A titan has left us. India's oldest performing musician, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, is no more. He passed away at the unbelievable age of 107.
Ustadji, a descendant of Tansen, was born in Salon village, Rae Baraeli district, Uttar Pradesh. He was born in 1908, in a world so removed from ours that it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like. A world of British rule (the Morley-Minto reforms that sowed the structural seeds of Partition by introducing separate electorates were introduced a year later), feudalism (the country had 500-odd princely states) and most importantly, a world where the true syncretic spirit of India still thrived.
Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan saw no contradiction between worshipping Allah and worshipping Lord Ram. [H]e was unselfconsciously Indian...
It is perhaps this syncreticism, more than anything else, that Ustadji embodied. A prolific poet, he composed around 2000 pieces under the pseudonym 'Rasan Piya'. Trained in the Gwalior gharana, he was a master of khyaal (Arabic for 'thought' and the Hindustani classical equivalent of freestyle).
An interesting anecdote showcases his skills as an improviser, as well as the syncretic spirit that drove him. He was in the famed town of Vrindavan, playground of Lord Krishna, and en route to the concert venue. The vehicle was caught in traffic and the exasperated driver said, "Radhe radhe". Ustadji was then struck by the fact that he did not have a composition appropriate for Vrindavan. And thus in the car itself he composed the following verse, "Gaur varan chanchal nain sakhiyan sang mil, dhol karan nainan band Radhe" and performed it for an ecstatic audience.
In addition to khyaal he was also well-versed with dhrupad, dhamar and thumri. These forms of Hindustani classical music are so old that they go back to the time of the Rg-Veda (around 1400 BCE).
I had the good fortune of seeing him perform, in New Delhi in 2014. He was 106 then and I could not believe that I was looking at someone so old. His body was frail, as expected, but he seemed sharp and alert and his eyes shone with passion. When the alaap of his first raag began -- I think it was jhinjhoti -- I was floored. His voice, deep and resonant, rumbled through the auditorium and swept us away with its power and beauty. What followed was simply magical and remains the best Hindustani classical performance I have seen till date. One after another, he sang ragas from the depths of his being with a vigour and intensity a man half his age would have found hard to match, leave alone sustain.
His repertoire was vast, and ranged from the hymns of the vedas to the ghazals of Amir Khusro to the bhakti poetry of the late medieval saints.
Of all the songs he sang however the most divine was his rendition of Narsinh Mehta's "Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je", which was also Mahatma Gandhi's favourite bhajan. Many have sung this famous song, right from Pandit Jasraj to Lata Mangeshkar, but for me, nobody could have done it better than Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan.
After the performance I went up to the stage to have a closer look at him. His fingers seemed odd and at second glance seemed amputated. On further enquiry I found that there was quite a story behind it. Ages ago, in 1947, he defeated a rival in a musical duel (similar to the one shown in the 1952 movie Baiju Bawra). The rival, consumed by jealousy, poisoned his food with mercury. Ustadji lost his toes and fingers and his eyesight became weakened but his voice remained strong. He attributed it to God's grace and this only strengthened his passion for music.
Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan saw no contradiction between worshipping Allah and worshipping Lord Ram. Like his contemporary Ustad Bismillah Khan he was unselfconsciously Indian, and prided himself on drawing on the full richness of the nation's culture. His repertoire was vast, and ranged from the hymns of the vedas to the ghazals of Amir Khusro to the bhakti poetry of the late medieval saints. In his passing India has lost perhaps the last living embodiment of its Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.
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