The death of a Muslim musician

Published January 16, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IN Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (music room), the tired and lonely zamindar is played by the redoubtable Bengali actor, Chhabi Biswas. In a scene in the movie, the protagonist requests the caretaker of his mansion to summon a particular ‘Musalman’ singer for the evening concert.

The film flaunts a medley of Muslim musicians performing in the music room, including a remarkable live performance by Begum Akhtar and an off-screen recital by Ustad Salamat Ali. The music for Jalsaghar was composed by sitar wizard Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s morning concert in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s boosted the point Ray touched on about Muslim singers. A fan requested Panditji to perform the morning melody, Raag Lalit. “The singer of Lalit is no more, sadly.” Bhimsen Joshi found himself paying a spontaneous tribute to Ustad Amir Khan, the pre-eminent Muslim vocalist who died prematurely in a car accident in Kolkata.

It’s not often that eminent singers praise other eminent singers publicly. Joshi sang Miyan ki Todi instead that morning. It didn’t end there. Asked elsewhere about the future of classical music after him, he picked an unknown name at the time, a young Muslim singer from the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana, who had been trained at a respected music academy in Kolkata.

It showed his belief in the young Rashid Khan that Bhimsen Joshi would go on to perform a duet with the little-known star of the musical firmament. It’s difficult to say if Panditji ever sang a classical duet with another singer. Joshi’s indulgence of Rashid Khan was that of a gemologist.

Ustad Rashid Khan was indeed among the more accomplished musicians from India’s current crop of classical vocalists. His death from prostate cancer at the peak of a critically applauded career at 54 last week spurred some to describe him as the last of the legends of a riveting form of north Indian music, the khayal.

The singular praise seemed an exaggeration, however, given that there are amazing singers around to embelish the legacy of khayal gayaki. But the fact that Rashid Khan happened to be an immensely talented Muslim singer, makes the claim worth pondering; not least in the context of a rightward hurtling, culturally Hinduising India.

Ustad Rashid Khan was indeed among the more accomplished musicians from India’s current crop of classical vocalists.

Rashid Khan’s death is not the end of the road for Muslim singers, of course. There is Rashid’s own son, for example: Armaan Khan, who has shown the spark to pursue his father’s legacy. With more experience, and lots more practice, Armaan has it in him to become a living tribute to the lofty traditions of his father’s gharana. There are other attractive, albeit less visible Muslim singers — for example, from the Agra gharana — but they have struggled to get the big stage that Rashid Khan was lucky to find.

Why do we need to speak of Muslim singers today? For one, Muslim musicians helped Nehru’s India to staunch the encroachment of Hindu communalism on music. While it has not been easy, the effort was credible. Their eclectic embrace of India’s spiritual motifs won for Muslim musicians a soft corner in the hearts of fellow Indians. But it also earned derision from a narrow-minded Hindu elite.

Be it Ustad Karim Khan’s facility with Hindu scriptures, or Fayyaz Khan performing compositions praising Lord Krishna, or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan weaving bandishes with reverential Hindu motifs, or Bismillah Khan playing the shehnai at Varanasi’s historic temple to Shiva, they consciously or possibly unknowingly helped shore up Nehru’s project of establishing a syncretic culture across the arts.

The project was a challenge and a necessity in the wake of the violent partition of the country, which has since threatened to undermine its secular promise. Late 19th-century critics of Muslim musicians, led by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, had a field day berating what he called the ‘pollution’ Muslims had infused into Indian music.

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande claimed a bulk of Muslim musicians lacked the rigour and discipline he sought for his new nationalist project. It involved discarding the ustads as untutored in the grammar of Indian music. Ustad Karim Khan challenged both Maharashtrian Brahmins.

Historian Janaki Bakhle offers handy references to this effect in her book, Two Men and Music. Published in 2005, the book describes the challenge that would befall Rashid Khan’s peers and other Muslim ustads. The prejudice against Muslims and the accusation that they had polluted Indian music was pervasive. The assault in Maharashtra was all-out and pervasive compared to, say, Bengal, where a degree of respect for the ustads was never quite abandoned.

Bhatkhande’s countrywide project to write a textual, classical, and connected history for music, and Paluskar’s project to expand his network of Gandharva Mahavidyalayas, tested the established gharanas and their ustads in different ways, writes Bakhle. “Paluskar had instituted communal prayers in Sanskrit in his Gandharva Mahavidyalayas, and all Hindu holidays were ceremonially celebrated.”

The malaise was widespread. In 1921, Karim Khan moved his school to Pune and was immediately confronted with hateful challenges. “Pune was a Brahmin city where the orthodoxy monitored the public use of water and opposed a Muslim musician teaching Hindu boys,” says Bakhle. “Pune’s orthodox Brahmins viewed all of Abdul Karim’s students as contaminated because of their intimate association with him.”

Bhatkhande on one occasion taunted Karim Khan to sing a raga named Nayaki Kanada. “Abdul Karim retorted that he could sing three different kinds of Nayaki Kanada, one from Kirana gharana, one from Rampur, and one that lay musicians sang.

He then challenged Bhatkhande to hum a few bars of any Nayaki Kanada he wished and told him that one of his children would sing the sargam simultaneously. This was clearly meant to bring Bhatkhande down a peg. Bhatkhande, not being a performer, could not comply with this request.“

Luckily for Rashid Khan’s craft, and for India’s syncretic journey, for every Paluskar or Bhatkhande, there was a Ray or Bhimsen Joshi.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2024

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