Mellifluous harmony

At 105, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, recently awarded the Padma Bhushan, is the oldest performer in Hindustani music

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

It was a packed house at the amphitheatre of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi when the 105-year-old Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, brought in a wheelchair onto the stage, sang his self-composed bandish. Despite the physical frailty, his voice mesmerised the audience. The performance was part of the Jashn-e-Khusrau festival, organised by Aga Khan Trust for Culture which has been involved in the conservation and restoration of several monuments around Nizamuddin including Humayun’s Tomb and Chausath Khamba in Nizamuddin Basti. This urban renewal initiative links conservation of the built heritage with programmes to improve the quality of life for local communities. Many classical and Sufi singers including Tahera Syed from Pakistan converged for this two week-long festival. 

“Baba, even at this age you manage to perform for two hours?” I asked him. “I performed for two-and-a-half hours,” he corrected me. “Once I make up my mind, two or three hours of performance is not an issue. It is never a hard task.” 

A vocalist whose career spans almost seven decades (he was allowed to perform publicly only when he was nearly 40), the Ustad is the oldest performer in Hindustani music. He is a composer too, with more than 2,500 (perhaps more, as he says, he has lost count) bandishes that he has written under the pen name of ‘Rasan Piya’. “I started very young, when I was seven,” he recalls, his voice quavering. “My talim continued for 22 years.” An exponent of the Gwalior gharana, he traces his lineage to Ustad Behram Khan, said to be among the founding fathers of the Dagarbani style of dhrupad. He received most of his talim from his uncle, Ustad Bade Yusuf Khan, and father, Chote Yusuf Khan. 

“Those were different times,” he says. “There was an altogether different relationship between the guru and his disciple. The disciple was allowed to leave only after he was considered worthy of doing something on his own, after his skills saw some level of accomplishment and perfection.” Today, he laments, everyone wants to run on steroids, everyone wants a quickfix. “Now, when people come to an ustad, they think they should be able to learn in a day and be ready to perform the next day,” he says. But a disciple should undergo eight to nine years of rigorous riyaaz and learning before he can expose himself to an audience.  “There are not many such institutions and not many teachers who would take the pain of honing their students, trying to make them as good as themselves, perhaps even better. The Sangeet Research Academy is the only one,” he says. As for his own students, the Ustad has lost count. 

Legendary for his versatility, singing the khayal, dhrupad, thumri and dadra forms with equal ease, and an unmatched stamina and love for music, he still performs 10 times a month. “Last year, in Bhubaneswar, he did three shows in a day,” says tabla player Bilal Khan, his grandson. “Once you cross 55, there is difficulty in singing. Wrestlers can’t fight at 50. They open their langot (the traditional wrestling trunks). Qudrat keeps me going,” says the Ustad.  

One thing that upsets him is modern Bollywood music. “The music should be in sur. It should adhere to the tenets of Sa Re Ga Ma...whether it’s classical or modern,” he says. “Earlier, the filmmakers would ensure that the entire music of a film was based on a single raga. Now, they mix four or five ragas.” It is his faith in Allah that is at the root of his success. “When I go onstage, I only remember Him,” he says. “I don’t get how some mullahs can say that music is anti-Islam. When you read the Quran, you do it in qirat. Isn’t that also in sur?” 

The recent Padma Bhushan is the latest of a host of awards over a long career. He doesn’t complain that it has come a tad late.“It is their will. The government must have forgotten. Now they remembered,” he says. “I need to rest. I have to go to Agra for a series of concerts in the morning.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013