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.

News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
News
people
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

**Cover Supervisor's Urgently Required for Southport School's**

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Cover Supervisor's Urgently...

Year 3 Primary Teacher - Dewsbury

£110 - £155 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: An excellent, last minute opp...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor