Born to a cultured family in Lahore, Pran Nath grew up
in an atmosphere of live performances of the masters of traditional vocal
musicians were invited by his grandfather to perform at their family home
every evening. He
was singing by the age of six and before long decided, against his
mother's wishes, to devote his life to music. He left home at age
thirteen and studied for twenty years as a disciple of Ustad Abdul Wahid
Khan, the foremost master of the Kirana gharana, which descends
from Gopal Nayak (ca. 1300), and is also known as the style of
Krishna. Pran Nath's performances on All India Radio since 1937 and
at Music Conferences throughout India established his reputation as a
leading interpreter of Kirana style with an exceptional knowledge of
traditional compositions and the delineation of raga.
His uncompromising adherence to the authentic
rendering of the traditional ragas and his unwillingness to change
his style to meet modern tastes for rhythmic and popular elements
contributed to his reputation as a "musician's musician"
credited with a voluminous knowledge of hundreds of ragas and
several times as many compositions. Many well-known professional
singers, including Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan and Bhimsen Joshi, came to
him to perfect their understanding of particular ragas. From
1960 through 1970 he taught the advanced classes in Hindustani vocal music
at Delhi University.
Pandit Pran Nath's first appearance in the West in
1970 essentially introduced the vocal tradition of Hindustani classical
music to the U.S. He performed hundreds of concerts throughout
America, as well as in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Iran and France,
becoming the most influential exponent of the Kirana style. His 1971
morning performance at Town Hall, New York City was the first concert of
Morning Ragas to be presented in the U.S.
Subsequently, he introduced and elaborated to Western audiences the
concept of performing ragas at the proper time of day by scheduling
entire series of concerts at special hours. Many students and
professional musicians came to him in America to learn about the vast
system of raga and to improve their musicianship.
Pran Nath's majestic expositions of the slow alap
sections of ragas combined with his emphasis on perfect intonation
and the clear evocation of mood had a profound impact on Western
contemporary composers and performers. Minimalist music founders
La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and the calligraphic light artist
Marian Zazeela became his first American disciples.
Fourth-world trumpeter Jon Hassell, jazz all‑stars Don Cherry
and Lee Konitz, composers Jon Gibson, Yoshimasa Wada, Rhys Chatham,
Michael Harrison and Allaudin Mathieu, Sufi Pir Shabda Kahn, mathematician
Christer Hennix, concept artist Henry Flynt, dancer Simone Forti, and many
others took the opportunity to study with the master.
In 1972, he established his school in New York City,
the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music; in 1973, he was Artist‑in‑Residence
at the University of California at San Diego and from 1973‑1984, was
Visiting Professor of Music at Mills College, Oakland, California.
Pran Nath contributed many innovations to the design of the tambura.
His special natural finish "Pandit Pran Nath style" tamburas have achieved worldwide recognition.
He also designed a continuous drone instrument based on the tuning
fork, the Prana Nada.
The La Monte Young / Marian Zazeela Just Dreams release, The
Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath (JD001), features two of the “Pandit
Pran Nath style” concert tamburas, and the accompanying program
booklet describes the development of his tambura designs and the Prana
Nadas in detail.
He received numerous awards to continue his work in
composition in the Kirana style of Indian classical music. He
composed “Hari Tero Nam” in Raga Anant Bhairavi under a CAPS
grant; ”Hey Giradhara Gopala Lal”
in Raga Asavari Todi under the Guggenheim Fellowship; and ”Dira
dira ta na” in Raga 12-Note Bhairavi under the NEA grant.
1975 through 1985, the Dia Art Foundation, in cooperation with the Kirana
Center for Indian Classical Music, presented frequent concerts of Pandit
Pran Nath's work.
From 1977 through 1985, Pran Nath held a commission from Dia Art
Foundation to establish a performing, teaching and archival facility for
the presentation and preservation of the Kirana tradition. He held
commissions from the Pellizzi Foundation, Dia Art Foundation and MELA
Foundation to perform and record an archive of the Kirana style of Indian
classical music, including the six major raga. Under
the Pellizzi Foundation Commission he revived the lost Raga Dipak
and composed ”Jaga maga jyota jarey mandir
meyn” set in this ancient raga.
1987, under a commission from MELA Foundation, with funding from the New
York State Council on the Arts, Pandit Pran Nath composed "Darbar
daoun" set in the classical Raga Darbari.
In 1989, he received a commission from the Kronos Quartet to create
a new work for voice and string quartet.
This work, Aba Kee Tayk Hamaree, was recorded by Kronos with
Pandit Pran Nath, voice, and released in 1993 on their Elektra Nonesuch
album, Short Stories (79310-2, 4).
In Between the Notes, a video documentary on his life and
work, produced by the California College of the Performing Arts, was
telecast on WNET and other public TV stations.
A VHS edition of this 30-minute video documentary is available from
MELA Foundation. His
renditions of Ragas Todi and Darbari were featured on the
Gramavision / Great Northern Arts recording, Ragas of Morning and
Night, a 1986 New York Times Top Ten Critics Choice.
In 2002, Just Dreams released the double CD Midnight:Raga
Malkauns, featuring a 1971 live performance and a 1976
studio performance of the same raga and the same compositions.
After becoming a permanent resident of the U.S. in 1972, Pandit Pran Nath returned to India almost every year with groups of American and European disciples and students who wanted to study his music in the land of its origin. From 1992 through 1996, he led master classes in India for several weeks annually. He performed and taught in Bremen, Germany in 1995, and in Paris, France in 1996. He inaugurated the MELA Foundation New York Dream House in November 1993 with three Raga Cycle concerts. On May 12 and 17, 1996, his two Raga Cycle concerts of Afternoon and Evening Ragas in the Dream House were his last public performances. He returned to Berkeley, California, and for the next 27 days he continued to teach several students daily, in the last days, even from his hospital bed, with a final telephone lesson in Raga Darbari just a few hours before he died of congestive heart failure and complications of Parkinson's disease at 6:26 PM, June 13, 1996. His work is continued by The Pandit Pran Nath Musical Composition Trust under the directorship of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela and by his many disciples who have established his centers throughout the U.S., Canada and India.