His Master’s Voice

Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, the grand old man of Gwalior gharana, who at 105 is one of the oldest performing musicians in the world, spun his magic in the Capital on Tuesday.

When the doyen of Gwalior gharana, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, opened his performance on the fifth day of Jashn-e-Khusrau at India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, with Nizamuddin Sultan — a composition in the meditative and melodious Rageshree— amid interrupted bouts of cough and breathlessness, one assumed it would be a short recital. But then at 105, Khan can still surprise you.

"As long as I can manage to sing and evoke allah with my notes, nothing matters. I am singing in Agra later this month," said Khan in an interview before the concert. He sits in a wheelchair, his hands gnarled with age, but his memory is still sharp and his enthusiasm unflagging. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Padma Shri, which makes him the oldest awardee in the history of the Indian civilian honours.

Our conversation veers around the golden era of music and the life and times of the famed Gwalior gharana, one of the oldest gharanas that traces its lineage to Tansen. There he is, a young boy of 12 in Salon, Rae Bareli, with the secrets and mysteries of his gharana being imparted to him by his father, Chhote Yusuf Khan. "Those were different times, when a student learnt at the feet of his guru and had to sing one note for years before proceeding on to the next one. Hamari khaal udhed di thi jab agla sur bina kahe gaaya tha (I was beaten black and blue when I sung the next note without permission)," says Khan.

His guru did not let him perform for the next 22 years. "When my guru thought I was ready, he allowed me to sing at the family peer's (sage's) dargaah," he added. He held his first public performance in Rae Bareli when he was 40. Khan later moved to Kolkata and now teaches at ITC Sangeet Academy there. Gone are the days when he could sit and practice for more than 14 hours. Khan says that his teaching has become his riyaaz now. "I teach for at least four-five hours and that serves as the day's riyaaz," says Khan, whose hookah never leaves his bedside.

At his concert on Tuesday, after the first composition, the notes flowed, and Khan drew his audience into the delightful world of poignant ragas punctuated with an assortment of lyrics from Amir Khusrau's oeuvre. Khan met the swaras gently at first. The notes wafted through the air and then melted into a hypnotic drone. It was after the courtesies in the alaap that Khan went on to sing faster gats by way of taranaas and taans. Amid numerous microphone adjustments, sips of tea and doses of supari, his voice moved comfortably in the lowest and the highest octaves. Even in the the ones that we did not know existed. As he showcased a host of sapaat (staccato) taans in Jai Jai Nizamuddin Jagtaaran, a composition in Hindavi (another language Khusrau wrote in, apart from Persian and Urdu), he surprised his own students, who found it hard to replicate it while supporting him.

Khan mostly sings the dhrupad ang in his gayaki (vocal style) — a form of rendering a raga under a rigid composition and rhythm structure — but on Tuesday, he regaled those present with thumri ang in Meharva ras boondan barse and a naqsh in raga Mishra Desh — a raga unmatched in its sweetness. Khan was supported by Shubhomoy Bhattacharya on vocals, his grandson Bilal on the tabla and his younger brother Ustad Hafeez Khan on the harmonium.

The rich texture of Khan's voice in other compositions such as Shubh ghadi, shubh din and Garjat barsat showcased his prowess in various types of Hindustani vocal classical styles.

As the audience asked for an encore, Khan began with a kalbana — a set of syllables put to tune — invented by Khusrau, that got the audience on its feet to give the maestro a standing ovation.

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