Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan — The Last of Them is No More

The last of a generation of musicians born in the 1920s, he will be remembered as a legendary and innovative sitar player.

Ustad Abul Halim Jaffer Khan1929-2017Crdit: jafferkhanibaaj.com

Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan
Credit: jafferkhanibaaj.com

Among the Indian classical musicians born in the 1920s who went on to become legends, Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, who passed away in Mumbai on January 4,  may never had the largest fan following but he was second to none in terms of accomplishment. In the days when Ravi Shankar was an international name and Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan were arguably just as well known, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan was widely recognised in the larger world, albeit by a more select group of music aficionados. His music, I remember, was available in the ‘international’ section of select New York music shops as early as the 1960s. He was loved and praised everywhere for hi style of sitar playing, and better still, discussed.

These older musicians made an unusual bridge between the seemingly separate strengths of ‘intellect’ and ‘emotion.’ Critics and listeners interpret differently which to stress – arguing whether it is the unique architecture of sounds that is special, or the devotional quality of the music that produces an ecstasy, or the individual modification of the instrument to render a different sonorousness. Great musicians did all these things simultaneously, of course. It is our inability to pin down one source of their uniqueness that makes them special.

These musicians were also early pioneers in global music, by whichever term we call it today. We have all heard of the Beatles’ collaboration with Pandit Ravi Shankar. But earlier than that, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan played with the jazz pianist David Brubeck. In Bombay as a “Jazz Ambassador” of the US Department of State, Brubeck discovered the singular improvisational tradition of Indian classical music and described later how he had he learnt a lot in spite of the totally different tradition. One cannot help but wish that the ‘intellect’ at work here was more in evidence in contemporary efforts in East-West fusion.

Ustadji also collaborated with the famous guitarist Julian Bream. He had many other accolades to his credit, starting from his special artist status in Akashvani from when it was still All India Radio before independence, to his awards of Tagore Ratna, Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan. Yet it is not for all that, that a musician is remembered. It is his music that speaks to us. It is his longevity. Born on February 15, 1929, he recorded and released music till well in to his seventies. It is his inventiveness, reminding us that ‘classical’ is a term that refers to the special stratus of creative artists and not to mere imitators and practitioners.

The santoor player Shiv Kumar Sharma recalls the impact Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan’s unique style had on him as a young musician. “It was probably in 1955–56, I was relaxing in my terrace in Jammu. In the stillness of the night I heard the notes of Raga Chaayanat on the sitar emanate from my neighbour’s radio. I immediately noticed that the tone of the sitar was completely different and the style of playing radically unique. I rushed to switch on my radio….I was totally engrossed and was very curious to know who this maestro was.” (Jafferkhani Baaj: Innovation in Sitar Music. Kohinoor Printers, 2000.)

Questions regarding Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan’s gharana deserve more specialised research. What we know is that he learnt from his father, Jaffer Khan of Madhya Pradesh, a versatile musician but especially beenkar, and that his gharana is called the beenkar gharana of Indore. Better known are some of his contributions to Hindustani classical music. He is said to have brought the Carnatic ragas Kirwani, Kanakangi, Latangi, Karaharapriya, Manavati, Ganamurti, among others into the Hindustani repertoire, collaborating with the Carnatic veena player Emani Sankara Sastry. He originated his virtuoso style called “Jafferkani Baaj”, experimentating with poly-tonality among other innovations. Then, he is well known as active in the Hindi film industry. His music can be heard in the films Mughal-e-Azam, Goonj Uthi Shehnai and Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje.

Ustad Halim Jaffer Khan is survived by his son and disciple Zunain Khan, disciples Prasad Jogekar and Gargi Shinde, the Halim Academy of Sitar in Mumbai, and, I would like to think, of the many who will love and learn from his music.

1. Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan plays Raga Sindh Bhairavi


2. Raga Jhinjhoti

3. Raga Jaijaiwanti

4. Raga Pahadi

Nita Kumar is a historian and anthropologist who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, California. She is the honorary director of NIRMAN, a non-profit organisation in Varanasi. Her blog is nitakumar.wordpress.com.