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Hands that sang a soulful song

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‘A call to Eshwar': Ustad Sultan Khan performing at a concert.
‘A call to Eshwar': Ustad Sultan Khan performing at a concert.

His first solo sarangi concert was at the age of 11. An age when most children just about learn to hold their pens properly. He became a household name at the age of 60. An age when most people call it a day. That's the story of Ustad Sultan Khan, the unparalleled sarangiya, who unfortunately has wider acclaim in the West than among his countrymen. It is rather strange that this disciple of Pandit Ram Narayan — one of the finest exponents of the sarangi — who has been at the sarangi for over five decades now, shot to fame for his unusual voice. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam gave a surprise twist to the career of the legendary musician when he so beautifully sang “Albela Saajan Ayo Re.” Soon followed the haunting “Piya Basanti Re.” And the Ustad, whose honeyed voice catches very subtle negotiations effortlessly, had launched himself as one-of-a-kind singer. From the hallowed domains of the classical music he had moved on to mainstream overnight.

The earliest memories of sarangi for this eighth-generation musician go back to his cradle days. He loved kusti and football, but couldn't help becoming a sarangiya, because that was his sole passion. Ustad Sultan Khan grew up listening to a lot of music. His father Ustad Gulab Khan was both a sarangiya and a vocalist. And Ustad Sultan Khan too was trained in both. However, his father wasn't too keen that his son take up music as his profession, for he feared he would have to sleep hungry. But the young Sultan Khan was determined.

Growing-up years had generous servings of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Omkarnath Takur, Fayyaz Khan, and Siddeshwari Devi. One can recognise elements of various gharanas in his music today. The Ustad has even brought out an album on the three gharanas that have inspired him the most. In this unique album, he has played three ragas in the style of three gharanas — the Agra gharana (Fayyaz Khan), Patiala gharana (Bade Ghulam Ali Khan), and Indore gharana (Ustad Amir Khan).

But has Ustad Amir Khan saab inspired him the most? Isn't his music laced by many Amir Khani graces? “He was my biggest icon. My ideal. His badhat, taan patterns, and sargams used to impress me a great deal.” What impressed him more was the bhakti element in Amir Khan's music. And he insists that without an element of spirituality, no music is complete. “Every note I play is a call to Eshwar.”

(Excerpted from ‘A sarangiya's song' by Deepa Ganesh, first published in The Hindu on January 5, 2005.)


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