On 18 February, a luminary of Hindustani classical music, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan, died at the age of 107. A Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Bhushan awardee, Khan belonged to the Gwalior gharana.

In 2015, New Delhi-based film-maker Niharika Popli made a feature-length documentary on Rashid Khan’s life, Rasan Piya, that received a special jury mention at the Mumbai International Film Festival in January. She began to follow the maestro’s music after attending a performance in Jammu, nine years ago.

Read Popli’s tribute below and watch a clip of the film.

Last week, hundreds of us lost our father, our guru, our beloved Baba, Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan. A great musician and poet, yet the simplest of men, he lived his life as an offering to his pir, Muhammad Shah Naeem Ata, a Sufi saint from Baba’s ancestral village of Salon (located near Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh).

It was befitting that in his final journey, he was carried through the crowded narrow by-lanes of Salon, in the midst of the celebration and chaos of a mela—Baba chose to leave this world on the day of his pir’s Urs.

My journey with him began in late 2012, almost five years after I had first heard him. There was something about his music that was pure, simple yet profound; even for someone like me, who had absolutely no connection with classical music, it was impossible not to be touched by his voice. I vividly remember how I and most others who heard him that night had tears in our eyes. Never before had I heard a voice so truthful, full of love, a voice that had the power to light up your mind and your heart. If a child or anyone else has to be introduced to classical music, I think they should first listen to Baba.

It was towards the end of 2012 that my friend Akshay Madan and I decided to make a film on his life. We spent the next two years travelling with him for his concerts across India and to his village, at times living with him, observing and talking to him, and listening to his endless stories, music and poetry. Very soon, we became a part of his family. We were not the only ones. His heart and his house were open to anyone who wished to visit. “It is the house of a fakir," he would say, “Everyone is welcome here."

He was almost 105 years old when we met him, but his zest for life was unparalleled. I remember an incident in his village where a woman had come to seek his blessings for her 10-year-old daughter, who was interested in music. Baba asked that girl to sing for him. She sang one of his compositions and he was so impressed by the little girl’s voice that he told her mother: “Your daughter sings very well. You bring her to me in Kolkata. I will train her for 10 years and send her back."

Khan teaching his student Mehtab in a hotel room
Khan teaching his student Mehtab in a hotel room

Such was his dedication as a guru that even till the very last day of his life, he taught his students. “On the evening of the 17th, he taught me a beautiful composition in raga Marwa, Arrey main kaise ji paaungi bina praanpati," says Srilekha, one of his students in Kolkata.

For the past 23 years, he had been teaching at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata, where he lived with his daughter Pammi and grandson Bilal’s family.

During my research for the film, I met many of his students—from the 1950s and 1960s in Salon, from the 1970s to the mid-1990s in Raebareli, and after that in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi. I realized that his style of teaching had remained the same over the years. In keeping with the traditional seena ba seena (heart to heart) taleem of our ancient guru shishya parampara, he taught one student at a time.

He had always been the most loving guru and there has not been a single occasion when I spoke to any of his students and they did not get emotional about being away from him. When Anjana, one of his students from Raebareli, says, “The only place of sukoon (peace and comfort) was near him," she echoes the sentiments of all his students. Baba was a Krishna bhakt and just like Krishna, to all his students, he was their beloved, child and sage, at the same time.

Baba was an eternal optimist and it was very easy to make him happy. I would offer him his favourite sweet, gur laiyya (made of puffed rice and jaggery) and he would break into a smile. But he was happiest among his students, surrounded by music. Even when he was not teaching and there was no one around, you could see him writing down a new bandish, humming the notes of a raga.

I completed the film in July 2015 and became his disciple. I am extremely fortunate to have been part of his life but there is more that I wanted to learn from him, so many more stories I wanted to hear. I think he went too soon.

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