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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam