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I deserve better access to Indian fans: Rais Khan


Even at 74, Rais Khan is every inch the flamboyant genius ustad with a remarkable knack for setting off controversies. Lahore has been home for him for two decades but this is where his music and heart lie.

He is the last of his tribe, the ustads with larger-than-life personalities who are impetuous, stylish, opinionated, acerbic and with fiery musical talents. Ustad Rais Khan, in fact, lives up to his name. There is nothing small or retiring about the sitar wizard who moved to Pakistan in 1986 and has since lived in a state of longing for his fan base back home in India.

"This is the gaddh (home) of classical music. I need to play here. I say give me a visa for a year, five years. I was born in Indore, grew up in Bhopal, studied at St Xavier's in Mumbai, got my taleem (education) here. Meri mitti yahan ki hai (I belong to this soil) Surely I don't deserve this, " he says querulously. 'This' is the never-ending visa battle the ustad has to wage every time he comes to India, which is often for half a year.

There is a fair chance that almost every Indian has heard Rais Khan play sitar. Not on the concert stage but as keen - or even chance listeners - of Hindi film classics. Unless you lead a hermit's life, you are likely to have heard the bright sitar strains of Baiyaan na dharo or Nainon mein badra chhaaye in a passing auto or at the istriwallah's table. And that is no mean achievement for a high-brow musician. From OP Nayyar to Madan Mohan, he has played for some of the most famous composers of Bollywood of the '60s and '70s.

"Everyone says classical music is up there, I say film music of those years was right next to it, " he says. The ustad is sitting at Rikhi Ram Music Shop in Delhi's Connaught Place getting his sitar sorted. Two months ago, instrument maker Sanjay Rikhi Ram managed to rig up a sitar that, the ustad says, is an instrument he has been searching for for 50 years.

The last few months have been good for the ustad. He managed to be 'home' for longer than visa red tape would allow him, performed at about four concerts, and is being invested next Thursday with the Pandit Amarnath Vaggeykar Samman instituted in the memory of Ustad Amir Khan's foremost disciple. "Bahut badi baat hai (it's a big thing)... for someone from Pakistan, " he adds.

His angst is easy to understand. Of his 100 listeners, says his very talented son Farhan, only five live in Pakistan. The rest are here. It is a limited but loyal fan base which never really grew because of his absence from the concert stage. Why did he move? That is a question which gets thrown at him a lot. "I ask aisa koi hai jisne mohabbat nahin ki (is there anyone who hasn't fallen in love)? " he says referring to the fact that he crossed the border for his Pakistani wife, Bilquees Khanum, and the mother of his two sons.
His move to Lahore had been fraught to say the least - he was said to have alleged a bias against Muslim artistes in India (he now denies this). The bitterness this caused swelled and survived over two decades and soured for good his relationship with the Indian music fraternity. There was even a call to prevent him from singing in Mumbai recently.

And then there is the unending, very acerbic and publicly fought gharana feud between him and the family of Ustad Vilayat Khan (his maternal uncle) over the authorship of the gayaki (singing) style of playing the sitar. In January, at a concert in Delhi, Khan had in a prelude to his performance spoken of how he evolved the gayaki style of playing his sitar. Vilayat Khan's daughter, Yaman, present in the audience had publicly berated him for appropriating the credit for what she maintained was her father's gift to music.

"I belong to Mewat gharana and I play the style my father Ustad Mohammed Khansaheb taught me. Mujhe aur kisi se matlab nahin hain (I'm not bothered about anyone else), " he says imperiously but this display of diplomacy is short lived. "Likho, " he says listing the names of his ancestors going back to the Hassu-Haddu-Nathu Khan triumvirate who are said to have founded khayal singing. "It takes three-four generations and more than 100 years for a gharana to be formed. Otherwise, who is to stop Bombay, Calcutta, Patna, Hyderabad gharanas?" he asks, bursting into an infectious cackle at his own joke.

His impetuousness has caused him more trouble than he would care to remember, including a falling out with the legendary Madan Mohan, a loss for music lovers because they were a crackling creative team (Khan's vocalised playing style worked wonderfully for movie tunes). Sitar was a constant base to Mohan's film tunes so much so that in many of his songs it is hard to figure out if the music director showcased Rais Khan's brilliance or the sitarist raised the tunes to greater heights (see box). Madan Mohan's son Sanjeev Kohli says that after the two men fell out over payment issues, his father never again used the sitar in his songs.

But his concert style is radically different from that of his contemporaries - Pandit Ravi Shankar and the late Vilayat Khan. There is a lot of banter, questions and chit chatting with the audiences, which is unheard of in sombre classical concerts. "Kyon bhai, pasand nahin aaya?" he calls out to a youngster scurrying out of the IIC auditorium last week in the middle of a lovely Charukeshi raga. And after playing a brilliant gamak, he peers into the hall and asks: "Kaisa laga (how was it)? "

He is defiant about his informal concert style. "Bana rehna chahiye (have to remain connected ). I am playing to connoisseurs so I need to ask 'Taan saaf hai na? (Is the phrase clear)' Arre, if they say no I can always rectify myself, " he says.

His sisters' home in Mumbai is his anchor in India. In Delhi, he has been frequenting the Rikhi Ram music shop which he has had a connection with since the patriarch of the business set up shop. "He has a unique style, his music is vocal, open and has unique tonal variations, bright, sharp and very sweet to hear, " points out Rikhi Ram, himself an accomplished musician.

On March 22, the ustad will perform at the Parliament's Balayogi auditorium where he will be presented the Pandit Amarnath award.


Ham hain mataye kucha | 'Dastak' | 1970
Aaj socha to aanso bhar aaye | 'Hanste Zakhm' | 1973
Maine rang li aaj chunariya | 'Dulhan Ek Raat Ki' | 1967
Nainon mein badra chhaaye | 'Mera Saaya' | 1966
Tumhari zulf ke saaye main | 'Naunihal' | 1967
Baiyaan na dharo | 'Dastak' | 1970
Meri ankhon se koyi | 'Pooja ke Phool' | 1964
The 'Pakeezah' theme | 1972

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