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A Musician’s Musician

Why Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan didn’t make the pantheon

Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan death, Sitar maestro, sitar maestro Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, Sitar maestro death, Mughal-e-Azam, Mughal-e-Azam film, music, india music, music in India, Pandit Bhimsen joshi, VV Giri, Hindustani classical music, classical music, George Bernard Shaw, india news, indian express news Music Director Naushad Ali, Dr Sushila Rani Patel and Sitarist Ustad Abdul Halim Jafar Khan at the musical event. (Source: Express archive photo)

Why Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, sitar maestro who passed away on January 4, did not quite make it to the highest
pantheon of Hindustani greats is a question that perplexes many music aficionados. Here was a genius who invented a whole new way of playing the instrument. A technician who, along with Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan, is considered part of the sitar triumvirate. An intriguing personality who played with the jazz musician Dave Bruebeck. And a man whose talent still resonates with the lay public through films like Mughal-e-Azam.

The lack of popular acclaim certainly gnawed at Khan sahib. He would occasionally point to the grey 1970 V.V. Giri-signed Padma Shri and the white 2006 Abdul Kalam-signed Padma Bhushan that adorned his drawing room. The former honour, he would say, was given to him before Pandit Bhimsen Joshi got it; the latter after many musicians whom he had seen in their knickers had already got Padma Vibhushans.

The received wisdom was his hearing had failed him and his music had gradually deteriorated. He himself would philosophically say that flowers give their scent everywhere but only one is plucked, wedged to the ear and smelt by a king.

Perhaps, however, the primary reason behind his lack of celebrity status lies in his music itself. Khan sahib was an original and, as a consequence, unorthodox. His Jaffekhani Baaz is founded on splitting a single beat into a filigree of several notes using techniques that no one had used before. His family tradition of playing the been was the inspiration. He didn’t believe in lulling the audience into a sonorous aalap since he thought that the sitar was ill suited for it. He didn’t believe in gharanas; note and beat, he would say, are the only two gharanas that matter. He didn’t believe at all in the primacy of Hindustani classical music — I have heard him play Mozart’s Sonata 16 on the piano on the one hand and on the other talk in raptures about beat creativity in Hindi film music.

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As a result his music didn’t fit the conventional format of Hindustani classical music. His trademark ragas like Pahadi were often light, his aalap short, and his long pauses in the middle of a piece uncomfortable for a lay listener. When he did conform to the traditional mores of Hindustani music like in his 1968 recording of Raga Abhogi, the results are both breathtaking and palatable. One can hear the audience gasp at a few points during his chaap ka ang and meend, staples of the Jafferkhani Baaz. But more often than not Khan sahib was an acquired taste.

Unfortunately, Khan sahib was unable to establish himself as an avant garde artist either. Hindustani music is for one not adequately theorised. Unlike the artist K.G. Subramanyan or singer Kumar Gandharva, he was not politically sensitive and was therefore unable to appeal to the larger western educated world. He was probably more like the artist Bhupen Khakhar, whose art like Khan sahib’s music is born of a noisy, colourful urban milieu very far removed from the classical. Unlike Khakhar, Khan sahib did not have a Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh who could chisel his genius into wider acclaim.

But these matters were of fleeting importance to Khan sahib. The hissing of the street vendor’s batata wada, the synchronous slurping of tea when we would drink it together, the splash of his spit in the rakabi (spittoon) and the incessant but rhythmic sounds of the horns on a hot Bombay day were what occupied his mind. When he was not creating music, that is.


He would occasionally pepper the melody of his happy existence with off notes — rancour, anger, some envy. But he was quick to recover. After all, as he would remind us with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, “A lifetime of happiness! No man could bear it; it would be hell on earth.”

It is fortunate that the flower was not plucked for a king. It can live on quietly in the forest. When we want to smell it, we can take the effort to find it.


First published on: 06-01-2017 at 12:01:52 am
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