Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bahadur Khan -- Undeserved Oblivion

Bahadur Khan (1931-1989) was an outstanding, though inadequately recognised, sarodist, trained by his uncle, the legendary Ustad Alauddin Khan (Baba). By kinship, as well as tutelage, Bahadur Khan was a product of the Maihar-Seniya lineage, a trail-blazer in modern Hindustani instrumental music. Interest in his musicianship has received a fillip in recent years, because of his disciple Tejendra Majumdar’s emergence as a front-ranking sarod player.

Bahadur Khan was the son of Ayet Ali Khan, younger brother of Ustad Allauddin Khan. Ayet Ali was an exponent of the surbahar (a large-sized bass sitar). Being a man of withdrawn inclination, he evaded a performing career and devoted his life to teaching and the manufacture of instruments. Ayet Ali Khan is, incidentally, credited with re-engineering the Maihar design Sarod into the sophisticated acoustic machine it is today.

Bahadur Khan started training with his father at the age of five, and was sent off to Maihar, at the age of eight, for grooming under Baba, alongside cousin Ali Akbar. Baba put him through rigorous training in Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Tarana, and the semi-classical genres, in their vocal as well as instrumental manifestations. According to Tejendra Majumdar, his disciple, Bahadur Khan also trained briefly at Jodhpur with his cousin, Ali Akbar Khan.

In 1953, at the age of twenty-two, Bahadur Khan was appointed music director of the Little Ballet Theatre in Bombay, where he composed and conducted the score for some memorable productions. Simultaneously, he launched his career on the concert platform as a sarod soloist. His struggles on the concert circuit were subsidized by a presence in Bombay's film music industry. As a classical soloist, he had concert tours of the USSR, China, Europe, UK, the US and the Middle East. But, the concert platform at home remained largely unenthusiastic about him.

In 1965, he migrated to Calcutta, which treated him more kindly, but mainly as a composer and conductor of film scores. His score for the Bengali feature film, Suvarnarekha (The Golden Line. 1965) by the celebrated director, Ritwik Ghatak, won him accolades. His music for the Hindi film, Garam Hava (Hot Winds.1970), by the avant-garde director M.S Sathyu, was again generously awarded. He did scores for several less distinguished feature and documentary films.

Once settled in Calcutta, Bahadur Khan acquired promising disciples -- in Calcutta as well as Dacca (Bangladesh). He had active links with East Pakistan (present-day Bangaldesh) as some part of his family had continued to live there after partition. Towards the end of his life, in the 1980's, he was honoured with the "Tantra Vilas" title by the Bombay-based Sur Singar cultural organisation for his achievements as a sarod player. But, this was too little, and too late to salvage his career as a soloist.

Cruelty of the market
Bahadur Khan is a lamentable figure in modern Hindustani music. Opinions can vary about his musicianship; and they do. But, there is no doubt that the timing of his arrival was not helpful. The 1950's were a cruel period for budding careers in instrumental music. Vocal music enjoyed the lion’s share of the market, with a host of towering vocalists enjoying immense prestige and popularity. Though growing fast, the market for instrumental music was small, and did not permit more than one performer on each instrument to achieve a comfortable degree of success.

Amongst the string instruments, the sitar had an advantage over the sarod, by virtue of being a more mature instrument in terms of acoustic design and idiom, and of providing a larger reservoir of musicianship. Bahadur Khan was entering a “winner-take-all” market. In such a market, the winner could only be his cousin, Ali Akbar Khan.

Towards the end of his life, he recorded two long-playing discs for HMV/EMI, neither of which is currently available. Around the same time, his American disciple, Chezz Rook, also recorded a couple of his concerts. By this time, Bahadur Khan was in failing health, and well past his peak as a performer. The release of Chez Rook’s recordings by India Archive Music, New York, could give the music community an opportunity of reassessing Bahadur Khan as a sarod player.

Lyle Wachovsky on Bahadur Khan
Lyle Wachovsky is the Managing Director of India Archive Music Ltd., New York, the most influential producer of Hindustani music outside India.

“In my estimation, Bahadur Khan is one of India's greatest unknown musicians. While there is no denying the greatness of Ali Akbar Khan, I have developed a special fondness for his cousin, Bahadur Khan's brilliance in the traditional format.

“The structure of Bahadur Khan's presentation is – to me -- crystalline. His tone is beautiful; but he manipulates its character much as Vilayat Khan does. He had an intuitive and marvelous grasp of what each raga was all about -- a psycho-acoustic and possible visual conception -- which he translated into a complex emotional communication.

“I find his Darbari the only one I have heard which matches Vilayat Khan for a clear, if different, interpretation of a raga. In fact, I find Bahadur Khan to be a lot like Vilayat Khan. He was a serious virtuoso, who used all the strings and the rest of the instrument as well. He continuously varied the technique to make more-or-less the same basic phrases which continued to evolve into something new and different each time he repeated them.

“Chazz Rook, an American disciple of Bahadur's, described his Ustad as "the sarod player with a naked heart". He held nothing back in his presentation of the emotional content and the richness of each raga.

All the recordings of Bahadur Khan available for possible release were done in the last few years of his life, by which time, he was a mental and physical wreck. He died, virtually unknown and unremembered, in 1989.”

© India Archive Music Ltd., New York
The finest recordings of Bahadur Khan have been published by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

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