May 6, 2017. It is the saddest day for classical music.
Ustad Rais Khan is dead. His sitar is not. It can’t be. It is everlasting. It is divine.
A flood of memories has kept flowing over me the whole day.
The death of one of the greatest exponents of sitar, Ustad Rais Khan, has impoverished the world of music
It is 1978. My dear old friends, the late Enayet Ismail and his wife Shahnaz Ismail, have invited me to hear the visiting Indian sitar maestro Ustad Rais Khan at their Mohammad Ali Housing Society residence. I can’t believe my eyes. I am looking at the handsome face of the guest artist, a small diamond shining in his right earlobe, as he is tuning his magnificent instrument. I have forgotten what raag he played that evening, but the aura of his imposing stage presence is deeply etched in my memory.
Fast forward many years later. Ustad Rais Khan has left the land of his illustrious forefathers and migrated to Pakistan. I meet him again in Karachi with sitarnawaz Nafees Ahmad and, contrary to what I’ve heard about most people being not quite at ease in his company on account of his mercurial mood, I find him quite amiable and enriching and enjoyable company. In the course of time we become closer and I learn more about his life.
It strikes me that of the millions who migrated to Pakistan from across the border, two people in particular caused the greatest sense of loss in India — Josh Maleehabadi and Ustad Rais Khan. By default, Pakistan became ‘richer’ by their making this country their home. Isn’t it sad then that we did not treasure both these icons of art — one was a great poet, the other a great musician. Yes, these distinguished souls were not given the care and love that was due to them — and mind you, it was not the loss of the two as much as Pakistan’s, since we could not benefit from their knowledge and skill.
Ustad Rais Khan was born on November 25, 1939 in Indore, India. His father Ustad Mohammad Khan, himself a distinguished musician, was Rais Khan’s teacher and mentor. I once struck up a conversation with Rais Khan during which he told me, “Before I was old enough to start learning, the sound of the instrument became embedded in my soul as I plucked the string of my father’s sitar. But I owe my success to my mother who would bribe me with chocolates and toffees in order to make me do my reyaaz for long hours.”
“As the eldest daughter of the legendary Ustad Inayet Khan and sister of the world-famous sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan, she knew well the importance of my place in the world of music.”
He also talked about the discipline and commitment of his father: “He was punctual to a fault. His dedication to his calling can be gauged from the fact that even on the day of the passing away of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, he went on to give tuition to his shagird [student].”
Rais Khan’s father was a virtuoso; he was a sitar player, a beenkaar, a rudraveena player and a surbahar player as well. Above all, he was a great teacher. “Music runs in my family,” Rais Khan told me. “My mother and three sisters were fully conversant with classical music and could have become proficient artists themselves were they allowed by the elders to become professional performers.”
Rais Khan was blessed to be part of two illustrious gharana (schools of music) traditions. “My paternal lineage goes back to Indore/Gowalior and Mewati gharana: Haddu-Hassoo Khan, Ustad Bande Ali Khan, his shagird Ustad Wahid Khan and his grandson — my father — Ustad Mohammad Khan,” he told me. “From my maternal side, there was Ustad Inayat Khan of Calcutta [originally from Aligarh] and his children: the eldest daughter was my mother Nasreen and her brothers Ustads Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan.”
Rais Khan’s public performances started when he was barely five years old. At the age of seven, invitations started to pour in, sometimes to perform at a school, at other times in a college or some other place. As he grew up, he barely missed a conference in India, performing at numerous places — Delhi, Agra, Meerut, Chandigarh, Patna, Bombay, Poona, Bhopal, Indore, Ahmadabad, he’d performed everywhere.Prior to migrating to Pakistan, Rais Khan had represented India at international musical events held at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow; The Kennedy Centre in Washigton DC; The Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium at the UN; The Great Hall of the People in China; as well as many other cities all over the world. He spoke nostalgically about the 13-day-long train journey from Moscow to Beijing that he undertook with Balraj Sahni who was the leader of the Indian delegation. In 1955 at the International String Instruments Competition in Warsaw, where artists from 111 countries had participated, only six were declared the best and won gold medals. Rais Khan was one of them.
Wanting to provoke him during that meeting, I quipped, “You are a handsome man, but that doesn’t mean you should have married three times.”
“Yes, but mind you, I fell in love with only good-looking women,” he had retorted, “and if you are referring to Bilquis Khanum — indeed, she is a lovely person, an artist in her own right.”
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 14th, 2017