Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan

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Sitarist par excellence (1927-2017)

Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, who passed away recently, was one of India’s most celebrated sitarists. He was the youngest of the three eminent musicians who formed the sitar trinity, the other two being the late Bharat Ratna Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan. He was also a part of the quartet that included the trinity and another acclaimed sitarist Nikhil Banerjee.

Born on 18 February 1927 at Jabra in Madhya Pradesh, he was the son of Jaffer Khan, a noted vocalist, who was an accomplished sitarist as well. Influenced largely by his father’s achievements, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan who belonged to the Beenkar Gharana of Indore, took a keen interest in musical instruments, especially the sitar, and right from the 1940s won recognition as an artiste on AIR (All India Radio). In those early days when jugalbandis were not well-known, Khan collaborated with the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and earned international acclaim. He also played with the noted English guitarist Julian Bream. Blessed with prodigious talent, he had a yen for innovation, and he christened his style as Jafferkhani Baaj, a concept which he defined as a synthesis of precision in technique, systematic thought with a vigorous playing style. Jafferkhani Baaj was also hailed for containing very original phrases. Khan also won renown for the ragas that he first created like Madhyami, Chakradhun, Kalpana, Sharawati and Khur Shiawani.

Khan was one of the earliest Hindustani musicians to incorporate Carnatic ragas into his music, and some of the ragas that he added to his repertoire were Kirwani, Kanakangi, Latangi, Karaharapriya, Manavati and Ganamurti, all of which he rendered with a Hindustani sensibility and in the Jafferkhani style. He was also the first Hindustani musician to collaborate with Carnatic musicians and his concerts with the eminent veena virtuoso Emani Sankara Sastri, were immensely popular with aficionados of both forms of music.

Another South Indian classical musician with whom he shared a great rapport was the famous violinist M.S. Gopalakrishnan, and their jugalbandis were a huge hit with the audience. All these crossovers were always conducted with a lot of gravitas, and also afforded both musicians an opportunity to give full rein to their talents. He also had a long stint with the film industry where he was first introduced at the age of 17 by composer Khwaja Kurshid Anwar. He played the sitar for the songs in films like K.L. Saigal’s Parwana released in 1947, and he also composed and played the sitar in Mughal-e-Azam, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Kohinoor among other films. Almost all the popular music directors of the era collaborated with him and the august list included the likes of Vasant Desai, C. Ramachandra, Madan Mohan and Naushad. The famous composer Naushad held Halim Khan in high esteem and had once observed that the latter’s contribution not only enriched film music, but also lent prestige to his songs. He established the Halim Academy of Sitar in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1976, and the institute trained a number of budding sitarists who later went on to carve their own niches and among them was his son Zuhain Khan who has been carrying on the legacy of his great father.

Popular among his other wards who also imbibed a bit of his musical genius include sitarists like Dr. Prasad Joglekar, Rajendra Varma and Gargi Shinde. The versatile and innovative musician’s rich contribution to music was recognised both nationally and at the international level. Khan was awarded the Padma Shri (1970), Padma Bhushan (2006) by the Government of India and the Sangeet Nataka Academy Award in 1987. Indisputably, the musician was worthy of even greater honours, but his unassuming nature and his reluctance to lobby for laurels stood in the way. Yet, the maestro who is often spoken of in the same breath as Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan, will live on in the memories of all his admirers for the sheer brilliance of his music and his wide repertoire.


– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.

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