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The Gwalior Gharana is one of the oldest Khyal Gharanas. The rise of the Gwalior Gharana started with the reign of the great Mughal emperor Akbar (1542–1605). The favorite singers of this patron of the arts, such as Miyan Tansen, first amongst the vocalists at the court, came from the town of Gwalior.
During the time of Mughal kings Ustad Nathan Pir Bakhsh and his maternal grandsons were the legendary Haddu, Hassu and Nathu Khan. The main musician in the court at the time was Ustad Bade Mohammad Khan who was famous for his taanbaazi. Both Ustad Bade Mohammad Khan and Ustad Nathan Pir Bakhsh belonged to the same tradition of Shahi Sadarang.
Some sources believe that Ustad Nathan Pir Bakhsh settled in Gwalior and evolved the style features that led to this gharana. Others claim that individuals named Nathan Pir Bakhsh and Nathu Khan founded the gharana. The accepted version is that Nathan Pir Baksh left Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh to escape the professional rivalry with Ustad Shakkar Khan that had taken an ugly turn. He arrived in Gwalior with his maternal grandsons Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan.
Another great khyal singer, also originally from Lucknow, was Ustad Bade Mohammed Khan who brought the Taan into khyal singing. Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan further enhanced the style of the Gwalior gharana as we recognize it today. Hassu Khan died prematurely. Haddu Khan's son, Rehmat Ali Khan (1852–1922) was a widely acclaimed singer who liberated the Gwalior style from the methodical form it followed to the emotional style that he preferred.
A distinguishing feature of the gharana is its simplicity, and one means to this is the selection of well-known ragas so that the listener is saved the effort of trying to identify the raga. While the khyal singer does include "Raga Vistar" (melodic expansion) and "Alankar" (melodic ornamentation) to enhance the beauty and meaning of the raga, there is no attempt to include the "Tirobhava" (using melodic phrases to obscure the identity of the raga) feature in the interest of adding interest or mystery to the listener's experience.
The singing itself places Bandish (the composition) at the heart of the presentation because of the gharana's belief that the full melody of the raga and guidance on its singing is provided by the bandish. The asthayi section is sung twice before the antara, to be followed by swar-vistar in medium tempo. This slow rendition of the notes is known as the Behlava, and is sung from Ma in the lower register to Pa in the higher register, following the pattern of the Aaroha (ascent) and Avaroha (descent) of the raga. The behlava is divided into the asthayi (from Ma to Sa) and antara (from Ma, Pa, or Dha to Pa of the higher register). The Dugun-Ka-Alap follows in which groups of two or four note combinations are sung in quicker succession but the basic tempo remains the same.
The Bol-Alap is next in which the different words of the text are sung in different ways, to be followed by Murkis in which notes are sung with ornamentation to a faster pace. Bol-Taans entail the formation of melodic sequences with the words of the song. The other Taans, including the Gamak, follow.
The Sapat Taan is important to the Gwalior style and refers to the singing of notes in a straight sequence and at a Vilambit pace. Both Dhrupad and khyal singing evolved in Gwalior and there are many overlaps. In the khyal style there is one form, Mundi Dhrupad, that incorporates all the features of dhrupad singing but without the Mukhda.
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