Sitar exponent Pandit Ravi Shankar would become a global sensation through his collaborations with George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin, and his Woodstock performance among others with tabla legend Ustad Allah Rakha. Ustad Vilayat Khan’s gayaki ang would go on to charm the world. But before all that, a 1959 concert at the US Consulate in the Capital breathed a new dimension into the world of sitar.
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Mumbai-based Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, then 32, and much younger than Shankar and Khan, played alongside legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. Khan matched his strings to Brubeck’s refined key structures, the harmony of the piano melded with the resplendent strains of the sitar and were punctuated by tabla rhythms from Pandit Nikhil Ghosh. But the sitar renditions were nothing that the audience was used to in the country. It was different from the Shankar’s improvised tantrakaari (virtuosity) and the vocal style of Vilayat Khan.
Ustad Halim Jaffer Khan brought his own techniques to the sitar, which when compiled together, were given the name Jafferkhani baaj (playing style). “He didn’t play the long alaap because he thought no one had the time for it. He played the jod alaap, a relatively faster version of a raga’s opening. Then there was the echo effect in the beginning along with techniques such as Gat bharan and Uchhat ladi, the latter being a style where a single matra can be broken into 16 parts. This was unique in the world of sitar and Indian classical music,” says Zunain Khan, Khan’s son.
Khan’s distinction as a sitar player lay in his musicianship. He was the last luminary in the famed trinity of sitar that comprised Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Khan passed away at his Bandra residence on Wednesday. He was 89.
Sitar player Pandit Nayan Ghosh, son of Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, called the musician’s demise the end of an era. “I can never get over his sense of precision and rationality even during his last moments. The things he remembered from the times gone by were amazing. Of course he was a great musician, but beyond that, a fine human being. Unlike other classical musicians Khan’s sense of humour could make you fall off your chair. He was my father’s friend, but he made you feel like he was your contemporary. His demise has ended that iconic generation of sitar players,” says Ghosh about Khan, who was awarded a Padma Shri in 1970 and Padma Bhushan in 2006.
Born in Jaora, Madhya Pradesh, Khan learnt under the Beenkar gharana of Indore and from his father, Jaffer Khan. His family moved to Mumbai, and a talented Khan became an All India Radio artiste in the ’40s, who performed across the country. Soon his ideas and innovations made north Indian audiences familiar with Carnatic ragas. He rendered them with Hindustani sensibilities, and also composed and played for Hindi films, thus making his contribution to the Hindi cinema extremely significant. K Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960) showed the hallmark of his brilliance. Khan’s sitar riffs recorded the angst of a lover as Anarkali entered Akbar’s royal court. Brought in on a taraana, sung by Ustad Hafeez Ahmed Khan and Niaz Ahmed Khan, Lata Mangeshkar’s iconic Pyar kiya toh darna kya in raag Gara would etch the song forever in the minds and hearts of its audience.
This was at a time when classical musicians were averse to be a part of film projects. Composers like Naushad had to coax legends like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to be a part of his film projects. Khan’s pieces in Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959), where he collaborated with Ustad Bismillah Khan, Kohinoor (1960), Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955) and Anarkali (1953) found a unique status and much popularity. “He was a progressive artiste. Those were earlier days and classical musicians liked to be purists and slightly closed-minded. However, he was extremely open to experimenting with music in films,” says Ghosh.
Khan’s popularity remained limited to the connoisseurs of classical music, and didn’t pass down to the masses. This was despite his contribution to Hindi film music and regular performances at the most prestigious music festivals in the country. Many attribute that to the fact that Khan wasn’t a flamboyant artiste. He was a simple man, who played his music and went home. He laughed with his friends, and didn’t have an aura around his personality. “At a time when the world only recognised the styles of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan, Khan’s hours of practice resulted in a new style. Many liked it, many didn’t. Probably he didn’t travel as much, or didn’t want to travel, or probably adulation didn’t interest him. Those permutations and combinations of sound he created were very interesting, something we hadn’t heard before,” says sitar player Ustad Shujaat Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s son.