Born to a cultured family in Lahore, Pran
Nath grew up in an atmosphere of live performances of the masters of
traditional vocal music. Illustrious 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 has since performed 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 have come 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 have 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 and Rhys Chatham, new-age pianists Michael Harrison and Allaudin Mathieu, 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 has contributed many innovations to the design of the tambura. His special unvarnished "Pandit Pran Nath style" tamburas have achieved worldwide recognition. He has designed a continuous drone instrument based on the tuning fork, the Prana Nada.
His numerous awards include CAPS, Guggenheim and NEA grants to continue his work in composition in the Kirana style of Indian classical music. From 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 has 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 ragas.
In 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, has been telecast on WNET and other public TV stations. A VHS edition of the video documentary is now available from MELA Foundation, as well as his renditions of Ragas Todi and Darbari, featured on the Gramavision/Great Northern Arts recording, Ragas of Morning and Night, a 1986 New York Times Top Ten Critics Choice.
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.