Sultan Khan: Indian vocalist and doyen of the sarangi

 

Sultan Khan was a hereditary sarangiya – a sarangi player – and one of the preeminent Hindustani or Northern Indian classical soloists of our age. He played one of the most brutish-looking instruments humanity has ever devised. Yet the voices that he coaxed from this squat, bowed, stringed instrument were divine. The instrument's name derives from two words meaning "100 colours", but Sultan Khan proved that the sarangi hid many more than that. Many hold it to be the instrument able to capture the nuances and tonal range of the human voice the most faithfully. Many – Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer-turned-Smithsonian Folkwayswallah who recorded him included – hold sarangi to be the greatest melody instrument ever devised. And without question, Khan was one of sarangi's all-time virtuosi.

Historically, sarangi – an instrument found in folk and classical forms across the north of the subcontinent – had a bad reputation by association. Sarangiyas accompanied nautch (dancing-girl) and tawaif (courtesan) entertainment. It was considered a lowly instrument and one not worthy of the classical recital dais. The sarangiya Ram Narayan began the instrument's slow elevation to the classical stage and revolutionised its appreciation in the immediate years after Partition.

Khan, who died at his Mumbai home at the age of 71 following chronic kidney problems, was the next generation. He was one of the most grounded musicians imaginable, and from first meeting him in 1981 I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. Building on Ram Narayan's work, he truly took the instrument abroad and brought it back home. He was one of Ravi Shankar's handpicked musicians who toured and recorded as part of the George Harrison/Ravi Shankar Festival from India package in 1974 (reissued on 2010's Shankar/Harrison boxed set Collaborations). He contributed to Tabla Beat Science, the illicit love-child of Zakir Hussain and Bill Laswell. For Seize the Time (1994), Fun-Da-Mental sampled a sarangi solo of his on "Fartherland", and he took it all in good spirit.

But it would always be in the classical realm that he was most at home. Steeped in Rajasthan's tight-knit Sikhar-based musical and caste traditions, he was a mirasi (hereditary professional) musician with forebears standing behind him when he played sarangi or sang. He had the gift and the touch. Early on, he was sought out as an accompanist by headliners such as the vocalist Amir Khan (himself a former sarangiya) and played sarangi to the later vocal maestro Pandit Jasraj's tabla.

He had an innate sense of rhythmicality as well. Perhaps the finest partnership of his musical career was the one he forged with the tabla virtuosi Alla Rakha (Qureshi) and Zakir Hussain (Qureshi), willingly subordinating his playing to their percussive eloquence.

He contributed music to a number of films, both as a sarangiya and vocalist. Like Ram Narayan, as Regula Burckhardt Qureshi explains in Master Musicians of India: Hereditary Sarangi Players Speak (2007), the Hindi film industry offered "anonymity for work that did not enhance their classical music standing." Khan's on-the-record credits included Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982); Merchant-Ivory's Heat and Dust (1983); Hindi films such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999); Manish Jha's arch Matrubhoomi: a Nation Without Women (2003); and Subramaniya Shiva's Tamil film Yogi (2009).

Music's powers can communicate across language barriers. In my life, the poignancy of Khan's artistry brought me to tears more than any other musician. The most remarkable experience occurred in 2001 at the London-based Allarakha Foundation's first commemorative celebration of Alla Rakha's life. Khan and his sarangi sang the Rajasthani lori (lullaby) "Soja Re" (Go to Sleep). He sang his friend home. It was cathartic – a release like unstoppering a bottle. Afterwards, the whole audience was wet-eyed and tear-streaked. In five decades of music criticism I have never witnessed its like.

He is survived by his second wife, Uma, and their two daughters, and sarangiya Sabir Khan from his first marriage. His son had been scheduled to play on Zakir Hussain's Masters of Percussion tour in November 2011 before his father's health deteriorated.

Ken Hunt

Sultan Khan, sarangi maestro: born Jodhpur, Rajasthan 15 April 1940; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Mumbai 27 November 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory