Ustad Imrat Khan

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A brief biography

Namita Devidayal , Imrat Khan, maestro who kept surbahar alive, dies in US, November 24, 2018: The Times of India

Imrat Khan belonged to the illustrious Etawah or Imdadkhani Gharana, named after his grandfather Imdad Khan, a master in both sitar and surbahar. His father Enayet Khan died when he was a child. His mother ensured that he learnt surbahar under his uncle Wahid Khan, who had immortalised the instrument in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Jalsaghar’. It has been said that all members of this lineage were trained in the surbahar as much as the sitar, regardless of which instrument they eventually opted to play.

The surbahar is to the sitar what the cello is to the violin. According to musicologist Deepak Raja, the surbahar was developed around 1825 by Ghulam Mohammed, a sitar player from the Awadh principality (Lucknow). “Ghulam Mohammad felt the need to devise an instrument which combined the handling convenience of the sitar with the melodic potential and acoustic richness of the rudra veena,” says Raja. But, over the years, the melodic nature and popularity of the contemporary sitar threatened the surbahar with extinction. “The surbahar as a solo instrument was being seriously pursued today only by two musicians – Imrat Khan and his son Irshad Khan,” he adds.

Imrat Khan was among the first Indian classical musicians to perform in the West. In 1961, he played at the Edinburgh International Festival as well as in Berlin and London. A few years later, he taught at the Dartington College of Arts in England. Englishman Robert Browning, who started the World Music Institute in New York, remembered how, back in the sixties, he had been mesmerised by Imrat Khan’s surbahar on BBC Radio — a sound never before heard.

Imrat Khan and his four sons — Nishat Khan, Irshad Khan, Wajahat Khan and Shafat Khan — who played sitar, surbahar, sarod and tabla, performed several times together in a programme he called ‘the fifty fingers of Imrat Khan’. He is survived by his sons, daughter Sabiha Yoshida, children from his first wife Mumtaz and his much younger son Azmat, from his former student and wife Belinda.

If it weren’t for Ustad Imrat Khan, the surbahar may well have receded from the listener’s imagination. The maestro, who famously turned down the Padma Shri last year, saying that the recognition came far too late, died after a brief illness in St Louis, the US, where he lived for many years. He was 83.

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