had been recognized may well have encouraged him to set a certain standard and model of behavior for his Beenkar successors.  Whatever may have been his reasons for not performing khyal on the Been, his not doing so can only have added to such mystique as already surrounded the specialized lore of the Been: for if a man appears to value an old form of beauty he has inherited above a new form he has himself created, those of his audience who find the new form marvellous are constrained not to dismiss the old form, but to reassess it in a spirit of veneration.  And it should be kept in mind that Dhrupad and Dhamar rendered in purely instrumental fashion were something of a novelty at the time in any case.  Pehaps Sadarang’s choice thus preserved the prestige of those older styles for a number of generations longer than it would have lasted otherwise.  Sharmistha Sen's account of the event (quoted on p. 134 Neuman, op. cit.) suggests that Muhammad Shah's court, if not bored by dhrupad and dhamar, were at least quite ready to hear something new.   Given that these styles had been propounded in the same form since the days of Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior (1486-1516), this is perhaps not surprising [Shankar, op. cit., p. 48].

In any event, whatever his motivation may have been, Sadarang bequeathed to his descendents a paramount legitimacy as Beenkars and guardians of a special knowledge.  To be sure, much of Sadarang's knowledge ultimately derived from Haridas Swami and Tansen, and must equally have been a part of ther heritage of his rababiya and vocalist cousins; logically, only those techniques proper to the Been might not have been.  However, it is possible that certain compositions and ragas, especially newer ones, may have been "hoarded" by particular lineages within Tansen's descendants.  For example, while the raga Bilaskhani Todi -— said to have been composed by Tansen's son, Bilas Khan, on the occasion of his father's death — is widely known, some among Tansen's descendants may well have reserved for their own family members rarely-heard (“achop”) ragas as well as ragas and compositions they themselves had developed.

A period of chaos followed the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangile.   Powers informs us: "...many of the Delhi musicians dispersed to regional centres of independent power... The most important patronage outside Delhi was at Lucknow, the court of the Nawabs of Oudh, but other princely states and the newly rich tax-farmers and businessmen in Calcutta also patronized musicians.." [Powers, op.cit., p.81]



Ustad Z.M. Dagar on the Rudraveena (Been). Photo copyright Ira Landgarten.

According to Z.M. Dagar, most Beenkars after this time were to be found in the various courts of the area now known as Uttar Pradesh, to the east of Delhi; however, he went on to say that two other important centers of the art were the courts of Gwalior and Jaipur [personal communication, 1979].   Powers mentions Indore and Baroda as having been important for music generally in this period, but states that Lucknow was the most illustrious seat of music in India for about seventy-five years, a period that ended abruptly when the British deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in 1856 and annexed Oudh shortly thereafter. [Powers, op. cit., p. 88 ]

By the end of the 19th century, Rampur was considered “the most important seat of Hindustani classical music.” [Shankar, op. cit., p.53] The Nawab could boast of a musical entourage of almost 500 musicians, of whom “at least fifty ranked among the foremost artists and were famed throughout India,” [Ibid.] The Beenkar Wazir Khan presided over this august entourage, and it was a considerable honor to be invited to the musical performances that were held or to be taught by the musical luminaries of the court.  Indeed, exclusivity is a recurrent motif in such accounts as I have been able to find of musical life in Rampur.  Shankar recounts that Allauddin Khan had to risk his life by throwing himself down in front of the Nawab's carriage in order to elicit the Nawab's support in his desire to become Wazir Khan's disciple; furthermore, Wazir Khan for several years thereafter paid no attention to Allauddin Khan except in his capacity as domestic servant, until by chance he learned that Allauddin Khan's wife had attempted suicide in despair over his long absence.   Thus confronted with Allauddin's sincerity, Wazir Khan formally accepted him as a disciple. [Ibid., p. 54ff.]

Another description of the Rampur court is given by Atiya Begum Fyzee-Rahamin: “Rampur guards its knowledge and musical culture with such jealous care that very few are privileged to enjoy the sweet strains in full.  Guests are honoured with an occasional performance, but the greater wealth and love of it remains with those who are versed in it.” [Fyzee-Rahamin, op. cit., p. 25] It seems possible that the above comment may reflect a personal experience of the author's, but in any event the exclusivity one senses in both accounts is the important point here: for while this exclusivity may have differed in degree from that found in other courts, it probably did not differ in kind.  Music was the preserve of its practitioners and their elite audiences.   Knowledge of the lore of music (whether connoisseurship or actual musicianship) was an expected social refinement among the aristocracy in this pre-media era.  A number of noble amateurs were renowned for a high standard of achievement in music, and some of them did learn the Been from professional court Beenkars.   [Z.M. Dagar, personal communication, 1980. P.D. Shah, personal communication, 1970.] For those privileged to enter the musical inner sanctums of the courts, the  19th century must have been a splendid era: great and learned exponents of Dhrupad and Khyal were necessary assets to the courts of kings who wished to maintain their prestige, and a number of traditions within the realm of Hindustani art music flourished at this time.  The Been itself had fully developed to its modern form and size by about 1800 (leaving aside Z.M. Dagar’s twentieth-century innovations for now), and the 19th century saw the art of the Beenkar at its apogee.  However, social changes that came with the British Raj began to have more and more effect on the lives of musicians as the century progressed, and in the end severely limited patronage.   The Been and its players were particularly vulnerable to these changes, as we shall see.

By the end of the 17th century, most Hindustani musicians were Muslims, whether by ancestry or conversion.  Powers informs us that “Music and musicianship were regarded as something to be treasured, as the private property of the family and the ultimate foundation of its prosperity,” and that “some musicians would reserve part of what they knew for their sons alone.” [Powers, op. cit., p. 79] Umrao Khan of Lucknow, the great-great­grandson of Sadarang and the grandfather of Wazir Khan, personifies an extreme example of this tendency: while described by Shankar as a "very great teacher" and as having been responsible (along with his uncle, the beenkar Nirmal Shah, and Bahadur Sen of the Rababiya family) “for guiding and nourishing many well-known players of the instruments they brought into vogue — the Sitar, the Surbahar, and the Sarod,” [Shankar, op. cit., p.50] Umrao Khan nevertheless reserved the Been for his sons alone and refused to teach it even to his daughter's son, who ended up playing the Been in the Sitar's technical style, or baj. [Neuman, op. cit., p. 132.  Neuman’s source is H.M.K. Imam.]

It is worth noting here, however, that Shankar lists as pupils of one of the above three men both Bande Ali Khan, not known by me to be a relative, and a Been player named Mithailal [Shankar, op. cit., p.50], which sounds to me like a Hindu name.  In any event, other lineages of Been players may have been somewhat less exclusively patrilinear in their Been-teaching, and it seems possible that Bande Ali Khan and Mithalial may have learned their Been technique elsewhere before studying with the man (or men) Shankar lists as their teacher(s); perhaps they were taught not the Been, but vocal music.  Whatever may be the truth in this particular instance, what is important is the general tendency among Beenkars to severely restrict their own numbers, whether to protect the interests of their descendants or to preserve their cherished art from those they deemed unworthy of the Been but good enough for other instruments.

The British, with a few exceptions, seem generally not to have found Indian music particularly alluring, and accounts agree that the resultant lack of patronage, coupled with British annexation of the assets of musicians' traditional patrons, had a deleterious effect on North Indian music culture as a whole.  Many princely states were annexed; and, while the nouveau-riche of Calcutta and elsewhere did to some extent make up for this loss, the grand old way of life clearly was on its way out by the beginning of the 20th century.  Only such rulers as were reasonably co-operative with the Raj were permitted to retain their power and courts; many of these became more and more westernized, and there was a concomitant decline in the prestige of inherited traditions.  This trend affected Beenkars as much as anyone else, and an anecdote related to me by P.D. Shah in 1970 illustrates the predicament of Beenkars in this century rather well:

Some time in the 1930s, Mohammad Khan Faridi Desai, Shah's teacher, was employed by the Raja of a small state in Rajasthan.  The Raja of a neighboring small state was visiting, and Faridi was asked to perform on the Been.   When the visiting Raja sat down to listen, he did not remove his shoes.  When Faridi requested that he do so, the Raja refused, saying, "Is your Been afraid of my shoes?" After his employer offered no help, Faridi replied that it was not, then politely excused himself for a moment. P.D. Shah was sitting in the next room, and Faridi asked him to wait a little while, then go to the Rajas and explain that his master had suddenly taken ill.   Shah did so, and, after the disgruntled Rajas had left the room, he took Faridi's Been to the train station, whence they left together for another state Faridi hoped to find more congenial.

Patronage by the newly wealthy middle classes presented beenkars with other problems.  First, there was probably a perceived diminution of status involved in entering their employ; second, the Been is very quiet and, unamplified, ill-suited to anything but chamber performance; third, and perhaps most important, the new patrons found Khyal and Thumri much easier to appreciate than they did the Dhrupad and Dhammar styles that were the repertory of the Been.  While V.N. Bhatkande (1860-1936) had made great efforts to secure and promulgate the Dhrupad heritage, it was the more dynamic and ornate styles that the new patrons wanted to hear; middle-class audiences had “, or very little knowledge of classical music and their interest was largely fostered on the basis of pride in the national heritage...Regional specialization and the demands of being able to entertain the same audience over years have gradually disappeared...The demands made on a musician are more general, a pleasing voice and an impressive technique rather than a vast stock of ragas and compositions." [Wim Van Der Meer, Hindusthani Music in the Twentieth Century (The Hague, 1980), p. 126] Furthermore, “Indian music had become associated with the decadent life-style of the princes” [Ibid., p. 122]; “the closed system of hereditary families, being tied to a court, provided security and prestige.  The rise of the middle classes inverted this — the musician became a pariah.” [Ibid., p. 127]

Sadarang had made his choice not to perform Khyal in a different world, and his Beenkar musical heirs now suffered the consequences.   The strategy of patrilineal inheritance of a proudly guarded esoteric repertoire and technique rendered Beenkars ill-adapted to the new world outside the courts.  They had a monopoly on a commodity for which there was very little demand; furthermore, to create a new demand required the development of the musical sensibilities of the new middle-class audience, a process that took at least fifty years too long in terms of the preservation of art and lore of the Been.   I have found no mention of the preservation of Been traditions by any noble-born amateurs in modern times, and only a few of the most dedicated Beenkars were able to preserve their traditions following the withering of royal and aristocratic patronage.  We can hear some echoes of the Beenkar gharana in the music of the pupils of Allauddin Khan — but none play the actual instrument.  I expect we'll never really know much about the variety of less prestigious Been traditions that were to be found in some of the courts of the 535 princely states that existed prior to Partition in 1947.

By way of contrast, South Indian veena players (normally Hindus) had not been so dependent on courts as their North Indian counterparts: there was temple patronage, and they commonly taught non-family members, women as well as men, amateurs as well as professionals.  While some of them no doubt had repertories they kept within their families, the musical repertory that was most in demand at the end of the 19 th century was the relatively recent body of compositions by Tyagaraja, Syama Shastri, and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, which were by and large in the public domain.  It seems likely that South Indian veena players generally relied more on teaching revenues than did Beenkars, given the number of amateurs taught (even in schools!) and the respectability of veena-playing among the "higher classes" reported by Day. [Day, op. cit., p. 111] The beenkars had no such broad base of popular support.  To use an evolutionary metaphor, a magnificently overspecialized creature was unable to survive the loss of the niche it had both adapted itself to and created for itself.


                                               Bahauddin Dagar on the Been

The future of the Been does not appear to be terribly bright.  Even though there has been a resurgence of interest in the Dhrupad and Dhammar styles in India amongst cultured people during the last few decades, as well as an appreciative reception in the West, the taste for this music remains a fairly esoteric one.  Especially given the difficulty of making a living as a Dhrupad singer or Beenkar, few would-be professional musicians are willing to undergo the long and rigorous training required for mastery.  All India Radio does broadcast programs of Been music from time to time, and electronic amplification allows most of its subtleties to be heard in concert halls, so Ustad Asad Ali Khan, Bahauddin Dagar, and Shamsuddin Faridi Desai do give concerts in a variety of venues.   Asad Ali Khan has been teaching his nephew Zaki Hyder and about five Western pupils, and states that he will feel satisfied if just one of them achieves mastery.  Shamsuddin Faridi Desai has been teaching his four sons both Been and sitar and is pleased with their progress; he too has a few Western students.  Bahauddin Dagar, who was twenty years old at the time of his father’s untimely death at 61 in 1990, has been able to deepen his musical knowledge with the help of his numerous master-musician relatives and has built up a successful career as a concert and recording artist; I don't know if he is teaching as yet.  (It seems ironic that a century ago, Beenkars were habitually — even on principle — refusing to teach would-be Been students, but today Asad Ali Khan and Shamsuddin Faridi Desai both seem quite open to teaching students with a sincere desire to learn, though not many present themselves.)

Another very real problem is that the demand for high-quality Beens has been so small that very few makers know how to make them, so it is neither cheap nor easy to obtain a good Been, whether of the traditional bamboo or teak-stemmed type or of the larger wooden-stemmed type Z.M. Dagar has designed and pioneered.  Furthermore, any musician who wished to play the Khyal style on the Been would be fighting both tradition and the rather cumbersome instrument itself, whose range is more or less duplicated by that of the somewhat more manageable Surbahar, which is generally accepted as an instrument suitable for Khyal.  While the Been itself may be modified somewhat to suit the requirements of its players, presumably it will remain true that Sadarang would have no difficulty recognizing and appreciating its repertory and style, as it will certainly continue to be the instrument of choice for Dhrupad and Dhammar — and will not be adapted to other purposes.

Given the arduous and lengthy discipline required to master the Been and its music, its most eminent living master, Asad Ali Khan, is not very optimistic regarding its long-range chances for survival.  The rather dismaying historical trend along with the practical realities of making a living as a classical musician in India both would seem to militate against the possibility of a true renaissance of the Been.   Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that something so profoundly beautiful will be allowed to vanish from the earth, and we can only hope that the younger artists who are now learning it will practice hard, long, and well.

Note: A major portion of the research for this paper was conducted in 1983 as part of the M.A. program in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington.


Some names of 19th and 20th Century Beenkars:

(This list is arranged according to my sources.   Usually, almost no information beyond the
names was to be found;  I've indicated any supplementary information where possible.)

1. Fyzee-Rahamin, op.cit. (1925), pp. 25-6: Vazir (Wazir) Khan, Varis Ali, Jalaluddin Khan,
Musharaf Khan.

2. S. Krishnaswami, op.cit. (1967), p. 42: Wazir Khan, Mohamedali Khan, Sadat Ali Khan,
Kale Khan, Mushruff Khan, Imdad Khan, Lateef Khan, Waheed Khan.

3. Neuman, op.cit. (1980), p. 112: Bande Ali Khan; p. 118: Zia M. Dagar, Asad Ali Khan,
Shamsuddin Faridi, Birendra Kishore Roychoudhury; p. 132: Umrao Khan, Hassan Khan (Dhari) - 19th century; p. 255: lineage of Tansen's daughter's descen­dants (“Beenkar Gharana”), 16th century to present.  The lineage has few dates ascribed to the beenkars listed, and seems not to include siblings who were not well-known beenkars; also, prominent non-familial disciples are not listed.  It seems to me that an attempt to investigate discipleship linkage (parampara) between members of the Beenkar Gharana and the beenkars listed in this appendix would be a useful project.  The Beenkar Gharana was certainly the paramount lineage in terms of prestige, but I continue to wonder whether or to what degree other lin­eages were derivative from it.

4. Nijenhus, Emmi Te: Indian Music.  History and Structure.  Leiden/Koln: E.J. Brill, 1974. p. 92. Here is found a partial list of the lineage of the Kairana (Kirana) Gharana, which I reproduce in its entirety: Ghulam Taggi (18th century binkar and dhrupadiya from Kairana in the Mirut district): to Sadiq Ali Khan (son): to Bande Ali Khan (son; master of bin, sitar, dhrupad and khyal; son-in-law of Haddu Khan of the Gwalior gharana): to the Maharaja of Indore (student).  I could not determine whether Sadiq Ali Khan or the Maharaja were beenkars or vocalists.  Shamsuddin Faridi Desai traces his beenkar lineage to this gharana (see entry 6, below), but an interesting point is that Z.M. Dagar traced his ancestry to his
mother’s grandfather Bande Ali Khan, and I believe I remember Z.M. Dagar's saying that Bande Ali Khan had taught Z.M.Dagar's father some bin techniques.   (I might note here in passing that both Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar and Ustad Asad Ali Khan have told me that women in their families were never trained in music: it was always a male undertaking.)

5. Ravi Shankar, op. cit. (1968), p. 50: Nirmal Shah, Omrao Khan, Wazir Khan, Dabir Khan (grandson of Wazir Khan).

6. P.D. Shah, personal communication, 1970: Shah told me that Mohammad Khan had been the teacher of Mohammad Khan Desai Faridi.  [However, in the notes to Shamsuddin Desai Faridi’s India Archives CD, he says that his father (Mohammed Khan Faridi Desai) learned been from his father, Abdur Rahman Khan, who had learned it from his father-in-law Miyan Wahid Khan,who had learned it from Miyan Bande Ali Khan – who was also the guru/ustad of Murad Khan, who was Shamsuddin Faridi Desai’s grandfather on his mother’s side.  Other names of Beenkars from this gharana listed by Shamsuddin Faridi Desai: Latif Khan, Babu Khan, Zafir Khan, and Mohammed Hussain Khan.

7. Z.M. Dagar, personal communication, 1980: I asked Ustad Dagar to list for me the names of beenkars in terms of the four dhrupad banis, or schools.   This is the result:

(1) DAGARBANI.  Z.M.Dagar said that he himself was the only binkar of the Dagarbani ever to have performed publicly; however, he said that his father and a number of other family members through the years had played the bin (or rabab) to a high standard, but family tradition had dictated vocal performances only.
(2) NOHARBANI.  In Z.M. Dagar's word, "finished."

(3) GOHARBANI.  This is the line of descent from Tansen, and thus Wazir Khan and was its most illustrious recent beenkar exponent, though his grandson Dabir Khan (d. 1972, last of line) was a respected beenkar.  Dabir Khan was the teacher of Birendra Kishore Roychoudhuri (Massey, op.cit., p. 146.)  As noted elsewhere, Shamsuddin Faridi Desai identifies this bani as his own.

(4) KANDARBANI.  Interestingly, Z.M. Dagar said that Wazir Khan's style also drew from this bani, and all the other beenkars mentioned were exponents of the Kandarbani style.  If I reconstruct my notes correctly, there were two major Kandarbani lineages, all persons listed here­under being beenkars:
a.  Bande Ali Khan was the father of three binkar sons: Waheed Khan; Murad Khan of Indore, who taught his son Babu Khan; and Majid Khan, who taught his son Abdul Hamid, who taught his daughter's son, Mohammad Khan.

b. Razab Ali Khan (c. 1850) and his son Mushruff Khan were both beenkars of the Jaipur court.  Mushruff's son, Sadiq Ali Khan, was court beenkar at Rampur, pre­sumably after Wazir Khan died in 1926, and his son is Asad Ali Khan (born in Alwar, 1937).  I should note here that An Anthology of North Indian Classical Music, Vol. II (op. cit.) gives Rajpur as the court that em­ployed Sadiq Ali Khan; also, that there is a character sketch of the latter to be found in S.K.  Chaubey's Musicians I Have Met (Lucknow: Prakashan Shakka, 1958), PP. 99-103.

Aside from the above two lineages, other Kandarbani binkars mentioned by Z.M. Dagar
were:  Bahiasahib Astiwale from Ujain; Bahadur Khan of Kirana (I am not sure whether of the town or gharana, or both); and Mohammad Khan Faridi Desai, who according to P.D. Shah (personal communication, 1970) spent most of his time at various courts in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

8.   I should note here that there is something of a small tradition among Hindus of renouncing the world and playing the been as a means of achieving enlightenment; an historical example of this was Haridas Swami, and a modern example is Swami D.R. Parvatikar, a wandering sannyasin who was born in Hyderabad in 1915.  Alain Danielou studied been with one Shivendranath Basu of Banaras in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  (This information comes from the notes to Anthologie de la Musique Classique de l'Inde (Paris: Ducretet-Thomson 320 C 096-7-8-, released sometime in the early 1960's).  I have been unable to locate any other information regarding been traditions amongst professional or amateur Hindu musicians.

Reproduced with permission of the author.   Copyright © 2011 Peter Weismiller.  All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008 All rights reserved.