“I’m crying because out there he’s gone, but he’s not gone inside me”.(Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for March 14, 1987: On the little raccoon’s death.)
Is it ever possible to reconcile the opposing ideas of mortality and immortality? Ustad Rashid Khan is no more. But is he no more? I asked myself this question several times; a question I have asked on other occasions as well. Answers can be found in the wisdom of great writers: “the soul is immortal” (Socrates), “faith that looks through death” (William Wordsworth), “death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it” (Haruki Murakami). Yet, time-tested truths do not offer much comfort. Death is bad when it comes too soon, cutting off the full potential of a life. Ustad Rashid Khan is no more.
Memories arrange themselves in me rather strangely. I have listened to several of his radio sangeet sammelans, audio recordings, and live concerts over the last 35 years—sitting on the aisle, around the stage. I had interviewed him when he came to Bengaluru for a concert (he was under three blankets and refused to get out of bed, “Bangalore is too cold, it will affect my voice,” he had said.). I have watched hundreds of YouTube videos, listened to his interviews, heard his film songs. But somehow, whenever I think of Ustad Rashid Khan, my mind always goes back to one place, the cassette and CD covers of HMV, Saregama of the 1980s and 1990s. The young, pensive Ustad with his swarmandal, and on most occasions accompanied by Jyoti Goho on the harmonium and Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay on the tabla. Ahir Bhairav, Jog, Bilaskhani Todi, Bairagi Bhairav, Shree, Malkauns, Madhuvanti… are accompanying memories, playing on loop on the tape recorder in the quietness the entire household would slip into.
Aspiration to romanticism
Ustad Rashid Khan’s music was deeply reflective; it was so intensely emotional that even his technical prowess appeared like an aspect of feeling. He could unravel the splendour of the notes in such intricate detail; it was as if they offered themselves to him. There were no light moments in his rendition—with a voice that totally merged into the shruti, he would create a mood that was ardent, not once would he disrupt the melodic identity of the raga. For instance, listen to his rendition of Darbari: he captures the mind of the listener even before the raga progresses. Unhurriedly, he explores the lower octaves of the raga, establishing its grandeur without making any attempt to charm. In most of his renditions, one sees an unstated aspiration to bring in the best elements of the thumri into the khayal, a certain romanticism. His voice and rendition were an integration of the best values of the past masters of his gharana.
Ustad Rashid Khan lost his mother early and came to live with his uncle, Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan, a prominent figure of the Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana, who became his guru. By Ustad Rashid Khan’s own admission, he was an unwilling student of music and was not interested in going to school either. The lonely and quiet boy preferred to be in his “own world”, in which there was plenty of music, but on his own terms. He speaks of how he went on long walks singing bandishes, formulating taans, improvising, but within the classroom he was filled with terror. Nevertheless, it was destined that he eventually became the forerunner of the gharana.
Ustad Rashid Khan said it was “god’s plan” that despite himself he became such a recognised musician. In fact, in an interview, with Ustad Rashid Khan, Pt Kumar Prasad Mukherjee kept making requests to him to sing behalava, and boltaan, the special features of his guru’s music, because “ye aaj kal sunne ko nahin milta”. Ustad Rashid Khan was, therefore, a custodian of the best aspects of not only his gharana but also of music. He could close his eyes and not be bothered by the expectations of the world. Shorn of all pretensions and showmanship, his music of the 1980s and 1990s was truthful. It captured the imagination of music lovers, even that of the musical giant Pt Bhimsen Joshi, who often invited him home for baithaks and paid him for it too. Ustad Rashid Khan’s music grew into an obsession for listeners. It was unsullied, a thing of beauty.
Ustad Rashid Khan’s voice was sonorous, vibrant, deep, and full-toned. Rich with emotion, his voice caught the attention of music-makers across genres. Come the 2000s and he was singing for Hindi films. His songs “Sajna Barse Hain Kyon Akhiyan”, “Aaoge Jab Tum”, “Allah Hi Reham” and others were well received. This was also the time when music reality shows were on the rise, and Ustad Rashid Khan attained celebrity status. He collaborated with several musicians for Coke Studio’s “Kathyayini” (with Bombay Jayashri), “Sakhi Yeri Aali” (with Richa Sharma), and “Cheene Re Mora Chain” (with Sulaiman), sang Tagore songs, ghazals, and jammed with his children, constantly expanding his territory. By themselves, and by the standards set for those genres, most of these numbers were perhaps attractive. They were huge market successes too. However, they did little to preserve the extraordinary musician that Ustad Rashid Khan was. They tapped into his virtuosity and abandoned the meditative quality of his music. The songs lacked the scope of the khayal of which the Ustad was an unmatched practitioner.
Celebrityhood changed him
In the course of time, the Ustad, bestowed with celebrityhood, became transformed. The quintessential khayal vocalist had become eclectic; it had an impact on his music. The world had captured him. In recent times—over the last decade or so—his classical music concerts were nothing like the old times. Expositions were brief, more often than not they rested on skill and the celebrity status he had attained.
For listeners like me, the extraordinary Ustad’s transition into celebrityhood was not such a happy trajectory. In the journey that the Ustad chose, the earlier unforgettable times were hard to recreate. But memories are priceless and timeless. Ustad Rashid Khan created a sensibility of music that is hard to match. The experience he gave us will remain evergreen. Invariably, the mind goes back to those days, that photograph of the pensive Ustad with the swarmandal. Ragas Puriya, Bhairav, Chayanat… The Ustad has to be sought there. Immortality is the only true success.
Deepa Ganesh, a former journalist with The Hindu, is currently Professor, Executive Director, Centre for Visual and Performing Arts, RV University, Bengaluru.