Remembering a maestro

May 31, 2020

An online event pays tribute to Ustad Sharif Khan

This year, Ustad Sharif Khan’s death anniversary was marked in an online event.

The participants shared their views about the classical music legend. Music was also played from the archives to bring forth the palpability and imminence of music as a lived experience.

The moaning and groaning about our great ustads being forgotten has almost become a ritual over the years.

A few people continue to remember Ustad Sharif Khan, who died forty years ago.

Given the lockdown, no matter how unevenly enforced or poorly understood, performing arts events at theatres, concerts and cinema shows have not been allowed.

The shopkeepers have been offering their merchandize online, but the arts, hospitality and tourism sectors remain closed.

But the corona pandemic has also made people think of other things, including the way the performing arts are expected to come out and meet with the challenge of the moment.

Meeting people and physically interacting with them is currently a scary situation. However, life’s continuation is conditional upon people physically meeting.

It has been so throughout history, for the collective has always been glorified and the individual decried even in a civilization where the individual and the individual freedoms have been raised to the level of a cult.

The arts were expected to counter this as people came out and shared their collective aesthetic experience, giving them the opportunity to transcend and breathe in a bigger, wider world, at least for that time rising above the isolation of their individual selves.

The arts were supposed to do just that for it is the insight or the glimpse into what is possible that can be fulfilling.

So it appears that Alhamra, Karachi Arts Council, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts and Lok Virsa should not be the places to visit. There are various sites instead where these organizations and others have come up with ingenious ways to deal with the lockdown.

Whether it will entirely replace the space of a musicians’ actual performance being heard by a live audience is yet to be seen. It is still not known definitely what form it is going to take. Will it be a mixture of recorded and live sound or something totally different?

The Pakistan National Council of the Arts has probably taken the first steps towards a more workable performing arts presence. Since the pandemic descended on us without a protocol, the reaction has been a knee-jerk one and all over the place.

Requesting and cajoling the performing artistes to appear on the digital media has been a courageous initiative and will in the future be seen as a pioneering effort.

The immediate need is to make the technical quality better and securing copyrights.

Ever since recording started more than a century ago, it was always felt that the recorded music was somehow more clinical, and did not have the perfection of a live performance.

The vital element of improvisation, so to say, was missing; or else, the players were not being as creative as they were in a live performance, where plenty of variables are at play including the feedback of the audience which may not be very clear and obvious.

Ustad Sharif Khan spent long hours mastering the very difficult art of playing the veena. Nobody in his family had been a veena player but when he was taunted by the nephew of Ustad Abdul Aziz Beenkar that it was almost impossible for many to play the vichitra veena, he took it up as a challenge.

The balance of the hands and the technique were vastly different from sitar, but he switched from the one to the other with ease. He also took to playing the sitar seriously.

His meends on the sitar expanded the musical possibilities inherent in the instrument. It can be said without fear of contradiction that no other sitar player has been able to achieve this.

Ustad Sharif Khan was born in Hissar, which is now in Haryana, in a family of musicians probably in the third decade of the twentieth century.

Some of the famous ustads of the past, including Qutab Khan, Badal Khan and Qaim Hussain Khan, too, had belonged to same family.

After learning to play the tabla and the harmonium, he became a musician at the court of the Maharaja of Poonch. He thus followed the path treaded by his father Ustad Rahim Buksh Khan who too was associated with the state of Poonch, and was the ustad of the maharaja himself.

A virtuoso himself, Ustad Rahim Khan came from a family of vocalists, but had switched to the string instruments and became an outstanding instrumentalist under the tutelage of Ustad Imdad Khan, the grandfather of Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Ustad Sharif Khan himself became a shagird to Ustad Inayat Khan, the son of Imdad Khan and the father of Ustad Vilayat Khan.

For Ustad Sharif Khan the going was tough in Pakistan. He had established himself as a sitar player before partition, but the lukewarm response and lack of appreciation of classical music made him look for other avenues to make both ends meet.

Film was one such platform and he was initially associated with Pandit Amarnath. After partition, he found creative affinity with Khurshid Anwar. He played the sitar and veena in Anwar’s numerous film compositions.

Ustad Sharif Khan’s son Ashraf Sharif Khan, a great sitar player himself, divides his music time between Pakistan and Europe.

Remembering a maestro: An online event pays tribute to Ustad Sharif Khan