Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan performed till his last breath. He woke up in the early hours of Thursday, had his morning tea at his residence located inside Kolkata’s 200-year-old ITC Sangeet Research Academy (SRA), and began his riyaaz. The notes, however, were interrupted by bouts of breathlessness. He passed away before his grandson Bilal Khan could get him to the nearest hospital. Khan, the oldest performing musician, who was awarded a Padma Bhushan in 2013 has died at the age of 107, leaving behind a rich repertoire of compositions and bandishs, and a motivation so extraordinary that it is likely to inspire many generations of musicians.
“He was on a wheelchair for many years, and would always be eager to know where we were going next for a performance,” says Bilal. Khan’s body will be flown to Rae Bareli on Friday and then taken 30 km to his hometown Salon, where he will be buried according to his last wishes in the same vicinity as his pir (guide saint).
Born on August 19, 1908, Khan traced his lineage to Behram Khan of the Gwalior gharana and learnt the ropes of gamak, layakari and firat, and other signatures of the gharana. Umakant Gundecha, one half of the prominent Gundecha brothers met Khan for the first time in the early ’90s in Bhopal at a concert and was awed by the sheer strength of his voice. “Most musicians of his age would hardly teach and he was performing with so much gusto. This kind of willpower was rare. I would meet him at festivals later and always listen intently to the variety of compositions he had created,” says Gundecha.
Khan’s was a style that was a reminder of the glorious days when gharanas maintained a separate identity and never came together in terms of styles, when artists created music from the narrow alleys of the classical systems and yet produced original music, and when “fusion”, as a term, was yet to be coined. He performed what he had learned from his father’s elder brother Bade Yusuf Khan and the noted vocalist Chand Khan.
But the musician found much appreciation in the last decade for being able to perform all over the world at festivals alongside artistes half, and even less than half, his age. His last concert was almost a month ago in Hyderabad.
Khan was considered a better teacher than a musician. And if his almost 1,500 compositions archived at SRA and by the BBC, poetry written under his pen name Rasan Piya, and the devotion of his students is anything to go by, then his contribution to the world of Hindustani classical music is unmistakable.