When Pandit Pran Nath first arrived in the United States in 1970, his stature as a highly accomplished musician had already been established among the connoisseurs in India. The chosen disciple of Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan Chisti Sabri (respectfully referred to as Khan Sahib), master of the Kirana school of singing, Pandit Pran Nath was heir to one of the most esteemed styles of North Indian classical vocal music and one of the privileged singers to be tutored by the master himself. Although he was not immediately greeted in America with wide public acclaim, a diverse audience of American musicians and students awaited him. Pandit Pran Nath would become the first artist to introduce to the West, India’s classical vocal tradition in its traditional guru-shisha teaching style. India’s instrumental music had preceded him and was becoming more known and sought after. But singing, esteemed above all arts in India, had not been available to Western students through a vocal master—indeed, there were those who questioned whether it could ever be successfully taught outside of India. This was due not only to the complexity of the music itself, but also to the crucial interface of the music with India’s classical languages. Along with this were integral cultural and spiritual dimensions not widely assimilated in the West. Such were the prevailing conditions that set the stage for Pandit Pran Nath’s pioneering work in the U.S., from 1970 until his passing in 1996.
Foundations for Pandit Pran Nath’s work were laid in the early 1920’s, when the first Indian musician of renown – the master vocalist, vina player and Sufi spiritual teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan, arrived in the West along with his brothers. Known as the Royal Musicians of Hindustan, they were the first to perform Indian music on Western soil. A first hand account of one of their early concerts tells of the audience applauding after the initial tuning of the instruments on stage, believing the performance to have been rendered in full. Realizing that his music could not be understood in the West at that time, Hazrat Inayat Khan stopped performing and began to lecture extensively on diverse spiritual topics using music as a metaphor for the inner life. His disciples transcribed his talks, making them available to a wider public. Through these means he was able to introduce the esoteric foundations of sound and the spiritual nature of music, thereby preparing the ground for introducing Indian music in the West. A pervasive and enduring interest in music rooted in spiritual practice was fostered in his first Western disciples. Interestingly, many of Pandit Pran Nath’s students were drawn from the next generation of spiritual practitioners directly connected to Hazrat Inayat Khan’s teachings. Like him, Pandit Pran Nath also held fast to the premise that the expression of music was a sacred art, a spiritual offering and a deep, direct pathway to the Divine.
In the 1970’s there were a number of highly trained musicians in the world of Western contemporary music who were searching for alternatives to the academically driven art music of the time – new dimensions that would add meaning and depth to their music. Pandit Pran Nath’s masterful voice and authentic presentation of the khayal form and, especially, his exquisite mastery of natural tuning and sound shaping, offered Western ears a bountiful bouquet of profound, sensuous tonal possibilities. Pandit Pran Nath, already known as a musicians’ musician in India, drew more and more professional composers and instrumentalists to him, to experience the subtle nuances of his refined, ancient music.
Pandit Pran Nath was born in Lahore in 1918 to a cultured Hindu family. When he was quite young, his father passed away, so the family moved to the home of his maternal grandfather. His mother, a religious and pious woman, was a spiritual adept who led an austere life, especially after her husband’s death. Pandit Pran Nath’s grandfather was affluent, however, and his home provided a culturally refined environment where eminent master vocalists came to offer recitals. His grandfather also revered the saints and holy men of the time, and in the evenings there would be gatherings of musicians and spiritual people from many traditions and disciplines. Thus, Pandit Pran Nath was exposed to music and spirituality at an early age. At the age of six, he began his own singing practice, and by the age of thirteen, his fervent wish was to devote his life to music. His mother, mindful of the uncertainties of a professional singing career, would not support her son’s wish, so he made the decision to leave home in search of a vocal master who would help him realize his aspirations.
The chronology of teachers who assisted him is not absolutely clear. However, in his youth, he received guidance in music from Bhai Sunder Singh, a Sikh saint, and, after leaving his home, he initially learned from Babu Niaz Ali Khan (of Patiala Gharana), and later from Pandit Dilip Chandra Vedi (of Agra Gharana) and Baba Gyani (of Chitralekha fame). Ultimately, it was Khan Sahib, the illustrious master of Kirana Gharana (perhaps North India’s most highly developed and specialized form of classical singing) who became his most prominent and adored teacher.
Pandit Pran Nath had a remarkable genius for music, including the uncanny gift of imitating singers of many different styles of the time, and a remarkable ability to remember compositions in a single hearing. Nonetheless, in recounting his first experience of hearing Khan Sahib’s music he remarked that the sounds eluded him. Such music could not be immediately or easily captured. Pran Nath resolved to seek out the master and receive his tutelage in person.
Khan Sahib was fiercely devotional. The doyen of Kirana singing, he was heir to a devotional lineage of music traced back to the Chistia Sufis and Gopal Nayak Maharaj of Devagiri, the leading light of Krishna Bani. He invested the larger part of his earnings to build a mazzar for his spiritual teacher, Pir Nafir Allam, in Lahore, and received very select students. He would not subject his music to the whims and wills of the patrons of the time. He offered his music for the Divine alone. At the time of India’s partition, he was offered the highest position as a singer by the newly forming ruling powers of Pakistan, but declined, saying that he would never abandon his country. He left Lahore, and moved to Saharan Pur in Kirana district in India, leaving behind virtually all that he owned.
Khan Sahib did not initially accept Pandit Pran Nath as his student since he was a young boy without material means. It was Pandit Pran Nath’s spiritual nature, perseverance, and musical talent that eventually won him a place in the master’s household. Finding no work too menial, he began serving the everyday needs of his teacher. Eventually he accompanied the master wherever his work demanded, whether it was teaching disciples, performing in concert, or broadcasting on the radio. He would try to anticipate Khan Sahib’s requirements, assisting him with his ailing body and maintaining high standards of care. After many years, it was Mayi, a compassionate devotee of Khan Sahib, who finally persuaded him to begin to teach Pandit Pran Nath, and over time Khan Sahib recognized more and more his sincerity and devotion. Pandit Pran Nath served his teacher by day; by night, in order to avoid disturbing the master, he went off into the surrounding forest to practice his own singing. He slept little and returned in the morning early enough to prepare tea and wait on his teacher. Even under these difficult conditions — or perhaps on account of them — he was able to internalize the finest and deepest aspects of the music. Pandit Pran Nath eventually became one of Kahn Sahib’s chosen disciples and one of his foremost representatives of the Kirana style of Khayal singing.
Along with his intensive tutelage with Khan Sahib, Pandit Pran Nath engaged in other spiritual pursuits. Sometime in his twenties, he entered the life of a naga, or naked mendicant, in an ancient order of Shaivite devotees under the guidance of Guru Vidyaranya Maharaj and more prominently, Shri Mahent Swami Narayan Giriji. He lived in the Tapkeshwar caves in Dehra Dun, observing austerities and practicing singing. He tuned himself to the natural rhythms, the cycles and sounds of nature, using the drone of the stream as his tambura. During this period (from 1937), Pandit Pran Nath also maintained a regular commission to broadcast for All India Radio. Once a month, he would travel from Dehra Dun to perform his radio program in Delhi. Often on his return journey he would go to the house of Khan Sahib in Kirana. One story recounts Pandit Pran Nath’s unfailing devotion to his teacher, in which he offered his entire earnings from his engagements in Delhi at the feet of his master. Before his passing, Khan Sahib directed Pandit Pran Nath to renounce the ascetic life, re-enter the world, marry and bring his music to a wider audience.
Pandit Pran Nath married Rani Suchdev in 1949, settled in Delhi and raised a family of four children. To sustain them he spent long hours traveling by foot and by bus, leaving home in early morning and returning well after dark. He would visit private homes to tutor students, teaching the ragas in their given time of day. He continued singing recitals for All India Radio, and from 1960 to 1970 taught advanced classes in Hindustani vocal music at Delhi University. He was surrounded by a host of admirers coming from many walks of life, including writers, music critics and ardent students. These included Vinod Kumar, Prakesh Wadehra, Uma Vasudev, Shanta Sarbajit Singh, Mohan Rao, Ranna Rao, Dr. Madhav Rao, Sr. Lozarus Bose, Phool Grover, Suchi Bala, Sarin Lila Omchari, Lalita Gupta, Sri Karunamayee, Ranjit Kumar, Sheila Dhar – all who were rebels and pathfinders under the light of Pandit Pran Nath. Although he was recognized by eminent musicians, Pandit Pran Nath emulated his teacher by not succumbing to the politics of professional music circles, and as a result was marginalized in receiving the financial support and full recognition that his music deserved. In a tribute written after Pandit Pran Nath’s passing in 1996, the music critic S.K. Saxena of New Delhi comments on this lack of support and his subsequent acceptance in the West: “Some detractors allege that Pandit Pran Nath left the country only for the sake of money. They forget that scant recognition of one’s merit can be a very disquieting irritant, and that the scrupulous unfolding of the fabric of a raga cannot by itself provide for the basic needs of a family. And how is it fair to ignore the admirable work done, and the impressive honours won by the Pandit as an exponent of our music in foreign lands?”
Sri Shyam Bhatnagar, a spiritual practitioner living in the U.S., had heard Pandit Pran Nath in Dehra Dun many years earlier, and was knowledgeable about the mastery and spiritual content of his music. In 1968, he introduced tapes of Pandit Pran Nath’s singing to American composer, La Monte Young, and visual artist, Marian Zazeela. Young and Zazeela were deeply impressed with the exquisite expression and mastery of Pandit Pran Nath’s singing and worked with Sri Shyam Bhatnagar to organize his first trip to the U.S. They also arranged for a grant from the Cassandra Foundation to help make it possible. When the invitation came to visit the U.S. in 1970, Pandit Pran Nath accepted, hoping for a place where his music would be wholly received in its purity. This opportunity was to serve as his bridge to the West. “
Sound is God,” read the headline of Young’s full-page article in The Village Voice introducing Pandit Pran Nath’s music and historical significance to the U.S. Young and Zazeela became his first American disciples, soon followed by composer Terry Riley who they introduced to Pandit Pran Nath during his first tour to California in 1970. At that time he also met composer/pianist Jordan de la Sierra and jazz musician Alex Dia, who both became his students. In 1972, Young and Zazeela assisted him in establishing the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music in N.Y. Also in ’72, Pandit Pran Nath made his first connections with Sufi devotees, most prominently, Shabda Kahn and composer Allaudin William Mathieu. Shabda Kahn was instrumental in extending Pandit Pran Nath’s contacts with the Sufis across the U.S. It was the combined efforts of Riley, Young, Zazeela and Kahn, that Pandit Pran Nath’s music became established throughout the U.S. and in Europe.
From 1970 through 1974, Pandit Pran Nath shifted his residence between New York, the San Francisco bay area and India. He became a permanent resident of the U.S. in 1972. Eventually he stopped performing for All India Radio and kept in contact with his Indian students during his annual tours in which he would bring students from the west to India. By the early 1980’s, Pandit Pran Nath focused his energies primarily outside of India. He became Artist-In-Residence at the University of California in San Diego in 1973, and from 1973 to 1984, he was Visiting Professor at Mills College in Oakland, California. It was not until 1985 that he made California his permanent residence.
During his twenty-six year residence in the U.S., Pandit Pran Nath’s numerous accomplishments were remarkable. They include a CAPS fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He also received multiple commissions. What is equally impressive is the heart-felt response of his many students. Pandit Pran Nath seemed to reach into the heart, mind and soul of those who met him. He generously taught those who came to him, including the highly accomplished composers, musicians and artists already mentioned, as well as, Dr. John Constant, Jon Hassell, Don Cherry, Lee Konitz, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt and Christer Hennix, to name only a few. However, he also accepted serious novice students who were drawn to the pure sounds of the music and the inner depth of the master himself. Many, as mentioned earlier, were spiritual seekers affiliated with the Sufi path. As composer Terry Riley has remarked, “It was as if Guruji (Pandit Pran Nath) had done all the work and practice and was wholly there for others.”
His lifelong integration of sound and spirituality enriched and transformed the lives of family, friends, devotees, musicians and spiritual seekers. He embodied that sense of eternal peace; that sacred and silent presence at the center of sound, known in India as Nada Brahma. Pandit Pran Nath’s first student initiate and colleague, Sri Karunamayee, has wholly acknowledged his highest attainment in music when she says, “Nada Brahma is what he achieved. He had become the representative point of Brahmic consciousness, which was sustained by his music. Nad is the sound of Brahman. He had become the mouthpiece of that. Unless one is free and really liberated he cannot make that sound. That is the sound of Divine. That is Guruji.” That is his blessing to all of us.