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Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan (1927-2017): The last of the four pillars of sitar’s golden age falls

Acclaimed for his unique style and melodic originality, he made a formidable foursome along with Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee.

A musician’s success depends largely on his or her good fortune, said the sitar player Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan in an interview two decades ago. If we take “good fortune” to include a whole host of factors over which a musician has little control, and success to mean “fame and recognition”, Khan’s formulation is accurate. It is also touchingly modest because it plays down the role of individual talent and yet it comes from someone whose overt success was backed by great musical accomplishment.

Khan, who passed away in Mumbai on January 4, a month short of 90 years, was as versatile as he was innovative, as steeped in tradition as he was open to new influences, as committed to teaching as he was to performing and as easy-going as he was creatively ambitious. Like his contemporary Nikhil Banerjee, who died relatively early, in his mid-50s, Khan shone in a Hindustani classical music firmament already illuminated by two suns: Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. Khan was the last living member of that formidable foursome.

“He stood out for his technical virtuosity,” said Nayan Ghosh, the reputable tabla player in Mumbai who accompanied Khan on several occasions, as had his father, the late great Nikhil Ghosh. “His speed and clarity were unparalleled.” Also a sitar player, Ghosh said Khan could play taans, those rapid virtuoso sequences of notes, across up to four strings, while most sitar players did so across two.

Khan went beyond technical command to develop a highly distinctive style, the eponymous Jafferkhani baaj, with its instantly recognisable sound. The style included a tremendous command over the krintan technique used in playing Indian string instruments and referred to in Western music as the hammer-on and pull-off technique, especially in connection with playing the guitar.

This technique involves a (right-handed) player striking several notes in succession on the fretboard (the hammer-on) and plucking the string at the same point with his or her left hand (the pull-off) without plucking the string with the right hand. This creates a different, more fluid sound, called legato in Western music, than when the player plucks the string with the right hand each time he or she strikes a new note with the left hand, which creates a staccato effect.

“I have not heard another sitar player who could elongate the krintan for as long as Khan-saheb could,” said Budhaditya Mukherjee, 62, one of the greatest sitarists of our time, who lives in Kolkata and whose playing is influenced by the Imdadkhani style, named after Vilayat Khan’s grandfather. “That he did that in the aalaap portion was astounding.”

Image credit: http://www.jafferkhanibaaj.com/
Image credit: http://www.jafferkhanibaaj.com/

Khan’s sitar playing was not just about great technique. His renditions of ragas often contained very original phrases and application of ornaments, and his laykari, or creative dialogue with rhythm, was of a high order. He also composed several gats (a gat is a compositional form for the sitar and other string instruments).

“His gats had a unique flavour,” said Suvranalata Rao, a sitar player and musicologist in Mumbai, with the National Centre for the Performing Arts. “They had a lilting, song-like gait.”

Khan owed his inventiveness to his early exposure. He was born into a hereditary musicians’ family, of the kind that dominated Hindustani music for several centuries until the late 19th century. His father was originally from Indore, and moved to Mumbai when Khan was a year old. His father could play the sitar and the been, and sing.

In Mumbai, their first home, in the Grant Road area of South Mumbai, attracted many musicians, such as the beenkar Mohammad Khan Desai Faridi, and Babu Khan, a beenkar and sitar player.

“I was very influenced by Babu Khan’s style of playing the sitar, and started focusing my attention on the sitar after listening to him,” Khan said in an interview to tabla player and historian Aneesh Pradhan, reproduced in Pradhan’s fine book, Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay. “By this time, I had already some training from my father in vocal music, jaltarang and sitar.”

His life was not without struggles. In the early 1940s, his father died when he was still a teenager. Because his concert career had not yet taken off, Khan had to look for work in the Hindi film industry. He was not the first sitar player to work in the film industry, but his stint there encouraged many more to follow, such as Aziz Khan, Muhammad Shafi and Ramlal.

Playing and recording for Hindi films was, he said in Pradhan’s book, “in retrospect…one of the most challenging tasks” he had undertaken. This is mostly because the music was rendered in Western staff notation, which he did not know. Ever open to new ideas, Khan began learning this notation, but in the meanwhile he had to memorise long passages of music.

Khan took an interest in Carnatic music, spending time with musicians in Mysore and Chennai. He played duets with the violinist MS Gopalakrishnan, who also created a highly idiosyncratic technique of playing. Khan borrowed scales of Carnatic ragas, such as Kiravani and Latangi, and incorporated them into the Hindustani idiom. His crossovers had gravitas, unlike many others, which end up sounding like caricatures of the original melody and do justice to neither idiom.

For all his public recognition, which included a Padma Sri, Padma Bhushan and a Sangeet Natak Akademi award, he was unpretentious and approachable, friends and musicians say. Sitar player Mukherjee’s father and guru, Bimlendu Mukherjee, who learnt from Vilayat Khan’s father, Enayat Khan, had close and warm relations with Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, as did tabla player Nikhil Ghosh.

He realised, as only a true artist would, where he stood in relation to his art. “There is magic in music,” he told Pradhan. “It is not possible to attain perfection in a single lifetime.” For listeners, less than perfection from him was more than enough.


Below, the accomplished sarod player, Arnab Chakrabarty, 36, analyses two clips of Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan that are among his favourites and explains what is great about them.

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Few musicians can turn raga Kafi into a one-hour performance. But that is what Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan does in this concert released retrospectively on his 75th birthday by London-based Navras Records. The ustad plays a full alap, a Masitkhani gat, as he almost always did, to explore the raga at a medium-slow tempo. The chromatic use of the two gandharas, the placement of the “sam” on what sounds like a question mark (R-g-R), and the presence of the unusual cluster ‘n’ P S within the body of the gat makes it very interesting. The performance ends with a fast gat which is, for the lack of a traditional classifier, Jafferkhani in character. It is a very witty composition and tell-tale of Khan-sahib’s excellent sense of humour and jovial disposition.

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This Bhairavi, likely from the late 1960s or early 1970s, is remarkable in several ways. First, the restraint shown in the short alap in his use of long krintans, preferring, instead, to play the more conventional combinations of meends and murkis is uncharacteristic of the maestro. Second, the ease accuracy with which Khan plays complex meends (lateral deflection of the main string to bend the pitch) at a fairly quick pace is stunning. The placement of quick murkis (an ornament consisting of four or five notes played in quick succession with at least one reversal of melodic direction within the pattern) on the opening strokes of a Masitkhani gat is unique. Use of arpeggios without violating the essence of a raga shows that the Ustad was clued into other musical forms and allowed them to inspire him without resorting to overt gimmickry. Finally, the sense of proportion he shows in editing a 30-minute raga down to a 10-minute performance, while keeping it involved and aesthetically fulfilling, is truly noteworthy.

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