When composer Madan Mohan, known to be the architect of ghazal in Hindi film music, wanted to infuse life into his melodies, it was not Lata Mangeshkar — at the pinnacle of her career and a close associate of Mohan — he turned to each time. There was one musician Mohan would never work without when composing or recording a ghazal — Ustad Rais Khan. Several well-known pieces by Mohan — be it the wistful Hum hain mata-e-koocha and the sensuous Baiyan na dharo in Dastak (1970), the heart-wrenching Aaj socha toh aansu bhar aaye (Hanste Zakhm, 1973) or one of his most iconic numbers Naino mein badra chhaye (Mera Saaya, 1966) in the warm afternoon raga Bhimpalasi — had Ustad Rais Khan’s sitar and the lilt in the meend (slide), enthrall music aficionados. The entire background score of Pakeezah had him on the sitar, and is remembered as sharply as the famed train whistle, and revered as much as Ghulam Mohammed’s songs in the film.
On Saturday night, after a long ailment, Khan passed away in Karachi. He was 77 and is survived by his wife and four sons. Ustad Vilayat Khan’s nephew, Rais Khan moved to Pakistan in 1986 after marrying famed singer Bilqees Khanum. While his death largely went unnoticed in India and Pakistan, in a tweet, Mangeshkar called him “sitar ke jaadugar” and put out a condolence message.
Born in Indore and brought up in Bhopal, Rais Khan completed his higher education at St Xavier’s in Mumbai. His taaleem came from the Mewati gharana, where he honed his beenkar style under his father Mohammed Khan, who was a sitar and rudra veena player. He received his training in gayaki ang from his mother, who was also Vilayat Khan’s sister. Like his uncle, he also sang and demonstrated the gayaki ang through the sitar. However, the two families continue to have a strained relationship. In 2012, at a concert in Delhi, Rais Khan had a spat with Vilayat Khan’s daughter Yaman Khan, who alleged that Rais Khan had stolen Vilayat Khan’s gayaki ang technique and called it his own. “Vilayat saab was a wonderful person but we belong to two different gharanas. I come from an illustrious lineage and am extremely proud of the training I received from my father. He also learnt from my father. Also, it takes more than 100 years for a gharana to be formed. Why is there no Patna or Hyderabad gharana? So how could Vilayat Khan have Etawah gharana,” Rais Khan had stated in an interview to this reporter.
While that controversy has remained, he will be remembered fondly for his musicianship. Though he left India, Rais Khan would come back and perform often with
Ustad Bismillah Khan. Their concerts at India Gate lawns titled “Jugalbandi” were quite popular in 2001. Despite being a Hindustani classical artiste, Rais Khan was also extremely liberal when it came to playing “set pieces” in films. For an artiste used to improvised music playing, to bind his music could be challenging. “But Madan always gave me a free reign and asked me to create whatever I wanted,” he’d say.
The first Pakistani artiste to perform in the Indian Parliament in 2012, Rais Khan was awarded the Pride of Performance by the President of Pakistan in 2005, and Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan in 2017. He was last seen performing a piece in raag Hamsadhwani on Coke Studio Pakistan’s Season 7 in 2014.
Amid numerous videos of Rais Khan on YouTube, is a grainy recording of him at a private baithak at a patron’s house, where he is seen playing around with the background score of Pakeezah, with a very young Zakir Hussain on the tabla. Hussain is visibly mesmerised by the master, and a slew of wahs from the audience can be heard. For one moment, Khan looks at his audience for acknowledgment, plays two more unexpected slides in quick succession, the unpredictable presentation delighting him. “It’s so much fun making my sitar do things that aren’t expected from a sitar. People tend to remember these,” he had said.