A great mascot of the instrument, Ustad Sultan Khan transcended the caste system in music, says Arunabha Deb
IMMORTAL” is how vocalist Pandit Vijay Kichlu describes Ustad Sultan Khan. There is no doubt that, after Pandit Ram Narayan, Khan was the greatest ambassador of the sarangi. The usual talk of a ‘void’ with the passing away of maestros is often uncalled for, but Khan’s death on 27 November does leave the sarangi without any shining star. (Narayan, now 84, rarely performs anymore.)
In the past decade or so, the media has frequently associated Khan with Bollywood and other popular genres. All sarangi players have to necessarily train in vocal music; it wasn’t really a surprise that Khan was a competent singer. His husk, of course, had a charm of its own and since his rendition of the traditional bandish in Raaga Ahir Bhairav (Albela Sajan) in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, he found immense success as a vocalist in the film and popular music industries.
But assessing Khan in that context is really giving precedence to his secondary identity. He was, above all, a sarangi maestro who wove the influences of several khayal gharanas to develop a unique style of solo sarangi playing. He initially trained under his father, Ustad Gulab Khan, who hailed from Sikar in Rajasthan. Later, they both spent substantial time in Jodhpur, until Ustad Sultan Khan moved to Rajkot with an All India Radio job as a sarangi accompanist. Khan’s final abode was Mumbai, where he spent almost his entire working life.
As an accompanist, he played with virtually every great vocalist of the golden era, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan included. He was so taken in by Ustad Amir Khan’s singing that he eventually became aganda bandh disciple of the vocal legend. The Indore gharana elements that were intrinsic to Ustad Amir Khan’s gayaki found faithful expression on the sarangi. Tabla and sitar maestro Pandit Nayan Ghosh points out that Ustad Sultan Khan was also influenced by the Agra style. “He spent a lot of time with Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan (a great exponent of Agra) in Bombay. That was a significant source of influence,” he says. Vijay Kichlu, a disciple of Ustad Latafat Hussain confirms this and adds, “It was because he had accompanied maestros from all gharanas, he was able to take the attractive elements of all these gharanas and come up with a colourful style of solo sarangi.”
Khan’s friendship with Ustad Zakir Hussain was well known; over the years, it was this association that brought Khan international repute, both as a soloist and as a prominent figure in collaborative music. He was uncharacteristically open minded for a musician born in 1940; he played with varied forms of music from across the world and as Kichlu says, “He was so full of humour and affection that he was a favourite with all musicians.”
His spiritual quest led him to become a mureed (follower) of the Sufi saint Bareilly Sharif Pir Hasni Mia Sahab. “Whenever Mia Sahab came to Bombay, he stayed with him (Khan),” says Ghosh. His spiritual persuasion was at one with his philosophy in music: be it as a soloist weaving different gharanas or as a world musician collaborating with artistes from other cultures, he essentially believed in embracing music with love and without prejudice.