The concept of gharana was peculiar to North Indian music. The word “Gharana” literally means “house” and it implies the house of the teacher. It was linked to the very ancient concept of the Guru-Shishya-Parampara (linage of teacher /disciple) but it had some interesting twists.
The names of the gharanas were almost always derived from a geographical location. This was usually the city, district or state that the founder lived in. Two examples are the Gwalior Gharana (vocal) or the Farukhabad Gharana (tabla).
The gharana system as we think of it today was not really very old. Most of the gharanas began not more than 100-300 years old. The modern gharanas were generally traceable to the period when the Mogul empire collapsed.
Gharanas were found throughout the North in every field of dance, vocal and instrumental music. They tend to be distinct among themselves. That is to say that you generally do not find tabla players saying that they are from a vocal gharana or a vocalist claiming to come from a kathak gharana. This is reasonable. One would not expect an accountant to use his golf skills as and endorsement of his abilities as an accountant.
In the professional sense a gharana had some of the characteristics of a guild. It was always understood that tracing ones linage to a major gharana was a prerequisite for obtaining a position in the royal courts. The gharanas were entrusted with the duty of maintaining a certain standard of musicianship.
In the artistic sense the gharana was somewhat comparable to a “style” or “school”. Over the years poor transportation and communication caused the various gharanas to adopt their own particular approach to presentation, technique and repertoire.
In the 20th century the gharana system had a negative impact on the standard of musicianship. Improvements in communications made it a professional imperative for musicians to have as broad of a background as possible. The secretive nature of the gharana system coupled with the fact that gharanas tended to specialize in only one technique or approach was inconsistent with modern pedagogic and professional requirements. In the end of the 20th century, musicians who proclaim loudest that they were “such-and-such” gharana often had the least rounded background. It is for this reason that many of the aspects of this system were abandoned by modern music colleges in India.
Today the gharana exists in its vestigial form. Although musicians routinely declare that they are such and such gharana, it usually has no practical meaning. The loss of royal patronage coupled with the loss of artistic identity have virtually destroyed the system.