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The unremembered ustad

Ustad Shareef Khan’s death anniversary comes and goes without anyone in Pakistan noticing it. A tribute to a great instrumentalist

The unremembered ustad

Instrumental music, especially from the subcontinent, became very popular in Europe and America during the decade of the 1950s and 60s and some of the Indian instrumentalists like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha raked in plenty of accolades for it and were almost championed as pop stars. The fallout of this popularity was dramatic in India as the ruling classes startedto view their own music as worthy of being listened to, and names were dropped at social gatherings as signs ofbeing truly cultured.

With the abolition of princely states, musicians, especially of classical genres were basically left to wither on the vine. They started to make efforts to reach out to audiences in the west and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar happened to be more adventurous than the rest. Being instrumentalists also helped them, as the absence of words liberates the melody from limitations of language. Lay audiences concentrate too precisely on words to truly imbibe the full impact of the note. Popular vocal music thus is centred round the word, where the language becomes a critical element in this boorish appreciation.

Absence of words in instrumental music thus can be an advantage,and can cross cultures and borders to make an impact sooner than vocal music can.

Unfortunately, both in India and Pakistan the popularity of someone in the west is considered to be the true benchmark of success and value. People here lack the judgement or confidence in assessing the worth of a person’s contribution in whatever field, particularly the arts. When something is received well in the west, people show confidence in it and follow suit, for they can lay it at the door of popular acclaim in international circles and thus absolve themselves of the total responsibility. In Pakistan this is even truer, though the Indians cannot be totally free of this inferiority complex either; the stamp of the West is guarantee of success and acceptability. It was in the counterculture platforms in Europe that the cult of Indian musicians weaved round spirituality was constructed, for it was seen as a trend against the rampant materialism of societies there.

In Pakistan, one only wondered in envy when the instrumentalists from here too would be treated at par with their Indian fellow musicians for they were no less, only that their projection was far from the sophisticated treatment received by the mix of Europeans and Indian agents and managers. It was only with the rise of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that a Pakistani musician was able to create a sustainable mark on the cultural matrix of the west. But that was to happen about two decades later.

For our own sitar maestro Ustad Shareef Khan, the going was much tougher in Pakistan. He established himself as a sitar player before partition but the lukewarm response and lack of appreciation of classical music here made him look for other avenues to make both ends meet. Film was the only platform that could pay him enough to survive and thus continue with his passion of exploring the musical range of both the sitar and the veena. He was initially associated with Pandit Amarnath and after partition he found creative affinity with Khurshid Anwar for whom he played the sitar and veena in numerous compositions.

Ustad Shareef Khan spent long hours mastering the very difficult art of playing the veena. Nobody in his family was a veena player but when he was taunted by the nephew of Ustad Abdul Aziz Beenkar that it was almost impossible to play the vichitra veena he took it up as a challenge. The balance of both the hands,and the techniques for both had immense differences but he switched from one to the other with seeming ease. The graces in particular, the meends so characteristics of the veena found their way when he took to playing the sitar seriously. These meends on the sitar expanded the musical possibilities inherent in the instruments. It can be said without fear of contradiction that no other sitar player has been able to achieve it.

Ustad Shareef Khan was born in Hissar which is now in Haryana in a family of musicians probably in the third decade of the twentieth century. Some of the famous ustads of the past like Qutab Khan, Badal Khan and Qaim Hussain Khan too belonged to same family.After dabbling with the tabla and harmonium, he became a musician at the court of the Maharaja of Poonch. He followed the path tread by his father Ustad Rahim Buksh Khan who too was associated with the state of Poonch, and  according to some was the ustad of the maharaja himself.

A virtuoso himself, Ustad Rahim Khan was from a family of vocalists but had switched to the string instruments and became an outstanding instrumentalist under the tutelage of Ustad Imdad Khan, the grandfather of Ustad Vilayat Khan. Ustad Sharif Khan himself became the shagird of Ustad Inayat Khan, the son of Imdad Khan and hence the father of Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Usually barsis are held to remember and pay tribute to the late musicians but as it has transpired it is only the children or the close relatives who make it possible for the annual event to take place on a regular basis.

Ustad Shareef Khan’s son Ashraf Shareef Khan, a no mean sitar player himself lives in Europe and in his absence no one takes the initiative to remember his great contribution. Since nothing is planned this year too, like so many others, the barsi will pass unsung. Perhaps Alhamra could add the barsis of the famous ustads in its annual programme of events.

Ustad Shareef Khan died 26th May 1980

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Sir I fully agree with you. The fascination with West has totally ruined our very own rich culture. Vilayat Khan and Sharif Khan are definitely the two greatest sitarists of the world but alas people only know the name of Ravi shankar who may have been a great composer but stands nowhere near the two artists as far as Sitar is concerned

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