Ustad Sultan Khan — Voice behind the sarangi

The sarangi is one of the most complex instruments of Hindustani music. Unknown, forgotten, it languished on the sidelines until Ustad Sultan Khan breathed life into it with his magical solos. We remember the maestro on his 77th birth anniversary today (15 April).  

Shriram Iyengar

An instrument requiring discipline, skill and great devotion, the sarangi can emulate a hundred different pitches that can emote the human voice. When the slow, raspy baritone of Ustad Sultan Khan sang 'Albela Sajan Aayo Re' for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam', a new generation of listeners were introduced to the magic of Ustad Sultan Khan's voice could create. Born in Sikhar village of Jodhpur, Ustad Sultan Khan was a familiar name for avid fans of Hindustani and world music during the 1970s.

Ustad Sultan Khan started learning the sarangi under the tutelage of his father, Ustad Gulab Khan. At the age of 11, he was invited to play at the All India Music Conference. His dexterity and control over the instrument won him many admirers. Later, he would adapt his own control of the sarangi to provide it various dimensions over every single raga and verse. It was to become his signature.

At the age of 20, he took a break from his fledgling radio career to accompany the 'Queen of Melody' Lata Mangeshkar on a tour. As an accompanist, he played for a diverse range of singers of various styles. His adaptability and expertise on the instrument made him the impeccable partner to these soloists.

As an accompanist, Ustad Sultan Khan was good; but as a soloist, he was better. His first chance at global exposure arrived when he travelled the world with Ravi Shankar as part of former Beatle, George Harrison's 1974 'Dark Horse World Tour'. It would open him to the idea of global music, a concept he would embrace till his last days.

He consequently collaborated with several other reputed musicians around the world like Bill Lasswell, Talvin Singh, Madonna, Duran Duran and Dave Liebman among others. He admitted as much in an interview when he said: “Western influences have given a different dimension to my music.” 

An artist with a sense of humour is rare, but one with a globalised ethos is rarer still. For someone who did not speak English too well, Ustad Sultan Khan would enjoy transporting the ubiquitous sarangi to Western shores.

In an interview, when asked about the various titles he received, he said, "Now, in Uttar Pradesh, there are places where people say dom (wandering gypsy musicians). How does that make a difference? They are the same thing: musicians. You may call them Khansahib, call them phakne khan (stuffed khan), top khan (master cannon), or lun khan (Master salt). What's the difference?" 

Classical music and films in India are almost sister dimensions, step sister albeit. It was natural that his fame and knowledge of music would pull him towards films. Ustad Sultan Khan's first collaboration in film music was with Richard Attenborough on the iconic film Gandhi (1982). Since then he went on to become the part of some splendid films including 'In Custody/Muhafiz (1994), Maqbool (2004), Kachhe Dhaage (1999), Paanch (2003), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (2002), Parzania (2005), and Jab We Met (2007). It was his grainy vocals in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Jab We Met that remain most memorable. There was something soulful, something lost in the voice of Ustad Sultan Khan.

He also taught the sarangi to many composers from Indian cinema. Vishal Bhardwaj, Anand Vya  and Ilaiyaraja are among the many established names to have turned to this great musician for help. Ram Gopal Varma, whose disdain for songs in films is well known, also learnt the sarangi for a while from the revered Ustad.

A winner of the Padma Bhushan, India's highest civilian honour, Ustad Sultan Khan was also the winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi twice. His incomparable career and life came to an end on 27 November 2011. Sarangis around the world fell silent at the loss of their closest friend and companion.