The year is 2000. A few hundred people are waiting just outside the heavy doors of the Y.B. Chavan auditorium in downtown Mumbai. They have been waiting for almost an hour. But we, the organisers of the Festival of Tibet, cannot let them in because the maestro isn’t done with his soundcheck. Tea
is flowing like water and Ustad Sultan Khan is having a series of awkward tête-à-têtes with Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog, with whom he has agreed to a jugalbandi.
Suddenly, the Ustad starts humming rather than bowing his sarangi. In a few loping notes he pitches full-tilt into one of my all-time favourites, D.V. Paluskar’s ‘Jab Jankinath sahay’. He wraps up the soundcheck as soon as he finishes the bhajan and picks up his sarangi. The song was just a diversion to invoke the mood for the evening — one of devotion, compassion and serenity.
The Ustad didn’t charge us, Friends of Tibet, for the concert. Yet he took care to rehearse with Nawang, whom he met and heard for the first time just a few days before the concert. What made him agree to such a collaboration? There was a genuine generosity of spirit — both as a curious musician and as a citizen who’s unapologetic about his personal political beliefs. That evening the then-60-year-old displayed the enthusiasm of a child at his favourite game. There was no holding back.
The openness towards collaboration is evident in some albums too. One of them is Friends Across Boundaries (Ninaad, 1999), on which Sultan Khan works with Swedish bass guitarist Jonas Hellborg and tabla player Fazal Qureshi. The album’s sound can be described with the tacky tag-line used by Mynta, Qureshi’s Indo-Swedish jazz band: “A fusion of Nordic ice and Indian spice.”
Some of the same tendencies — towards collaborations or diversions, whichever way you see it — perhaps allowed the Ustad to take to Bollywood.
Morey Piya, a not-yet-old double album comprising a decade’s classical film songs, has five tracks by Khan. That this is the most by any singer in an album which features stalwarts such as Jagjit Singh, Sonu Nigam and Sukhwinder Singh says something about the Ustad’s enduring popularity.
The title is borrowed from a Sultan Khan song in Ustad The Divas, a non-film album. In it, Khan provides enveloping taans that frame Sunidhi Chauhan’s refrain, “Morey piya ki lambi lambi kes.” From the same album is the hilly-folksy ‘Leja leja’, sung with Shreya Ghoshal. Also included are a couple of duets with Chitra, ‘Haye re’ and ‘Rangeelo rut’.
Then there’s ‘Albela sajan’, the composition in Ahir Bhairav that was probably the Ustad’s first big film hit (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, 1999). The pass-the-melody frolic in it between Khan, Shankar Mahadevan and Kavita Krishnamurthy shows as much of the Ustad’s munificent spirit as Ismail Darbar’s ear for rhythmic arrangement.
Some of the other songs are usually not to be found in compilations. Among them are Jagjit Singh’s ‘Koyi fariyad’ (Tum Bin, music by Nikhil-Vinay), Sonu Nigam’s ‘Bawri piya ki’ (Baabul, Aadesh Shrivastava), Shreya Ghoshal and M.G. Sreekumar’s ‘Mere dholna’ (Bhool Bhulaiya, Pritam) and Shubha Mudgal’s ‘Ali Ali’ (Nazar, Anu Malik).
Such a refreshing set blighted by that old malaise: it comes in a jacket that reveals as little as it can.
Four films and a compiler Classics from Films is another set of classical film songs published recently. But this one is a rare esoteric mix seemingly compiled by a connoisseur sitting beside a dusty filing cabinet.
It’s culled from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Ladki Sahyadri Ki (Hindi films by V. Shantaram, music by Vasant Desai), Kshudita Pashan (Bengali film by Tapan Sinha, music by Ali Akbar Khan) and Birbal My Brother (English film by Raja Thakur, music by Shyam Prabhakar).
It begins with a Manna-Lata medley, ‘Nritya riyaaz’ from JJPB, and ends with an instrumental medley from Birbal. In between are gems such as an invocation in Ahir Bhairav (‘Vandana karo’) by Jasraj, ‘Kaise kate rajani’ by Amir Khan and Protima Banerjee (misspelt Promita on the jacket), a jugalbandi in Malkauns by Jasraj and Bhimsen Joshi, and even a ‘Ghunghroo jugalbandi’ between Samta Prasad and Gopikrishna. There’s also Suman Kalyanpur’s ‘Tohari oongalise’ set in Pahadi Mand. Whoever was that person by the filing cabinet, we salute him.