Classical music stalwart Ustad Imrat Khan, who dedicated his life to promoting the sitar and the surbahar worldwide, has died in the U.S. after a brief illness, his son said on Friday. He was 83.
Ustad Imrat Khan breathed his last on Thursday in a hospital in St. Louis, his home for over two decades, after a stroke, his son Nishat Khan said. “He had developed pneumonia. He was in hospital for a week. He had a stroke last night. He had not been keeping well for the last few months,” Nishat, a sitarist of repute himself, said before leaving for the U.S.
The funeral will take place on Saturday, he added.
Ustad Imrat Khan, who famously turned down the Padma Shri last year saying the recognition had come too late and diminished his achievements, belonged to the illustrious Etawa gharana, or the Imdadkhani Gharana, named after his grandfather Ustad Imdad Khan. His elder brother was Ustad Vilayat Khan.
The gharana, one of the oldest in India with a musical legacy of over 400 years, traces its roots to Agra. The family later moved to Etawa before finally settling down in Kolkata with Ustad Inayat Khan, Imrat Khan’s father. The family is credited with developing the musical instrument surbahar, a stringed instrument that is sometimes called the “bass sitar”.
Ustad Imrat Khan toured the world with his music and performed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970 for a Merchant-Ivory partnership. He was also a regular at various music festivals in India.
Calling his father one of the greatest surbarhar players of his time, Nishat said his father carried forward the country and the family’s heritage till the very end. “He was my guru, mentor, teacher and father. He was a great philosopher, an evangelist for music. He really carried forward the heritage of Indian classical music all over the world to the very end of his life,” he said.
One of the big disappointments of his life was not being recognised for his musical contributions by the government even when his students and juniors were given the Padma awards. Refusing the Padma Shri was not a matter of self-aggrandisement but “an issue of propriety”, he told PTI in an interview in February last year.
Having performed with stalwarts like his brother as well as Ustad Bismillah Khan, Ustad Amedjan Thirakwa Khan and Pandit V.G. Jog, Ustad Imrat Khan said he did not want to compromise this legacy by accepting the award.
“My music has been the centre-stage of my life and I have put it on the highest pedestal with a lifetime of devotion to its art, refusing any form of corruption to its form and essence. I do not expect at this moment in my life that my devotion and contributions be diminished to a level lower than my followers, students and sons - by age or reputation,” he had told PTI.
He said he had never compromised in his life. “Why should I compromise now when this award presented to me is not parallel to my worldwide reputation and contributions in the name of the pure arts and culture of India?”
Nishat said his father was “heartbroken” when his name was announced as a Padma Shri winner. “He was so disappointed that the award was being given to him when even his juniors were awarded with the Padma Shri. He was really sad and heartbroken about it. It’s an ‘anyay (injustice) that the government could not see his contribution to Indian classical music,” Nishat said.