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One Of India's Leading Musicians, Sultan Khan, Dies At Age 71

Indian classical sarangi master Sultan Khan.
courtesy of the artist
Indian classical sarangi master Sultan Khan.

Sultan Khan, one of the most prominent and celebrated Indian musicians of the past half-century, died from kidney failure in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India today. He was 71 years old.

Born in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan to a family of sarangi players, he was usually referred to as "Ustad Sultan Khan"; "ustad" is an honorific meaning "master."

The sarangi — a bowed, stringed instrument whose name means "a hundred colors" and which has a well-earned reputation as an exceedingly difficult instrument to master — faced near-extinction not so long ago. Its mellow sound and fretless construction lends itself to highly ornamented and expressively inflected melodies. It is a natural accompaniment to the singing voice.

But the sarangi's popularity began dwindling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until a small number of virtuoso musicians sparked its revival. Perhaps most prominent among them was Khan, whose virtuosity pushed the sarangi into the solo spotlight. He could take the instrument from low, aching cries through dazzlingly fast and imaginative passages.

Within the North Indian (Hindustani) tradition, musicians are expected to be brilliant improvisers and know their centuries-old inherited legacy thoroughly, and Khan was a consummate artist. Last year, he was awarded with one of India's highest civilian honors, the Padma Bhushan.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.