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A master of tradition

Mindful of contemporary tastes and a master of tradition, Ustad Raees Khan let his sitar do the talking

A master of tradition
Ustad Raees Khan.

Ustad Raees Khan who died last week was an outstanding sitar player.

He moved to Pakistan in the 1980s from India and eventually settled in Karachi. One of the immediate reasons for the shift was his marriage to Bilqees Khanum. The Indian musical landscape had many outstanding sitar players at that time. It has been said and rightly so that Pakistan was not really able to benefit from his presence as the conditions here were not that conducive for the classical forms.

It is possible that Ustad Raees Khan preferred domestic bliss over the challenging grill for the top spot in the field of sitar; he was happy to play it when invited, otherwise relied on singing ghazals and occasionally composing for films.

That may be a little uncharitable castigation. There are many musicians and vocalists who also have the ability to manage, promote and nurture the impresario streak in them. The Shankar brothers, Udday and Ravi, probably had this ability to create a space for themselves in a world that was moving away from feudal aristocratic patronage to the one that was increasingly being seized upon by business interests and trappings of the market.

Ustad Raees Khan was probably a soul in the classical mould and found himself a little out of synch with the contemporary ethos more than its sensibility. He was an excellent sitar player and probably waited in his house for a knock on his door, rather than venturing forth and fighting to create a place for himself which entails resorting to a series of gimmicks. He kept waiting while the time passed and the best years of his sitar playing more or less were played out in silence.

Like most members of the wider family, he too was an artiste cut in the traditional mould. He was extremely touchy, temperamental and would be too whimsical with his audiences and more so with his promoters. He also needed affirmation of his own greatness from time to time and in the absence of all this, his tempestuous nature worked inwards and started to eat him up.

His credentials were impeccable. In the nineteenth century when Tukoji Rao II became the ruler of Indore in 1844, the legendary Ustad Bande Ali joined his court and had a disciple Wahid Khan who had two sons Majid Khan and Latif Khan, both married into Imdad Khan’s family. Wahid Khan’s grandson from his daughter’s side was Muhammed Khan Beenkar, who married Inayat Khan’s eldest daughter and to them a boy was born in 1939 who was named Raees Khan. Thus the relationship of the Imdad Khani and Indore Gharana has been symbiotic, though he also claimed to belong to the Mewati Gharana.

It only seemed like yesterday when he played to a packed house at the EMI on the Mall, Lahore accompanied by Ustad Tari Khan on the tabla. The audience comprised professional and hereditary musicians very quick to point out a weakness in a vocalist or a musician.

Ustad Raees Khan too has followed the kheyal gaiki ang by transferring the vocal repertoire to sitar. The vocal composition has formed the basis of the gat, the plectrum strokes are played instead of bandish text. As if to prove the point, the sitar players of the Imdad Khani Gharana also break into singing and then play the sitar accordingly. It was quite common to see and hear Ustad Vilayat Khan, especially in his later years, singing and then playing the variations of the same bandish on the sitar. The primary source of music, the vocal repertoire of the kheyal gaiki, was being translated to the sitar repertoire.

If distinction has to be made, the input of the been on the sitar of Raees Khan is relatively more obvious. The been (veena) and its intricacies he inherited from his father and the merging of the two, that is the been and the kheyal repertoire of the Imdad Khani Gharana determined his style and way of playing.

He achieved his prime in India and was given the exulted adulation that greeted an outstanding artiste. He is undoubtedly one of the leading sitar players in the world, and it is sad that the benefits of his presence in Pakistan did not really yield the fruits because the opportunities of playing here have been rather limited. Somehow, the small circle of avid listeners, who could meet the affordability criteria has not really widened.

Ustad Raees Khan was also known to play the ghazal on the sitar keeping in view the contemporary taste in music. His alaap had become shorter than in the past and he moved quicker to the gat and played the variations which may have been more pleasing to the ear of a lay listener.

It only seemed like yesterday when he played to a packed house on the premises of the EMI on the Mall, Lahore accompanied by Ustad Tari Khan on the tabla. The audience comprised the initiated, a great number of professional and hereditary musicians very quick on the cue to point out a deficiency or a weakness in a vocalist or a musician. In such mehfils or baithaks, the general bar of assessment is usually raised very high and then the performance judged accordingly. This also gave Lahore the reputation of being the most difficult city to perform in and to win accolades. In that performance which was of a very high quality, Raees Khan gave a very good example of his virtuosity and most of the critics were of the view that the performance had enhanced his reputation and not tarnished it. They only had praise for him.

It was not clear then but it was supposed to be his announcement for finally having arrived to take up residency in Pakistan.

Though he was busy transferring his skills to his son Farhan Khan, the latter is growing up in a different environment. He has been experimenting and is known to have dabbled with an electric sitar. It is hoped that the widening of his musical expression will result in greater virtuosity and higher levels of creativity.

The article was published under the headline ‘Cut from the classical mould’ in The News on Sunday on May 14, 2017.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Ustad used to frequent foreign trips,so that both his art could be properly showcased and the house could be run. He was very large hearted and instead of the shagirds/friends bestowing gifts on him, he used to arrive in India, with bags full for them be it shoes or pathani suits. Always meticulously dressed, not just for shows, but sitting in the house too. Quite a fashion great and vastly copied in hiss youth by many other greats. Great ideas in music and many of them were showcased in film songs credited to the music directors at that time.

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