Sarod maestro Ustad Shahadat Hossain Khan is well-known for his wide repertoire of classical instrumental music. He belongs to a family of illustrious musicians of Bangladesh whose reputation has spread far and wide. Karoby Shihab brings into view some of the important aspects of the ustad’s life that has always been entwined with music.
Ustad Shahadat Hossain Khan has been creating sarod tunes for over five decades, nurturing the souls that still crave ragas-raginis and more. The only son of Ustad Abed Hossain Khan and grandson of Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, Shahadat Hossain Khan is carrying on the heritage of his family. His acumen still leaves an impact on the audience as he is one classical instrumentalist who continues to find a way to stimulate the audience and develop an understanding how they can be made to feel at home.
Shahadat Hossain Khan was only seven years old when his grandfather Ustad Ayet Ali Khan handed him a small sarod. Since then the instrument has become a significant part of his life.
His father Ustad Abed Hossain Khan was pioneer of the musical arena of the country. Musician, music composer and music director Ustad Abed Hossain Khan was awarded with prestigious Ekushey Padak in 1985.
Shahadat Hossain Khan continued the musical legacy of his family, becoming the most celebrated sarod player of country.
He trained under his uncle Ustad Bahadur Khan, a celebrated sarod player of the sub-continent. One of his early performances was in 1972, when he joined his uncle in an instrumental duet at the Alauddin Music Conference in Dhaka.
After that, Shahadat has performed for the All India Radio in Kolkata, Madras, Mumbai, Srinagar and Delhi. He also had the rare opportunity of participate in the All India Radio Music Conference along with the famous exponents of classical music from all over India.
He has represented Bangladesh in different programme held in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Germany, UK, USA, Canada, France, Switzerland, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, Italy, Malaysia, Spain, India, North Korea, China and other countries around the globe.
With the capacity to mesmerise the audiences by creating music that easily freights the audience to another dimension, Ustad Shahadat Hossain Khan is considered the last remaining exponent of a musical tradition that is slowly vanishing in the country.
Throughout his professional career, Shahadat has received many prestigious awards.
In 1974 he was honoured with the State Award for his excellent musical performance. At the All India Bangladesh Music Conference in 1980 he won award by the Bangladesh Film Producers Association. Later in 1983, at the same conference, he was awarded with a gold medal. The long list also includes Rotary Award in 1990, ITC Provincial Music Academy Award in 1991, Ekushey Padak in 1994, Ustad Mujammal Hossain Memorial Award in 1998, Bangla Academy Fellowship in 2013 and more.
Throughout the years, he has received two lifetime achievement awards from Delvistaa Foundation in 2013 and Bangladesh Television in 2015.
The seasoned sarod player was born in Cumilla on July 6, 1958 at his paternal grandfather’s home. Just after one and an half month of his birth, Shahadat Hossain Khan came to Dhaka with his parents.
Though he grew up in Dhaka, visiting Cumilla every year for a month was necessary for them as long as his grandfather Ustad Ayet Ali Khan was alive.
‘We used to spend the entire month-long vacation at my grandfather’s home. It was like a grand reunion for us. All of our cousins, uncles and aunties used to gather there. I still miss that. Apart from my father and grandfather, my other uncles are also involved in the musical practice and all of them are well-known in the industry. However, I have seen them playing together from my childhood,’ said Shahadat Hossain Khan.
‘Music was in my blood. Nobody from my family ever pushed me to pursue music. I pursued it of my own accord. From my early childhood I started learning the instrument from my father,’ he added.
Ustad Ayet Ali Khan used to gift his every grandson a musical instrument including tabla, sarod, violin and others. Shahadat Hossain Khan got a sarod from him.
‘Cumilla back then was a different place. It was rich with all sort of cultural activities. People were cordial back then. Presence of nature was overwhelming. Cumilla Town Hall used to run cultural shows regularly and most artistes played to packed audience. Now, times have changed. It was a beautiful, neat and clean city. I visited Cumilla few days ago but I could not find anything of the old flavour,’ he said.
Shahadat Hossain Khan grew up at the Motijheel colony. His father used to work in Bangladesh radio.
He has completed his academic education from Ideal School and College, Motijheel, Dhaka College and the University of Dhaka.
However, his undivided devotion to music has always made him spend a lot of time practicing the sarod.
Shahadat Hossain Khan’s other siblings — his three sisters — used to sing and play instruments as well. But none of them continued as they became busy after their marriage. But ShahadatHossain Khan decided to take it up as serious pursuit and became a well-known sarod player. His mother Farida Khanam supported him a lot in following his dream.
‘After all these years I found that nobody should depend only on music for earning a livelihood. In our country, we still could not make such platform and create an environment where an artiste can rely on only in his art to earn a living. Apart from my musical career, I worked as a government officer in Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation all my life. Otherwise I do not think it could have been easy for me to lead a quality life with my family,’ Shahadat Hossain Khan observed.
From his childhood, Shahadat Hossain Khan used to play in different programmes with his father Abed Hossain Khan. The father-son duo used to amaze the audiences. In 1974, Shahadat Hossain Khan got an offer to play at Ganabhaban from the founding president of the country Sheikh Mujubur Rahman.
‘He was so happy to hear me playing. After I finished he gifted me a cheque of Tk 15 thousand and wrote a sentence of blessing in my diary. I still remember the day. It was July 8, 1974. That day he made me to make a promise of never living Bangladesh,’ Shahadat Hossain Khan remembered.
That time Sheikh Mujibur Rahman decided to send Shahadat Hossain Khan to participate in the All India Radio Conference. Later in the same year along with father Abed Hossain Khan, Shahadat Hossain Khan went to India and they performed in different places of India including Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Kashmir and few other places.
‘I became enlisted in Radio Bangladesh in the same year. And my remuneration was 15 taka. At that time, this amount was something substantial for me,’ said Shahadat Hossain Khan.
Shahadat Hossain Khan was always a bit different than other regular young folks. He had very few selective friends from his childhood. It did not change even during his college or university life. For his unique talent and different lifestyle, he used to get extra care and attention among his friends.
After he got admission in college, he received pupillage under his uncle Ustad Bahadur Khan.
‘Taking pupillage under a trainer is a tradition for those who would pursue the classical genre. So, I followed the tradition. Though I learnt from my father, I had to select my uncle as taking pupillage under one’s father was forbidden. I learnt a lot from Ustad Bahadur Khan,’ Shahadat Hossain Khan shared.
After that Shahadat Hossain Khan used to visit India more often to learn from Bahadur Khan.
The musician is in his sixties now. He has retired from his job in 2017. Nowadays he is busy with his students. He runs a music training session with the title of ‘Ustad Ayet Ali Khan Sangeet Niketan’ at his home.
He has students of different age group who come to learn the sarod, violins and sitar from him.
He started his job in Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation in 1981. Meanwhile he got offer from University of Michigan. He did not join there, rather he worked in Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley, California, USA for a while. He worked in a musical institute in London as well. Though Shahadat Hossain Khan wanted to settle down in the UK, he couldn’t fix his mind after spending a few days there. He started feeling homesick as he could not cope with the foreign environment.
After visiting different countries for over six months, Shahadat Hossain Khan finally returned to Bangladesh.
‘I had to apply different technique to manage leaves from my office. At one point when my leave days were over, I needed 15 more days before coming back. That time I became worried, as I had no way in my mind to manage more leaves. So finally I went to a hospital in USA to have a health certificate from a doctor so that I can submit it in my office,’ Shahadat Hossain Khan shared with a hearty laughter.
‘Though it was a government office, my seniors allowed me a lot of privileges. They never stopped me from attending any programme. I always allowed leave of absence whenever I needed,’ he added with an obvious hint of gratefulness in his voice.
Shahadat Hossain Khan also talked about the time of the liberation war.
‘As far I can remember I was a student of class five or six during that time. Before the night of March 25, we were asked to make barricade around the roads in Motijheel colony. We, the children, could not understand anything but we worked with the older people to create barricade on the roads. After a while that night, west Pakistani military attacked people. That was a horrific day and it continued till independence. The whole time we were in Dhaka,’ Ustad Shahadat Hossain Khan remembered.
‘My uncles Ustad Mir Kashem Khan, Khadem Hossain Khan, Mobarak Hossain Khan and my father Abed Hossain Khan were forced by the west Pakistani rulers to continue the radio programmes. As they were artistes, they had almost check-free access and exit from the radio station. Using this privilege my father used to bring records of songs of freedom to deliver to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in India,’ he added.
Shahadat Hossain regrets that due to his young age, he could not directly join the freedom fighters.
‘On the other hand, I feel blessed that I could become a part of the historic moment of our country. During that time, one day few of our local elder brothers asked me to carry two grenades to other groups. I kept those in my pocket and as I was walking by, suddenly a Pakistan army soldier asked me to go to him. Without thinking anything, I ran away as far as I could go. It was a memorable experience for me,’ Shahadat Hossain Khan remembered.
From the memoryscape, the ustad also veered into the state of music in the country during the interview.
On the present and future of the traditional instrumentalist of Bangladesh, he said, ‘Traditional instruments like the sarod, sitar and few others are expensive for most people. Very few want to spend that amount on a single instrument. Besides, most young people show interest in learning the guitar as it is comparatively less expensive and easy to learn,’ he observed.
‘We need good teachers to create more traditional instrumental players. Most teachers do not bother to inculcate interest among the students. They follow the basics and at one point, students lose their interest and stop learning. This cannot be a way. It is our duty to give our students hope, so that they are able to absorb the interesting facts of the classical music and the instruments,’ Ustad Shahadat Hossian added.
Government should be concerned, he thinks.
‘Our country has a strong cultural history. But, day by day all traditions are fading away. Our government should invest on art and culture. Every year our cricketers are getting enough attention and funding from the government. On the other hand, artistes, especially instrumentalists are underprivileged. If we could ensure a secure job and a platform for our artistes, more people will be interested in adopting traditional art forms as professions. It would ensure an increase in practice and enhance the quality of our culture,’ he said.
‘I have talked with higher authorities of different cultural organisations regarding recruiting skilled people in their different sectors. A skilled person do not need certificate from an institution. I have seen many people who passed out from different music institutes obtaining good marks but have failed to learn any skills,’ said Ustad Shahadat Hossain Khan.
He thinks that organisers and performers should be more clever and tactful for drawing the attention of audiences towards classical genres.
‘I have performed in different countries where people never heard the tune of the sarod. But when I played they became more interested and asked me to continue playing. Before performing on a stage, I try to measure the taste of the audiences. Later, according to that I start playing. Once the audiences get what they want, they become more curious,’ he said.
Arguing that any live performance also gives one a chance to develop an understanding of the audience, he added, ‘So playing according to what stimulates the audience helps a performer to draw people’s attention. Otherwise people do not have patience to listen the regular classical forms as they are not familiar with the genre.’
Ustad Shahdat Hossain Khan is involved with Grand Union Orchestra in UK for over 15 years. About 35 artistes from around the globe are involved with the orchestra. Every year they visit different schools of UK to introduce traditional instruments among the students of the institutes. They give them basic knowledge about the instruments. The orchestra run the project with funding from the government.
Shahadat Hossain Khan thinks that this kind of initiatives Bangladesh should take.
Ustad’s two daughters play two different instruments —Afsana Khan plays the sitar and Rukhsana Khan plays the sarod. The trio of father and daughters often perform at different programmes.
Photos by Sony Ramany