Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The oldest vocalist is no more

By Shrinkhla Sahai


The veteran vocalist, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan passed away on 18 February, 2016, at the age of 107. He left behind a rich legacy of music, musings and memories.

When I first met him a few years ago at his residence in Kolkata, I was simply overwhelmed by the fact that he was more than a hundred years old. I wondered what it would be like to see eras pass by like changing seasons, which part of the last century was his heart anchored in, and what would the fading memory still hold dear. The tall expanse of a hundred years was cut short by the tiny stature of Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan as he was carried into the room by his disciples. It was my first brush with living history, infinite wisdom and incomparable experience.

He eyed me rather suspiciously and finally asked sharply, “What do you want?”

I looked unsteadily at his disciple for help. He tried to explain that I wanted to interview him. I had been warned that he could be moody, but I wasn’t prepared for his slicing stare. I ventured, “I want to know about your life, your music, your thoughts on the changing scenario.”

I was cut short as he leaned forward and asked pointedly, “Do you know anything about music?”

“A little,” I replied sheepishly, “But I love the khayal genre and I want to know more. I would also like to know about Rasan Piya.”

I could see him softening up at the sound of his pen-name. Though known primarily as a vocalist, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan was also a prolific composer, with many compositions under the nom-de-plume Rasan Piya.

He attributed his interest in composition to his ancestor, Ustad Chand Khan, who was fluent in Brajbhasha and wrote several thumris. Hailing from the legacy of Miyan Tansen through his second son Suratsen, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan was an expert in the nuances of the full-throated ashtang gayaki (eight-fold style vocalism) of the Gwalior gharana.

“I have spent my entire life doing music. But I still know only a bit about it,” he said with a chuckle. His Socratic reply put me at ease. In the course of our conversation I realised that humility and humour were his hallmark.

He held out his clipped fingers, “They tried to poison me. My fingers died. My voice almost vanished. But I didn’t stop singing.” This one statement condensed the driving force of his life, his passion for music and his undying conviction. At his performance in Delhi last year, I sensed the same spirited devotion to the art and the determination to bounce back. A severe coughing bout on stage in the middle of a composition almost knocked him out as he fell backward. Stunned silence from the audience and his disciples was broken enthusiastically by the musician as he belted out another set of thunderous taans, totally unfazed by his failing health.

His foray into music was also defined by the same undaunted focus. He narrated a ‘tragic turning point’ when his elder cousin Babban Khan had gone for a mehfil, “I was also with him and when he was performing I just couldn’t contain myself and started singing along with him. I was scolded severely and told not to ‘ruin the music.’ At that time, I would have preferred to have been shot in the heart rather than listen to those insulting words. I decided I would learn and study music and then show my potential. My taleem went on for 22 years.” His father (Ustad Chand Yusuf Khan) had sent him to train in stitching clothes as he did not see any musical potential in the boy. But eventually his son’s strong desire to follow the path of music managed to dent his disappointment as he took charge of his musical training.

Khan sahib had an uncanny ability to morph into the mood of the moment. His features transformed into child-like reverence at the memory of being complimented by the charismatic Ustad Faiyaz Khan at the All India Radio studio as a young boy. He also recalled with vehemence the attack on him during his days as the court musician.

Recalling the days of royal patronage, he described the frequent competitions between musicians who improvised and used their musical virtuosity to defeat their rivals. “My competitor knew he would never be able to win. Somehow he gained  access to the place where I was staying and had my food poisoned.”

Adventurous tales of the royal court days merged into inconsolable nostalgia for a world fast fading into history, “There are many people  who sing well, but for music to be effective, it must have ‘asar’, ‘taseer’,  to touch the listener. That has become rare. For that you need the blessings of your guru, sensitivity towards the world and sincerity towards your art.”

With over two decades as a guru at ITC Sangeet Research Academy, he had a large number of students who affectionately called him ‘Baba’. 

As another name joins the annals of music history, we shall remember the twinkle in the eye, the trembling hands and the steady voice; a century of strength and song that lies silent now.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome write up as usual Shrinkhla!! Keep it up!! It must have been a rare experience to interview such a living legend!!