His artistry, a contemporary embrace of tradition, resonated with a generation of music enthusiasts. Hindustani music will feel his absence forever.
There is a thread that runs through art which connects artists beyond lineage and time. Ustad Rashid Khan was an artist who contemporised a tradition for a generation of listeners and today his loss has left lovers of music feeling like this thread has been broken and a heritage has lost its utterance.
Born in Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, on July 1, 1968, into a family of musicians, Ustad Rashid Khan was the inheritor of a rich legacy. He was the grandson of Ustad Inayat Hussain Khan (whose compositions under the pen name “Inayat Piya” are sung even today) and the nephew of Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, who recognised his talent and offered him initial training. After the death of his mother, Ghulam Mustafa Khan encouraged him to stay with him and attend school in Mumbai. But his heart was in Budaun, so he returned home after some months.
Back in Budaun, he formally became a disciple of his Mamu (maternal uncle) Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan, from whom he received a large part of his taleem, in the Rampur-Sahaswan gharana style. Nissar Hussain was a strict disciplinarian and would make the young Rashid spend an entire day perfecting just one note. This long, arduous training would reap its rewards later, but for the restless mind of a child, its monotony was an imposition that, as he has frankly shared, he did not enjoy at the time. Nevertheless, the fear of his uncle was so overbearing that he kept at it without protest, practising palta after palta as he went about the usual business of being a child.
At the age of 14, he moved to the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, where his uncle was a guru in residence. It was here that he had a chance to spend time in the company of stalwarts like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi—giants who frequented the academy. He had a chance to witness the rich tradition that he belonged to through the library of recordings housed at the academy. Musicians who would come to meet his uncle would ask to hear him sing and then offer him guidance and encouragement. Although he had given his first performance in Kolkata at the age of 11, he was still to make his mark as a performer.
An incident from Rashid Khan’s teens that left a deep impression on him occurred at the Dover Lane Music Festival. That evening, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was to grace the stage, and Rashid Khan, still a budding young singer, was eager to listen to him. He recalls, “I requested one of the organisers to let me sit in a corner of the hall close to the stage, but he refused and asked me to leave the venue instead. That moment I determined that a day will come when the very people who chased me out of here will be chasing after me to come and perform for them.” Whether it was this particular incident or his coming of age, something stirred in Rashid Khan then that made him approach his music with greater sincerity and love than he had brought to it before. From then on, his devotion towards his music grew, and he impressed audiences not just in Kolkata but in every corner of the world.
The first thing that strikes you when you listen to Rashid Khan perform is his voice. His voice has the ability to awe you with its robustness while also tugging at your heartstrings as it creates the most fleeting, delicate movements you have ever heard. He would draw his audience in with his alaaps which would juxtapose long notes, perfectly pitched, against unexpected quick flourishes at their end. Although his initiation was in the idiom of the Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana, his music also showed his admiration for Ustad Amir Khan’s style. His vilambit khayal was always presented in an unhurried, meditative way that was reminiscent of the Ustad, as was his penchant for using the sargam as a tool for elaboration. When it came to the chota khayal, his taans would dazzle listeners with the sheer throw, speed, and agility of his voice as well as the clarity of each scintillating note. This would often be followed by a thumri or dadra where raga grammar and his display of technical prowess took a backseat to showcase just the emotional content of the piece.
Although he grew up in an age in which his peers and seniors often dissuaded him from singing for films, later on in his career, he agreed to lend his voice to songs that matched his taste and style. The song “Aaoge Jab Tum Saajna” from the film Jab We Met (2007) gave him worldwide recognition and acclaim. He also enjoyed composing and singing ghazals, but his everlasting contribution is the one he made on stage as a performer of Hindustani Khayal music.
Rashid Khan was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2006, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2006, and the Padma Bhushan in 2022. But, as he is known to have believed, there is no greater acclaim for an artist than the love and adoration their listeners show them, and this too Rashid Khan received in abundance.
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On January 9, 2024, Ustad Rashid Khan passed away after battling a grave illness, but he never let his ill-health put a pause to his music. His students recall his love for his riyaz, which he would sit down to do at any odd hour and practise his long notes and his paltas just like he was made to do in his childhood. Rashid Khan’s music lives on through his disciples who he nurtured with great love and care. His life and his music are a testament to his devotion to his art. 55 years may seem to be too short a time to carve out a legacy as rich as the one Rashid Khan leaves behind, but for some artists, it’s about how deeply they lived and not how long.
Smit Dharia is a singer of Hindustani khayal music who is a disciple of Pandit Satyasheel Deshpande. He is currently working as a consultant on a music learning, ed-tech product. He is also interested in poetry and writes about music.