It is difficult for laymen to appreciate Indian classical singers, classical music and instruments. However, they get universal appreciation when these masters perform popular numbers to reach the masses. Most Indians may not know much about the world famous Sarangi Maestro from India, Ustad Sultan Khan. But many must have appreciated the song “Albela Sajan Aayo Re…” from the Bollywood movie “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”. Or, the runaway hit song, “Piya Basanti Re” which was sung by Chithra. The matured male voice in these two songs belonged to the sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan!
Ustad Sultan Khan was an Indian sarangi player and classical vocalist who belonged to the Sikar Gharana. Along with Zakir Hussain and Bill Laswell, he was one of the founding members of the Indian fusion group ‘Tabla Beat Science’. For his contributions in music, he was awarded the third highest civilian honor by the Government of India, the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
Brief Bio – Childhood and Early Years
Sultan Khan was born on 15 April 1940 in the Sikar district of erstwhile princely state of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. His ancestors were court musicians and his father Ustad Gulab Khan was a renowned sarangi player. His brothers Nasir Khan and Niyaz Ahmed Khan were Sitar players.
He began learning Sarangi from a young age from his father. Later, he trained under Ustad Amir Khan, a classical vocalist of Indore Gharana.
The exceptionally talented Sultan Khan made his debut performance at the All-India Conference when he was just eleven year old.
The Beginning of a Great Professional Career in Music
In 1960, at the age of 20, he started his professional career at the All India Radio (AIR), Rajkot radio station in Gujarat.
Eight years later, he got a chance to play with Lata Mangeshkar during her visit to Rajkot. This incident proved to be a turning point in his life. Lata mangeshkar had heard of Sultan khan from her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. She was very impressed with his sarangi playing and invited him to Mumbai.
He got a transfer to the Mumbai radio station. There he performed in music concerts where top musicians like Allahrakkha Khan, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, to name a few, performed. He got several opportunities to get involved with the classical music circle as well as with film music industry.
He is acknowledged as an accomplished Sarangi player and also as a Vocalist. He has several best-selling albums to his credit. Below is a snapshot of his creditworthy memorable performances.
A Journey of Memorable Performances – Timeline and Milestones
Sultan Khan has given accompaniment to all the great Indian maestros like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Ustad Nazakat Ali & Salamat Ali Khan, Kishori Amonkar, and many more.
- In 1974, he made an international performance with Pandit Ravi Shankar in George Harrison’s ‘Dark Horse World Tour’.
- In 1984, the Oscar-winning film “Gandhi” also featured his music. Later he recorded for other Hollywood films such as “Heat and Dust”, Ivory Merchant production.
- In 1993, he performed with Ustad Allah Rakha Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain for the House of Commons in London. This was when he was a regular artist for BBC Radio London.
- In 1997, he composed the musical track for the BBC 2 documentary “London Calling”.
- He also composed the soundtrack for the Ismail Merchant’s film “In Custody” along with Ustad Zakir Hussain. He also composed musical score for another Merchant Ivory production, “The Street Musician of Bombay” for BBC Channel 4.
- In 1997, he was invited to perform at Prince Charles’ 50th birthday celebrations.
- In 1997, he collaborated with, and was appreciated for his performances by Madonna.
- In 1998, he performed in a Sufi Music Festival at the White House in USA.
- He contributed vocals and sarangi to Dizrhythmia’s first LP and Gavin Harrison’s 1998 solo album Sanity & Gravity.
- In 2000, he appeared on ‘Good People in Times of Evil’ with Jonas Hellborg and guitar virtuoso Shawn Lane.
Piya Basanti and Other Sterling Contributions to Film Music
Despite his formal training of classical music in singing, Ustad had never seriously pursued vocal music. In 1999, Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali requested him to sing the famous song, “Albela Sajan Aayo Re” from his film “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”. In the film he sang with Kavita Krishnamurthy and Shankar Mahadevan.
This song and the subsequent pop album “Piya Basanti” with Chithra made him popular among the youth. It won ‘MTV International Viewer’s Choice Award’. Since then Ustad has recorded many more albums.
Some of his other top albums are Ustad & the Divas T-Series, Ustad Sultan Khan & his friends, Shoonya, Bhoomi and Pukaar with Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan etc.
He has also given his voice in films like Maqbool, Kachche Dhaage, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Parzania, Jab We Met, Agni Varsha, Superstar, Rahul and Paanch.
Sultan Khan performed for the Tamil film Yogi. He played a solo sarangi for Yogi’s theme and also for the song “Yaarodu Yaaro” from the same album.
His last musical offering along with his son was for the multilingual film ‘Amma’ directed by controversial director Faisal Saif.
A Long List of Illustrious Students
He taught music to film producers like Sukshinder Shinda and Ram Gopal Varma, and also provided the music for his film, Deyyam.
He had many students and some of them are famous names like Bollywood Director Vishal Bhardwaj, Sandesh Shandaliya, composer Ilaiyaraaja, Gurdas Maan, Falu, Anand Vyas, Ikram Khan, Vinod Pawar, Dr. Kashyap Dave, Sabir khan, Dilshad Khan, to name a few.
One of his student Deeyah was a Norwegian-born singer, and he performed on her debut album ‘I Alt Slags Lys’ in 1992.
Khan died on 27 November 2011 in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India after a prolonged illness. He was on dialysis for the last four years and had lost his speech in his last few days. Next day, the funeral was held in his hometown Jodhpur, Rajasthan. He is survived by his wife Bano, son Sabir Khan, who is also a Sarangi player and daughters Reshma and Shera.
Awards and Accolades
Ustad Sultan Khan has won numerous musical awards in his lifetime. These include the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award twice; and the American Academy of Artists Award in 1998.
He has also been the recipient of Dinanath Mangeshkar Award, Hafiz Ali Khan Award, Marwar Ratan Award, Maharashtra Govt. Award, Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Academy and many more.
He also received the top recognition from the Government of India in the form of the third highest civilian honour of India, the Padma Bhushan in 2010.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah