The sultan of sarangi

On a cold winter evening in Bombay in the late 1990s, after much hesitation he decided to give an interview in his house. The bargain was that he had to be a part of the tele-serial I was researching for Star TV. When I arrived, he was all ready, well-dressed and waiting to welcome. A bit disappointed that it wasn’t going to be a videographed interview, Sultan Khan opened up his world of music and passion on a rather emotional note. A modestly furnished home with a wall to wall navy blue carpet and floor seating with pillows adorned his humble living room. “Main anpadh hoon yaar, angrezi me baat nahi kar sakta. Jo bhi hain mere paas, yahin hain! Aakhri dumm tak mere sarangi ke saath rehna chahtaa hoon” (I am illiterate and cannot speak in English. Whatever I have is here. I just know that I want to be with my sarangi till my last breath), he said in a choked voice. “Whatever I had earned all my life, I bundled it and gave it to Zakir and we managed to buy this little house. After all it’s not easy for artists like us to live in a city like Bombay”, he went on to explain.

Over endless cups of tea and samosas, we spoke late into the night. That formed an unforgettable bond of friendship between us over the years.


Over the last few decades the sarangi had almost started fading off the concert stage because of its ridiculous association with the music of tawaif-s by caste-conscious event organisers and musicians. Many artists like Sultan Khan faced the backlash. Constantly out of work, and catering to requests of egoistee film music directors and the like had hurt the maestro beyond repair. And that emotional side of him was reflected in his music eventually. He was more popular in the West than in India.


Born into a family of artists, Sultan Khan started learning sarangi from his father Gulab Khan and his grandfather Azeem Khan of the Indore gharana. As a child, like others his age, his interests lay in various sports and games but it was the sarangi that shaped his destiny. He gave his first concert at the age of eleven. “I’ve shed blood for the sarangi. It’s my good fortune to be with it. The pain you find in its sound isn’t found anywhere else,” he would say about how the sarangi chose him as an instrument for its propagation. Fond of the three gharana-s (Agra, Indore and Patiala) that he was highly influenced by, he even cut an album as a tribute to the guru-s he learnt from.


He was responsible for the growth and popularity of the instrument in the west. Having toured and performed with the likes of Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Peter Gabriel and others, he had ardent fans in Madonna and Duran Duran. He accompanied all the greats of his time and shared a great bond and friendship with Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which he loved to talk about often. “How does it matter what language each one speaks? We are all musicians and we understand each other’s language of music and gestures and that is more than enough to make music,” he often said.


Sultan Khan had a great sense of humour. Once at a concert, an organiser insisted on asking him if he was south Indian and that irked him. “I am north Indian, I am Rama. You are south Indian, you are Ravana!,” he retorted lightheartedly not realising the mike was on and the people in the audience who heard this were in splits. “Once I was sitting in my room and watching some French movie on the TV when Zakir came in and asked me how I was able to understand the movie. I said how do I care if it is French or English? I understand neither and both sound the same to my ears.”

With Sultan Khan’s constant stream of jokes, you never noticed the passage of time. Behind this façade of his was an emotionally fragile artist who opened up to close friends and colleagues.

With the onslaught of Indie pop albums, his popularity grew by leaps and bounds when he recorded Piya basanti re and Albela sajan aayori for the film ‘Hum dil de chuke sanam’. Though he never intended to be a singer, he became a household name and there was no looking back. Endless offers from music directors came his way after that. Although he accompanied every other artist, his favourite was to give a sarangi solo performance with either Zakir Hussain or the late Shafat Ahmed Khan playing the tabla for him. He became emotional when he played the Rajasthani maand. And on his request, when we finally managed to record for the teleserial, he insisted on playing the maand and we aptly titled the episode Sounds of Rajasthan. He recorded another of his favourite pieces ‘Dheemo re’ in Rajasthani, moving the whole crew of our recording unit to tears. A double bonus for the unit was when he brought his grandfather’s century old sarangi, which he maintained in the best condition and performed with it. “This instrument has seen the hard work of the hands of my father and grandfather and I’ve inherited it,” he announced to all of us there.


Over the years we shared a great friendship and spent good time on several occasions we met at —backstage, at concerts or airports, while he was travelling. He was ailing for quite sometime. He leaves behind his son Sabir Khan and several students to carry on the legacy of the sarangi. He recollected an incident when an American journalist asked him what the ambition of his life and music were and he replied, “I sing with love and with my heart. That’s why even God listens to me. I want to do this till my dying day.” He shall be remembered as the ‘Sultan of Sarangi’ in the history of Hindustani instrumental and world music.


By Veejay Sai


Posted by Sruti Magazine  January 11, 2012