“In the past two years during the pandemic, the entire world ground to a standstill. What didn’t stop was worship. The azzan [Muslim call to prayer] didn’t stop; kirtan [Sikh devotional singing] didn’t stop, pooja [Hindu ceremonial worship] didn’t stop. And similarly, our sangeet [music of the subcontinent] never stopped once. Our music is also our form of worship.”
According to sarangi master Sabir Sultan Khan, the continuation of Indian classical music was only natural—pre-ordained, almost. He used his worship of the sarangi to help maintain mental wellness even in grueling times. Similarly, for many, Indian music was a saving grace or lifeline. For many others still, it is a potent elixir to reintegrating wellness and begin the journey of healing.
That’s because the art form is holistic and attuned with nature. “This music is peaceful, soulful medicine,” says Khan, who believes that once one enters the profound chasm of this music and full immersion is achieved, “You don’t need any medicine—neither ayurvedic or allopathic. Your medicine is taken care of. Your therapy is taken care of. You just let the music play on.”
Born on 26 January, 1986, Khan hails from the Sikar gharana, a musical school or system he describes as having a rich history despite originally being geographically obscure. “Our gharana features the likes of Mehdi Hasan and Jagdeep Singh [prominent and critically acclaimed ghazal singers],” explains Khan, who traces his lineage back nine generations. With dominant khayal influences, his music continues the legacy of his family members and gurus, namely his paternal grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan, and his parents Ustad Sultan Khan and Batul Pano Sultan Khan.
“There’s this photo of me when I was six years old, and my paternal grandfather is giving talim to myself and my father,” he laughs, “But I’d say my music education began even earlier.” The tabla and other musical instruments around his house were his toys, and music his pacifier and lullaby. By the time he was 11, he commenced recording, at 13, he attended his first big concert with his father, and at around the age of 17, his career catapulted with a concert featuring the who’s who of the Bollywood as well as musical industry. He has now been accompanying Ustad Zakir Hussain for approximately 17 to 18 years.
So while his talent may have been God-gifted, Khan believes it was honed by being born into a musical family, “When you get God’s gift, you’ve got to maintain it,” he says, adding that it’s a big responsibility to be a legend’s son. A difference of ‘Unnees bees’ is marginally acceptable, he says, referring to a popular idiom loosely translated to ‘19 is as good as 20’, but 15 out of 20, for instance, just doesn’t cut it. “I need to live up to my name, my father’s name, my lineage’s name, and my Allah’s name,” he concludes, sharing that his foremost prayer before every concert is to preserve his parents’ reputation.
One of his most appreciated insights about Darbar Festival is the curation of musicians across many gharanas, and in keeping with both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions. Khan draws an analogy to purchasing a bouquet, “If you get a bouquet of roses or carnations alone, it’s cheaper. But when you go and ask for one lotus, one jasmine, one chambeli and one rose…it becomes the most expensive bouquet. Expensive, yet also exquisitely diverse. That’s the bouquet that Darbar gives us.”
In today’s frenetically-paced world, Khan says, live music and festivals such as Darbar Festival aim to bring peace to people’s atma or soul. It’s a balm, he explains, such as the cleansing ritual many families in India may perform when purchasing or moving into a new house. “You go in and you either read the Quran, for example, or have a pooja, and the house suddenly seems so much more peaceful…it doesn’t even matter if it’s a haunted house!” he says good-naturedly, “This world can also be a haunted house sometimes, but music can make it feel all the more tolerable and change the energy.”
For music is the ultimate universal leveller. The moment it plays, titles, class differences, racial inequities and constructs of seniority melt away, Khan sums up, referencing a popular Urdu idiom by Allama Iqbal Urdu idiom: “Sultan and slave in single file stood side by side. Then no servant was nor master, nothing did them divide.”
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