Ustad Rashid Khan: ‘I’m reinventing myself constantly’

Complete devotion: Ustad Rashid Khan in concert   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

This year’s Sankat Mochan Music Festival proved yet again why Ustad Rashid Khan’s name is synonymous to a golden voice steeped in intoxicating melody. The star vocalist knows it too, but a formal interview is something which he does not relish at all. However, in a casual mood with friends and family around, Rashid comes up with hilarious yet factual comments based on life’s experiences. A pen-picture of a few incidents collated from many such gatherings gives an insight into the man and his music.

Shakhri Begham, wife of a Sufi singer, hailed from a family of musicians settled in Badaun, a sleepy town in Uttar Pradesh. Her uncle Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan, the torch bearer of Sahaswan gharana, was a name to reckon with. She always wished to raise her two little boys as reputed gavaiya-s like her uncle. But unfortunately she lost her younger son. She could not bear the loss despite the fact that her Rashid, barely four, needed her the most. She died; and left little Rashid overwhelmed with an inexplicable pain and loneliness.

Albeit looked after by his fufi (paternal aunt) and a doting father, the lonesome boy found solace in friends and outdoor games. He got hooked to kabaddi and cricket; so much so that it was difficult to make him sit down with music though everyone in their neighbourhood was aware that he was blessed with a tuneful voice and an extraordinary musical memory. His father was not able to tame this naughty and stubborn six-year old. He took him to the patriarch Nissar Hussain Khan. Rashid was mortally afraid of his authoritarian Nana.

New address

Rashid Khan performing in front of his maternal grandfather Ustad Nisaar Hussain Khan

Rashid Khan performing in front of his maternal grandfather Ustad Nisaar Hussain Khan  

In 1977, invited by Vijay Kichlu, the founder-director of SRA, Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan shifted base to Calcutta as a Guru with the Academy. Rashid vividly remembers how his Nana brought him along as his disciple because by then the boy had learnt the rudiments of ragas like Bhairav, Yaman Puria Dhanashri, Multani, etc. The then New Alipore address of SRA appeared like a jail to the uprooted, lonesome child simply because he had no company except for Appaji (Girija Devi)’s school-going grandson, who would be away the whole day and evenings were dedicated to music. He ended up assisting his Khala (Nana’s caregiver daughter), an excellent cook. Rashid learnt to make kababs, biryani and other delectable delicacies; but even now he accepts whatever is served.

He says he hated music and the rigours associated with it, but fell in love with Appaji’s (Girija Devi) thumris and given a chance, loved to croon some of them along with his favourite Rafi-numbers. Appaji lovingly treated him with her famous ‘chuda-matar’ only to be able to correct the thumris he had picked up by the ear. Initially, ITC officials hailed him as an amazing child-Rafi-clone. Surprisingly, his Nana did not punish him for that! Instead he preferred this ‘chaumukha’ (all-rounder) trait of his disciple.

Maestro at Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay’s SRA quarter in Kolkata

Maestro at Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay’s SRA quarter in Kolkata   | Photo Credit: Picasa

In 1978, SRA found its permanent address in Aldine, a seven-acre property surrounded by lush greenery. Rashid found many friends like Jainul Abedin (disciple of Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan), Raja (son of Arun Bhaduri) here. His happiness knew no bounds, neither his playfulness, even while doing the menial works like pounding coal to fuel the oven of Nana’s kitchen! As such, his Nana would beat him black and blue, make him starve or simply throw him out of the house. Rashid says he took all this in his stride laughingly because he knew that his Nana loved him too; he would raise hell if anyone dared to criticise his music; but one afternoon he broke down. Hungry, tired and lonely, he stood under the mango tree and sobbed like a baby.

Someone noticed from the overlooking windows of the office block. Sunil (Bose) Dadu, the then prefect, took him to his apartment. For two months Rashid refused to go to his Nana. At daytime, he would wander from Ananda Gopal (Bandopadhyay) Chacha’s living room to Arunda’s apartment; from Appaji’s quarter to Ajoy (Chakrabarty) da’s riyaaz. He knew Nana would scold him for this because for them ‘riyaaz sunaana’ (sharing practice) with another vocalist was no less than blasphemy! But, for Rashid, music was a tool to win love and God is witness, he cherishes this the most.

At night, he and several others would sleep in the auditorium in peace, but not before having fun. A great mimic, Rashid would end up imitating a renowned Odissi dancer and almost all SRA elders including Dipali (Nag)di who taught him how to sign his name. Sunil Dadu would wake him up for breakfast. Lunch for SRA employees was on the house. The exceptionally rich audio library was open to students. Rashid would listen to the legends’ recordings. He loved Ustad Amir Khan’s music. “Sunil Dadu, (AT) Kanan Saheb, Kichlu Uncle, Subhra (Guha) didi, (KG) Ginde-ji would share precious compositions with me, stealthily; because Nana was ‘kadak mizaj’ and would resent this.” He, therefore, had whale of a time while Nana nursed his anger. Such occurrences kept repeating and each time it was Kichlu Uncle who came to his rescue and very tactfully pacified Nana.

Kichlu Uncle never imposed any syllabus on SRA scholars. “The gurus were supposed to instil the values of their gharanas in disciples, whose performances were evaluated by a team of non-SRA experts led by eminent musicians,” says Rashid. They appended their views in the carefully preserved log book, backed up by recorded audio clips, which helped track the growth-rate of each scholar. Rashid’s first gradation test was attended by several stalwarts including erudite vocalist Amiya Ranjan Bandopadhyay. Visibly moved by his recital, he put down his pen and said, ‘What can I write after such touching music!’

Rashid remembers how during the in-house Wednesday Recitals, once Nana growled, ‘Dekha! Jainul ne kya kamaal gaya! Laanat hai tum par (did you see how well Jainul sang! Fie on you)!’ Due to the inevitable change of voice Rashid was going through a low. He had to swallow many such comparisons before he decided to turn around. And suddenly, he fell in love with music. Within no time, hugely supported by Kichlu Uncle’s immaculate planning he climbed the ladder of success as a teenaged singing sensation, though to his friends he remained the same prankster who loved to tease, joke and laugh heartily.

Unbridled imagination

With time, musical intelligence and unbridled imagination on his side, his style flowered and flourished naturally. Connoisseurs found it very different from his Nana’s. Critics did not spare him; but his soulful raga renditions moistened the eyes of aficionados, pulled cabbies inside the auditorium in the wee hours of night-long soirees, made laymen stop work and listen to his broadcasts, and inspired aspiring singers to copy his style.

Deprived of formal education, he admired highly educated, beautiful girls and wished to marry one irrespective of cast or creed. In a marriage reception he met Joyeeta (Soma) Basu, a lovely, lively Bengali girl from Guwahati who was studying MBA. Marriage was a mutual and instant decision though Rashid had told her candidly, ‘Mere paas ghumne ka time nahi (I have no time for sauntering) as I give tuitions and stage concerts to earn my livelihood; but I love you!’ The ensuing long phone calls alarmed Nana; he found out and opposed the idea vehemently. Rashid was determined; and at 23, he married his lady love. Fortunately, Soma was able to cast her spell on his Mama (Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan) who became her strong advocate.

The first thing Soma did was, she stopped all tuitions, for she had bigger plans for her ‘Bindass RK’ who was an icon already, thanks to the recorders and the net. Rashid found it impossible to change but tried to accommodate her loving commands. He left his alma mater to be on his own. Governed by a strong sense of gratitude, he offered melodic tributes along with a purse each to Sunil Dadu, Kanan Saheb and several others. Free concerts for buddies are taken for granted because their love and blessings mean a lot to him.

Today, the Ustad admits wholeheartedly that thanks to all the blessings, his achievements have traversed much beyond his mother’s dream that sowed the seed. To immortalise that dream, Soma founded the Shakhri Begham Memorial Trust, initially to organise musicals. Gradually, when they entered the arena of training musicians, their Rashid Khan Academy, with branches in Agartala and Krishna Nagar now, accommodated many veteran and young SRA musicians as faculty.

Khans are blessed with lovely daughters Suha and Shaona, and son Armaan. Soma feels she actually mothers four children among whom Rashid is the most playful and naïve. Surprisingly, on stage and in classroom the 50-year-old transforms completely; firstly because he surrenders himself to the raga and secondly because he carries his Ustad’s ‘izzat’ (honour) and gharana’s mantle. ‘Ustad ki jootiyon ke sadqe (my obeisance to my Ustad) who made me what I am today,’ he reiterates humbly, sitting in the plush office of his Academy. This sparked several pointed questions and the Ustad obliged with his candid, crisp answers.

Do you enjoy singing each time you step on stage?

Not always. It is not possible to think that aaj bahut accha gaaunga. This is a very dicey game. Jaankaar logo mein gaane ka mazaa aur hai, like in SRA. As a scholar I always sang to get an A+ grade, even now in SRA events I sing aiming at hitting a century. But listeners vary at different places. Very rarely I feel that I sang well. My own recordings always sound shallow to me; but by God’s grace, my listeners accept my music.

Why do you change the mukhda (refrain) of khayal compositions?

Bandish ka mazaa lene ke liye (to relish the composition’s beauty) I try to unfurl it. Musicologists make a qeema (mincemeat) of this trait of mine; but I cannot change. Bandish me rahna meri fitrat nahi (accepting bondage is not my cup of tea); it suffocates me; I like to be casual.

Ustad Rashid Khan: ‘I’m reinventing myself constantly’

Are you casual as a performer?

No! Like my family bond, music is very dear to me; moreover music is my profession. For those who come to enjoy music one needs to offer different packaging. Earlier TV sets used to be heavy, now they are slim and light. We need to know how to present the old wine in a new bottle. Though I still sing ati vilambit like Ustad Amir Khan, but my enunciation is clear and duration is less. After all this is an era of 20-20. That way I am reinventing myself constantly.

And as a Guru?

I used to run away from riyaaz. A strict disciplinarian like my Ustad could not tame me till I started liking the subject. I, therefore, know that teaching forcibly does not work; especially today. I never impose my will on my children though I know all are very talented. Suha is into Sufi music. Armaan is learning Hindustani classical music seriously. Fortunately, youngsters come to me attracted by my style; but quite often impatient parents misguide them. I teach earnestly and wish them well in every genre.

Do you expose young students to all forms of music?

Yes, and with good reasons. Though essentially I am a classical vocalist but I grew up with Rafi Saheb’s immortal numbers, Sufi music and thumris too. I enjoy the whistles and farmaaish (encores) like ‘Yaad piya ki aaye’ or ‘Aaoge jab tum’, but avoid singing these before serious classical fans. Frankly, this ‘Jab We Met’ song has given me immense popularity as a singer. Hoards of people come for this song only; but in the process they listen to khayal and gradually develop a taste for raga music.

Is that why you are seen in the commercial circuits now?

Classical and commercial music are different, but they complement each other. It does not mean that I am straying away; whatever I am doing is music. If I share the stage with famed ghazal or jazz singers, if I sing in movies, if my voice is used in serials sneakily – all are related to music. I can never forget that I sang duet with a legend like Pandit Bhimsen Joshiji and that I am rubbing shoulders with great musicians. I am aware of my responsibilities as a classical artiste.

(Ustad Rashid Khan will perform at the 7th International Convention of Spic Macay in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi on June 5.)

Vidushi Manju Sundaram:

Vidushi Manju Sundaram

Vidushi Manju Sundaram   | Photo Credit: Picasa

Each viewing of the duet moves me beyond words. One can make out that both are well-aware of one-another’s prowess. Rashid’s admiration is not loud or casual; it borders devotion – like Hanumanji’s for Ram. Jiss pyaar, mohabbat, tehzeeb se Rashid sang with Bhimsenji, shows how adorable he himself is! This has managed to capture the most beautiful moments of music-making along with related emotions and expressions.

Pandit Vijay Kichlu:

Pandit Vijay Kichlu

Pandit Vijay Kichlu   | Photo Credit: Sushanta Patronobish

Rashid’s is a classic case that proves that geniuses are born to be path-finders.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 8:19:30 PM |

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