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Player of a cult instrument

Barsi of Ustad Sharif Khan

Player of a cult instrument
Beginning his career with Ravi Shankar, he remained relatively unknown.

The progeny of famous persons are routinely criticised each time they hold programmes to celebrate the fame and fortune of their elders or ancestors. It is often said they enhance their own stature and gain political/cultural capital by advancing the cause of their family.

There may be some truth in all these castigations but it is equally true that it is mostly the family that remembers and recalls the deeds of their fathers and forefathers in our society. People at large and institutions in general do not really bother about such occasions for they are either bogged down by inertia or busy in furthering the agendas of those running such institutions.

Many outstanding figures have been forgotten because they did not have family or well-heeled friends to keep their name and contribution alive.

As long as Tony (Ashraf Sharif Khan), the son of Ustad Sharif Khan Tony was in Pakistan, the barsi of the Ustad was held intermittently. But as years rolled by, it has become rarer. In the beginning, the family and friends got together to hold the barsi in a big way, equal to the stature of the artiste himself but since Ashraf Sharif left the country the day usually passes unnoticed.

It is also sad because the barsis of musicians are occasions for other practitioners to perform as well. An institution rooted in tradition, it also offers a continuum of sorts between the ustad and the prevalent forms of music and their practitioners. Thus the names of those who contributed are not consigned to the dusty leaves of history but are kept afresh for inspiration and motivation.

Ustad Sharif Khan passed away 24 years ago in the month of May. It was an end to a life that was artistically very enriching but economically very harsh.

These few words, one can say, sum up the life story of most of the artistes in the country, especially those who have been associated with classical forms of music. The change in pattern of patronage and the massive migration of population at partition was so drastic and sudden that these artistes or relevant institutions did not have the time to adjust to the changing realities of the new society.

Sitar as an instrument was given recognition internationally by the likes of Ravi Shankar in the 1950s. Soon it assumed the status of a ‘cult instrument’, if the expression can be used for an instrument and not a person or a movement. And as it has happened so many times in the subcontinent, the recognition by the West is taken as almost divine sanction to embrace something that is our very own.

Sitar then became the symbol of Indian culture and in Pakistan these cultural types who spare no moment in emulating cultural practices, icons and cults of bigger powers took to forcing their children, boys and girls to become sitar players not with a truly professional intent but only to acquire a social grace. And if someone landed up in the United States, a potential internee in the Academy/Baithak of Ravi Shanker and Ali Akbar Khan, the first question they would be asked by them was why they had travelled thousands of miles, spending thousands of dollars for sitar apprenticeship when they had a great sitar player in their own midst, meaning Ustad Sharif Khan.

And obviously very few at home had heard his name or even less his sitar. He only played on the radio and occasionally some public platform conducive to promoting classical musical forms. All this being extremely niche was limited to a select few. And for a living, he journeyed to the film studios to play a prelude, an interlude for songs or a background score for the entire film.

Everyone seemed to know the name of the vocalists, yet few knew the name of the composers, while the names of the musicians in the orchestra were not even meant to be mentioned. They were the nameless and faceless many who appeared when a song was to be recorded or played and then faded away as if they did not exist. Their names were not supposed to be remembered and recalled, their faces not meant to be recognised.

Sharif Khan spent his days and nights in such faceless and nameless company and the people of the country could not be blamed entirely for not remembering the name of their leading sitar player.

But Ravi Shankar did not forget for he had begun his career almost at the same time as Sharif Khan. Both had played together in one concert in Lahore just before partition and those present at the YMCA Hall still recall the promise hidden in the playing of the two young sitar players. Ravi Shankar embracing stardom and international fame wondered what had happened to the young sitar player from Pakistan who had shown equal promise but was not perhaps given equal exposure.

Ustad Sharif Khan was born in Hisar which is now in Haryana probably in the third decade of the 20th century and after dabbling with the tabla and harmonium became a musician at the court of the Maharaja of Poonch. He followed the path treaded by his father Ustad Rahim Bukhsh 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 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.

Ustad Sharif Khan also played the veena like no other ustad could and he married the ang of the veena with the ang of the sitar. And this was his original contribution besides exploring the raag on the sitar in mandaristan (lower octave).

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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