The strings fall silent

Published: Nov 29, 2011, 08:43 IST | Subhash K Jha |

Ustad Sultan Khan was a master exponent of a dying musical instrument feel some, while others say his legacy lives on

Ustad Sultan Khan was a master exponent of a dying musical instrument feel some, while others say his legacy lives on

The strings have fallen silent. Sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan passed away in the city on Sunday afternoon after an illness. In a world where praise is too easily showered and epithets like legends too quickly bestowed, Ustad was a musician who truly deserved all the accolades and awards showered on him. His funeral was held yesterday in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Even that dry desert area seemed to be wet with tears as the music world mourned the passing away of a truly significant artiste.

Taking the sarangi everywhere: Internationally acclaimed sarangi
artiste Ustad Sultan Khan performing at the Beiteddine festival in Lebanon
in 2002. PIC/AFP

Lata Mangeshkar remembers, "My brother Hridaynath and I got him to Mumbai from Baroda where he used to live. Ustad Sultan Khan played the sarangi for many of Hridaynath's compositions, including some that I sang. Most notable among these was Mirza Ghalib. Hridaynath composed Ghalib, I sang and Sultan saab played the sarangi. It was a memorable musical event for all of us. He also used to sing, and very well too � Hridaynath and Sultan saab were very close because they are both pupils of the same Guru, Ustad Amir Khan. They referred to one another as Guru-bandhu."

For Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, his passing away means that his New Year plans will be altered a little. He says, "My sons and I were supposed to perform with Ustad Sultan Khan in January. But I guess God had other plans. His contribution to making the sarangi sound more appealing to listeners was immense. What he did to the tonal quality of the sarangi cannot be replicated in the near future. I had many occasions to perform and to interact with him on a personal level. He was a great artiste and a truly noble soul. He was always encouraging in his attitude towards my sons. I suppose the concert that Ustad Sultan Khan and I were supposed to perform together in January would now become a homage to this great artiste."

For young Ayaan Ali Khan, "Khan Saheb's demise ends an era for the sarangi. What he did for the instrument can never be forgotten. I was fortunate to have received his blessings on numerous occasions. I was very blessed to have him hear me play the sarod many times in Mumbai. Khuda unhe jannat bakshay!" While Amaan Ali Khan says, "The music world has lost the Sultan of the Sarangi. He set an impossibly high standard for all sarangi players to come."

For other musicians, the artiste had become one with his instrument. Says Shankar Mahadevan, "The sound of the sarangi has been muted. His name was the identity of the sarangi. An artiste extremely traditional in playing but extremely modern in approach. We love you, Khan saab."

The news came as a shock to Vishal Bharadwaj who said when asked of his reaction. "I am in Goa and I am in shock. Ustad Sultan Khan was my formal gaathbandh Guru. He actually tied that string on my wrist passing on his legacy to me. Ilaiyaraaja was also Ustad Saab's gaathbandh pupil. He taught me so much about classical music. I'd sit with him for hours, just listening � He played the sarangi in my compositions. Did you hear how the instrument sounded in my song Pani pani re in Maachis? Whenever I've used the sarangi in my compositions, it had Ustad Sultan Khan playing it. Ustad saab was also a very accomplished singer. He sang a beautiful evocative song for me in Maqbool. In his last days he couldn't even get up from bed."

Wajid (of Sajid-Wajid) adds that, "We imbibed so much of his heritage. I think he played a very important in shaping our musical destiny. Our father Ustad Sharafat Ali Khan and Ustad Sultan Khan together composed some songs for films including one  that Asha Bhosleji sang. I don't know what happened to those songs that our father and Ustad Sultan Khan composed. But Sultan saab was a great talent. He always encouraged us. Do you know he is also a singer? He wanted to sing for us! We had to gently remind him that his wonderful voice didn't suit today's heroes. But we were in touch with him till the end. His son Sabir will continue the Ustad's legacy . A sad year for music. We lost Bhupen Hazarika saab and Jagjit Singh saab. Now Ustad is gone �"

Ask Wajid of whether the sarangi is disappearing, and he says it is not yet the time to sing a dirge for the musical instrument. Wajid explains, "It's wrong to say that the sounds of the sarangi are becoming extinct. His son is there and it all depends on the composers. We used the shehnai in Humka Peeni Hai for Dabangg. Ustad Sultan Khan asked us how we managed to use that instrument in such a way. So, you see the legacy of such a master cannot die."

For Adnan Sami, the human being was equal to the master player. Says Sami, "I am shocked. He was a man whose simple stroke from the sarangi could transport us to another world. The tone that he brought to the sarangi was unsurpassable. And he had a great sense of humour. He always nursed a smile and a laugh. He was drenched in 'sur' and spread harmony wherever he went. He was an encyclopedia of musical knowledge and always wanted to experiment with tradition. He was not just young at heart but ever-ready to relate to contemporary sounds. I owe him infinite thanks for being my teacher. God speed, Khan Sahib."

If you do hear a resounding crash, take it that its numerous hearts breaking at the news. Says Salim Merchant, "I feel heartbroken having lost my Guru and my Ustad." For Irshad Kaamil (lyricist Rockstar, Love Aaj Kal), "Ustad Sultan Khan Sahib's dedication and passion for the sarangi unfolded many hidden mysteries of the instrument and gave new dimensions to the tradition of sarangi-vaadan. He will always be an integral part of Hindi film music. I had the good fortune of working with him in my first Hindi album Ustad & The Divas. After that, I worked with him in Jab We Met and Mausam. His demise is a personal loss as in his presence, I always felt blessed to learn something original."

Says Amole Gupte, "I was fortunate to get to interview him for Cinematographers Combine in 2000.What a soul! The voice and strings of the last titan." Sandeep Chowta adds, "The death of the greatest exponent of the sarangi is the biggest loss for the instrument and then for the world. I don't  know of any musician in the world who could  play such a difficult instrument like he did. What a musician!"

Some call him musician, others say he was a magician. Says Vishal Dadlani, "Khan Sahib was a true musician, and a true master. Simple, humble and unassuming, but with a unique and magical sense of melody. A huge loss to music." Prasoon Joshi remembers, "I had  written a song for tsunami relief with him and Zakir Hussain. He was a beautiful human being. He brought the sarangi into popular consciousness. He also had a unique singing style." Maybe, heaven is a good place for those blessed with celestial gifts. That's what Irrfan Khan feels as he says, "Now only God will have the pleasure to hear him sing live. May his soul rest in peace."

For Ram Sampat, "Ustad Sultan Khan exulted in the confluence of Hindustani classical and folk music. He was a soul musician who transcended genres." Lalit Pandit ends, "One of the last veterans of a dying instrument is no more. He was an all-rounded musician. He sang in a robust voice and played the sarangi with soul. The sarangi is a very difficult instrument to learn, the back of your fingers are numbed by the constant friction. Here's saluting the legend."

About the Sarangi

The Sarangi is a short-necked string instrument. It plays an important role in Hindustani classical music tradition. Of all Indian instruments, it is said to most resemble the sound of the human voice �able to imitate vocal ornaments such as gamakas (shakes) and meend (sliding movements). It is also said to be the hardest Indian instrument to master. Carved from a single block of wood, the sarangi has a box-like shape, usually around two-feet long and around half-a-foot wide.

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