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'I don't know where I find this energy'
At 105, India's oldest classical musician Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan is still performing, composing and writing poetry.
He spots the photographer and asks his grandson in a voice that is clear, textured and sonorous: "Topi lao meri, pehan leta hun" (Fetch my cap, I'll wear it). It is certainly not the voice of a 104-year-old man. "Not 104, 105, " Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan corrects you. "Meri paidaish 1908 August ki hai. (I was born in August 1908). " The wizard vocalist of the Gwalior gharana sits cross-legged on a bed in one of the compact guest rooms in the India International Centre.
Khansaheb, as he's popularly called, was in town for his concert at the annual Shankarlal Music Festival which celebrates its diamond jubilee this year. Earlier, he performed for the Jashn-e-Khusrau festival in the capital.
Nothing deters him or his spirit - neither age, nor his small frame. Nor the loss of his fingers and toes in an accident that has left him needing a wheelchair. All he asks is that you speak a little louder so he can hear you clearly. "Aap thoda zor se boleyaga, mein uncha sunta hun (Please speak loudly, I'm hard of hearing), " he says asking for his spectacles.
Surrounded by guests and family - his grandson Bilal who accompanies him on the tabla and brother Chand Khan on harmonium - Khansaheb says he never plans his concerts. "Even those accompanying me have no idea what I'll sing. I decide the raga and bandish (compositions) on stage. "
As the oldest living classical artiste - and the oldest Padma awardee - in India, Khansaheb is very particular about gharana loyalty. "Classical music was at its peak before Aurangzeb's time, " he says. "He banned all singers and performing artistes because he was a strict follower of Sharia law. After Aurangzeb this art went to the riyasats (feudal estates) and it peaked again. Since then there have been ups and downs but the art has thrived and will continue to do so. "
Although he is a purist, the ustad has no problems with classical music being adapted for reality TV, Bollywood songs or fusion concerts. "The sur (note) is the same - there are just those seven notes whether it is filmi or classical music. So how can one be nice and the other bad?" He points out that Pakistani bands have freely borrowed his bandish and created fusion music out of it. "I say bhai jao allah bhala kare tumhara (may god bless you), " he jokes.
The veteran, who was born in Salon qasba, 24 km off Rae Bareli district, started training in voice at the age of eight under his father Chhote Yusuf Khan, who claims to be a direct descendant of the legendary Tansen from Akbar's court. "Of his four sons Rahimsen, Surartsen, Tantaran Khan and Bilas Khan, I trace my ancestry to Suratsen. "
Like all masters, the ustad's training was rigorous. For three months, he was asked to stay on the first three notes of the sargam. "The riyaz (practice) would begin from 7 in the evening and go on till the azaan (morning prayer), at 5 am, the next morning, " he recalls. Once, bored with the routine, he remembers moving to the next note, ma. The guru was furious. "Kyun bey, kya teeno sur seekh liye jo madhyam laga raha hai? (Have you mastered the first three notes so well that you're trying the fourth?)"
Today, Khansaheb has more than 2, 000 compositions to his credit. He is also a prolific writer and poet who writes under the pseudonym 'Rasan Piya'. He takes pride in the over four lakh bandishes composed by his great-grandfather Chand Khan in the Brij dialect. "I follow his bandishes but have also composed many in the same genre and language, " he says.
Even today, he keeps busy teaching his many students. He follows a strict routine. A staunch Muslim, his first prayers are said at 5 am. This is followed by riyaz and a break when he unwinds with a hookah. He then teaches music for three to four hours. So, his first meal of the day - tea with a couple of biscuits and a few almonds - takes place only after noon. He treats himself to another cup of tea in the evening and later has his only meal of the day. This is a very spartan dinner consisting of roti-namak (roti and salt), vegetables or mutton/fish.
So what's the secret of his health? "Mein bakhuda kuch nahi janta yeh kaise, kya ho raha hai. Ishwar janey yeh acharaj hai ya koi karishma hai. Kahan si urja aur taakat milti hai mujhko yeh maalik janey. (I frankly don't know how this miracle works. Only God knows where I find this energy). Most singers start tiring out after 50. But I think god wants me to continue. "
Khansaheb, who spent a major part of his career teaching music in Rae Bareli, moved to Kolkata two decades ago when ITC Sangeet Research Academy offered him a house and a livelihood. He lives there with his daughter and grandson Bilal. Of his four children, only one, Rais Khan has taken to music and accompanies the father during public performances.
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