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Updated: March 13, 2013 14:01 IST
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW

Life’s a long song

ANJANA RAJAN
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Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan. Photo: R.V. Moorthy
The Hindu Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

“My routine is namaz and art, namaz and art, namaz and art…” says Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, the 104-year-old maestro

Hindustani vocalist Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, a took birth. What we can say with the benefit of hindsight — a hundred years’ worth — is that the stalwart of the Gwalior gharana, born on 19 August 1908, was born to sing. What else would explain how the effects of mercury poisoning plotted by a jealous rival took away his fingers, toes and nearly his eyesight, but not his voice? Or how, at 104-plus, his stentorian voice rings out melodiously in concert halls across the country? Or, indeed, how he maintains a busy concert schedule that an artiste half his age would find challenging.

In September, he was to be found enthralling audiences across the subcontinent in Coimbatore. On October 5 he was in New Delhi to perform at the Delhi Classical Music Festival, where many disappointed crowds could not find a place even near the close circuit screen placed in the auditorium lobby for the overflow audience. But, for those who missed that concert, him then, he was back before three weeks were up, to sing for a programme , “Transmissions”, organised by the Indian Women’s Press Corps and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. This is only the skeleton schedule of a vocalist very much in demand and the senior-most guru at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. He says humbly, As he leaves departs for a short rest before his concert, he says, “I am not feeling very well. I have had fever for the last month-and-a-half.” Shocking as it seems, considering his robust singing, it also seems just natural. Here is a man who after a hundred years of practise, ce says, “I still don’t know how to sing.” Patience, forbearance, strength must be constant companions. He speaks in short pithy sentences that are like aphorisms. Deeds and not words are amply in evidence. Excerpts from a chat with the maestro. ustad:

When today’s middle-aged generation was growing up, life in India was simpler. Refrigerators were rare, telephones, a luxury and air conditioners, found only in airline offices. But now these are considered necessities… How can music students find the balance between following a spiritual art such as classical music and living in the modern world?

Yes, the world has changed. But to sing you don’t need anything at all. All you need is a voice! That is the only necessity.

Technology has transformed stage performances with the availability of sensitive microphones…

Yes, nowadays singers sit in front of mikes and sing softly. Without the mike, even the people sitting in front of them would not be able to hear them.

Has this changed the approach to voice culture?

That question should be asked to those who depend on the mike. I never adjusted my voice to suit the microphone.

We hear of great rivalries on stage in the old days. Not only did fellow musicians try to outdo each other, but accompanists also tried to outshine the main musician. This is not the case now…

That’s true, it doesn’t happen now. . Back then, people of similar calibre would perform together. Everyone was fiercely loyal to their gharana and gurus, conscious that they were representing the tradition. With extremely knowledgeable listeners, there could be proper analysis and critique of the music. But today there is a lot of adjustment. The mass audience doesn’t know the finer points of the music. So everything is okay, there is no overt competition (healthy or otherwise).

In 1947 someone tried to poison you…

There was practice during music conferences those days to put musicians of one genre together. Someone had to take me on too. At first no one was ready, but eventually some musicians decided to join. But when two pehlwans (wrestlers) get into the ring, one of them has to be defeated. This is what happened. And one musician felt so jealous of me that he gave me poison (mercury). I lost the use of my hands, my feet. My eyes became weak. The only thing left to me was my voice, miraculously!

On teaching, practice and students today…

I get a lot of students these days who feel that they should start learning today and go on stage tomorrow. Well, it’s not like switching on a machine. What happens is, when you keep at it, eventually you find you communicate directly with Him (hote hote us se seedhi lau lag jaati hai). When I sing, I begin with His name, and when I finish singing too, I use His name. My routine is namaz and art, namaz and art, namaz and art…

At a recent concert, you agreed to perform in a fusion experiment with vocalist Kavitha Krishnamurthy and young violinist Ambi Subramaniam…

Young people are trying out all kinds of things in fusion music. As a member of the old guard, I don’t mind sitting with them and guiding them a bit. The techniques and instruments — tabla, tanpura and harmonium on one hand and electronic instruments on the other — are very different, but both have their good points too.

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