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The khayal of Kabul

Eltaf Hussain Sarahang, a third-generation ustad from a country gripped by violence is keeping the classical tradition alive, reports Aasheesh Sharma.
Hindustan Times | By Aasheesh Sharma
UPDATED ON MAY 01, 2010 10:41 PM IST

His homecoming was violent. When Ustad Eltaf Hussain Sarahang, 53, one of the better known exponents of khayal singing, returned to Afghanistan after 20 years, he lost a friend and a colleague.

On February 26, Indian tabla player Nawab Khan, who would have played with Sarahang, was killed in a blast at a Kabul hotel where they were staying.

Unfazed, the Pathan put the loss behind him to go on a concert tour where he performed to full houses in Taliban country.

On Friday, before a performance at The Attic in Delhi’s Regal Building, Sarahang attributed the Afghan trait of enjoying music amid conflict to genes. “With a war raging for three decades, it takes courage to keep music alive. But Afghans are zindadil and khush tabiyat (courageous and full of life). Even when they lift the gun and go to war they have a song on their lips.”

In 1990, after the final Soviet soldier had left Kabul and the mujahideen were getting ready to call the shots, Sarahan escaped and sought refuge in India.

For a third-generation classical singer from the Patiala gharana, it was natural. “As I child I grew up listening to Mohammed Rafi. His songs played in Kabul’s taxis and cafés. I still can’t tire of listening to Kai khwab dekh dale from Teen Deviyan in tala Rupak.”

A musical lineage

Grandson of Ghulam Hussain Sarahang, who brought the Patiala gharana to Afghanistan and the son of Mohammed Hussain Sarahang, who took the genre to new heights, Sarahang led a charmed childhood. “In Calcutta to perform at the All India Music Conference, we stayed at the Minerva Hotel on Mission Road. It was here that Baba Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saheb visited us and invited us home.”

His father had just one request for his peers and seniors — Ustad Allah Rakha Khan, Farida Khanum and Vilayat Khan-confer little Eltaf with their duas (blessings).

The blessings worked. King Zahir Shah anointed him the royal musician of Afghanistan at 21. “The king understood classical music. He invited the best musicians to Kabul. If Vilayat Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar or Bismillah Khan were alive, they’d tell you about the hospitality they got during the Jashn-e-Azadi celebrations.”

Martial arts

Sarahang says that the bedrock of his style of singing is the tradition pioneered by Akhtar Hussain Khan of the Patiala gharana — with its intricate ragas, taans and bandishes. Even as he sings the Sufiana lyrics of Aulia Abdul Qadir Bedil, his sound is distinctly Afghan. “Before my grandfather popularised Khayal singing in Afghanistan, we were a family of hakims, wrestlers and soldiers.”

Looking at his wizened face and stocky frame, it is tough to imagine Sarahang wearing fatigues and wielding a rifle, but like everybody else in Afghanistan, he did the mandatory Army stint during King Dawood Khan’s reign. His father worked in an artillery unit in Zahir Shah’s army and his grand father, the first musician to play the piano in Afghanistan, is credited with introducing martial tunes to the troops of Amir Habibullah.

Back to the roots

Now settled in California, United States, Sarahang says classical music has taken a hit in the rush to brand every successful singer from the subcontinent a Sufi. “Wearing black clothes on the stage doesn’t make you a Sufi. The real Sufis are informal about themselves and serious about their art — look at qawwals Ghulam Sabir Maqbul Sabri and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and mallika-e-ghazal Farida Khanum.”

After training from his father in Kabul, Sarahang was tutored by eminent Indian masters Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Professor Deodhar. “When I was 15, my ustad Amanat Ali Khan visited Kabul. For the time he was there, I pressed his feet, listened to conversations and picked up the nuances of thumri.”

As India prepared to play Afghanistan in the T20 World Cup on Saturday, the ustad was torn between a nation that gave him his skill, sanctuary and love and the other where his roots lie. Which team will he root for? “Afghanistan and India are like my two eyes, whoever wins I will feel victorious.”

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