Sporting a stud in his ear, the impeccably dressed, slightly frail, Ustad Rais Khan is the perfect host as he ushers me into his house. A simple address but the barriers have made the approach an intricate one. One of the finest sitar players of today he objects when people say his talent is God-gifted and counter questions what that mean, and then proceeds to explain why they are misplaced.
The Ustad is a person who teaches the learner, he explains patiently. Those who are born in a music family have an advantage as they learn from an early age, but it is the hard work of the teacher who hones one’s talent and the student who follows the lessons diligently — so there is nothing God-gifted in this, it is hard work only and that’s how, Khan Sahib says, he made a name for himself.
In his early years he played film music for Lata, Rafi and Asha Bhosle when he was in India. The film industry was an unusual and difficult place, Khan Sahib says, but he never needed to approach anyone for favours as doors would open on their own. Never one for pampering, he suffered for it and was thus deprived of becoming a music director.
Khan Sahib was born in Indor, Madhia Pradesh in 1939. He grew up in Bombay and came to Pakistan in 1986 after he got married to Bilqis Khanum. Belonging to the Mewati gharana which goes back to the Mughal period, it produced famous singers Haddoo, Hasso and Nathu Khan, and later singers such as Baray Ghulam Ali, as well as sitarists and sarodh players. Gaeki ung, a vocal style for sitar, was created by Rais Khan’s father and perfected by him through the sur bahar and been instruments played by them.
The famous Indian sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan is his maternal uncle who came to live with them when Vilayat’s father died. Rais Khan denies there is any friction between them, contrary to the rumours that exist even today. He praises Ravi Shankar, said to be a rival too, as a brilliant musician who has introduced the sitar to the world. Khan Sahib was given the title of Ustad at the young age of 15. He says there was a time when this prestigious title was given by his family to artists who were good musicians. There were only a few other gharanas with such music authority at the time.
Khayal, dhrupad, thumri and gaeki ung are the four music styles of playing which Khan Sahib excels in. He says the credit goes to his mother who made him practice by enticing him with sweets, especially when he went out to play. Otherwise a loving mother, she was strict when it came to music, but it paid dividends in later years. Musicians and friends of his father would bribe him with chocolates to play for them, and at the age of eight the newspapers dubbed him ‘the chocolate musician’.
In 1955 at the age of 16, Khan Sahib was chosen to represent India in the International Youth Festival in Warsaw, where 111 countries participated in the string instrument conference. Six countries won the title for best music and India got the first prize amongst them. Khan Sahib received a gold medal and diploma and the audience were astonished when they discovered he was the youngest musician there. Through the years he has amassed a lot of medals and awards and says the credit goes to his mother.
The sitar, though an integral part of his life, could not suppress his interest for singing. He sang and composed music for Ghungroo toot gaye on BBC in 1978, which was copied later on by Pankhaj Udaas and other singers. “I composed Nur Jehan’s song Kabhi kitabon mein phool rakhna, Mehdi Hasan’s Mein khayal hun kisi aur ka, along with many other songs,” he recalls nostalgically, adding that he composed for friends in India at their request and the songs became hits in their names. Because his fee was higher than what the industry paid to composers at the time, Khan Sahib did not get a chance to compose much in Pakistan. Though a good composer, he says he remains without work and is available to compose music for whoever needs his expertise.
Of all the countries that he has performed in there are two cities, London and Vienna where Khan Sahib loves to play, as the audience white as well as Indian understand sitar music. He proudly says he is the only Asian from Pakistan to have performed at the Kennedy Centre, but laments the fact that most people here don’t care about music. He says countries that do not appreciate and recognise their musicians have not been able to progress in anything, and Islamabad stands foremost in that list.
Regaling an incident that happened years back, Khan Sahib says that in 1972 he read an article in the Times of India that Gopi Krishenji, a famous Indian dancer had performed continuously for seven hours on stage. Later, Krishenji’s relative Sitara Devi danced for nine hours non-stop in Birla Hall in Bombay. Impressed by their performances Khan Sahib decided to challenge them and played for 18 hours ad infinitum, exhausting three famous tabla players, Bashir Ahmed Khan, Pandit Shamta Prashad and Latif Ahmed Khan, in the process. He kept a bucket of ice with him to stop his fingers from bleeding. This record remains intact even today.
The artist was energetic and eager to learn new things in his teens, especially in sports, and excelled in badminton, swimming, car racing and flying, hobbies which he was able to pursue when his mother’s hold on him lessened. However, as a rising sitar player, Khan Sahib had to forgo his interests afterwards. The only hobby which he was able to pursue without any hindrance was his collecting watches, which continues even today. He proudly says that his decades old habit of smoking 115 cigarettes a day, which is the reason for his declining health, came to an abrupt end four years ago when the doctor ordered him to stop.
Answering the inevitable question of how he met Bilqis Khanum, Khan Sahib says he saw her for the first time in a programme in which he was invited by the Sabri Brothers to Karachi, where she performed too, and the romance started. She is his fourth wife. He first got married at the age of 16 but the marriage didn’t last long. His second marriage again was a disaster age-wise, as his wife was 34 and he was barely 18. His third wife also left him. Then, came Bilqis Khanum, a singer in her own right. They married and she subsequently left for India with him. After seven years they came to Pakistan permanently with Khan Sahib becoming a Pakistani national. They have two sons, and the elder, Farhan, is following in his father’s footsteps, a brilliant upcoming sitarist.
Although he says he has achieved a lot of fame here, Rais Khan feels the nation doesn’t know how to appreciate people who are outstanding in their fields.