On December 1 in New Delhi the great musician Ustad Sabri Khan passed away. During the 88 years of his life his achievements were many but he will be remembered as the last link between the old and the new so far as Indian classical music is concerned. He was born in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh into a family of traditional musicians who belonged to the Senia gharana (‘family’) who followed the precepts of Miyan TanSen. Miyan TanSen was the court musician of the Emperor Akbar who elevated him to be a Nava Ratna, one of the Nine Gems of the Mughal Empire. Such was the respect lavished upon artists in those distant days.
Sabri Khan’s chosen instrument was the sarangi which he learnt from his father. The sarangi (from sau-rangi, meaning a hundred colours) is a fretless stringed instrument played with a bow. The whole body — belly and fingerboard — is carved out of a single block of wood and the hollow covered with parchment. The resonator is waisted on the upper side and the fingerboard is very broad. It accommodates three or four main strings made out of gut, and up to forty sympathetic strings.
Because of its construction the sarangi is capable of great subtlety (such as gamaks, grace notes) and meends (slides). It can produce a wide range and register of sound. Of all north Indian instruments it most nearly reproduces the human voice and so is the ideal accompaniment to a vocal recital. It was originally used largely for this purpose, but is now accepted as a solo instrument thanks to pioneers such as Sabri Khan.
The technique of playing this instrument is somewhat unusual for, while the right hand wields the bow,the fingernails of the left push against and slide along the main strings.
Sabri Khan played regularly over All India Radio for fifty years. And at the midnight hour of August 15, 1947 before and after Nehru delivered his celebrated Tryst with Destiny speech to millions of Indians Sabri Khan played on the sarangi. Much later when Nehru was dying he was summoned to play the sarangi by Nehru’s bedside to smooth the passing of the great man.
Sabri Khan accompanied several important vocalists, among them Ustad Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar and Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur. He travelled to dozens of countries all over the world with his sarangi. Like Ravi Shankar took the sitar to the west, he took the sarangi. Ravi Shankar played with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and so did Sabri Khan.
India honoured him with many honours and the President of India said: “In his death, the nation has lost an artist of exceptional ability.”
His gifted son Kamal Khan is following in his father’s footsteps. _____________________________________________________________________________________
Reginald Massey’s book The Music of India which has a foreword by Ravi Shankar is available from Amazon.