Although Khansahib did not have the choice to live his life more freely, the severe nature of his training led him to become a musician of the highest caliber. He ran away from home twice and was brought back each time, resuming his studies. His father continued to teach him until he was over 100 years old. After his death in 1972 at the age of 110, Khansahib would continue to learn from him in his dreams.
In 1936, at the age of thirteen, Khansahib gave his first public performance on the sarod at a music conference in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, India. About the performance, Khansahib said:
“I do not remember much from that because it was quite some time ago. In those days, all the distinguished singers and instrumentalists used to sit in the front row to hear music. They were extremely demanding and would not tolerate mediocrity. Some of them would come to the stage and shout if they didn’t like what they heard. But I remember that after I finished my performance, many of them came up on the stage and hugged me.”
This performance was the beginning for Khansahib—the start of a lifelong journey of creating art in a public forum. His gift was noted, even at that young age. Although his studies would continue intensely for many years to come, his entry into the public perspective would change his relationship to the music. He was no longer just the young boy training in a rural village. He would later say that performing was his way of bringing joy to people and connecting to something higher than himself. Although he was rarely pleased with his own performance, he often felt that the instrument would take over in those moments and he would be told what to do.
Two years after that first performance, in 1938, Khansahib gave his first recital on All India Radio (AIR), Bombay, where he was accompanied on tabla by the great Ustad Alla Rakha. By January of 1940, he was giving monthly performances on AIR, Lucknow. In 1944, Khansahib became the youngest Music Director for AIR, Lucknow, and was responsible for solo performances and composing for the radio orchestra. At just 22 years old, this was instrumental in helping him to find his own path.
In his early twenties, Khansahib made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label. The next year, in 1943, on his father’s recommendation, he was appointed as court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. There, he taught and composed music as well as giving recitals. He worked there for seven years before the Maharaja’s untimely death. This was a challenging job, but the musicians were treated like princes themselves and were given great sums as gifts. About those days, Khansahib said:
“In Jodhpur, that king wanted to hear eight hours [of playing each day]. My father wanted me to play 18 hours a day. He figured that if he sent me to the court, I’d at least play eight, as you can’t say no to a king. So he sent me there. The Maharajah was two years younger than me. But he died in a plane crash, and so I left. I didn’t resign though, and so I still have good relations, as if I’m in the family. His son built a music room in my name in the palace. That was my last job. Every night I had to play eight hours, sometimes without tabla, just the alap, when the king couldn’t sleep. When he’d fall asleep, the queen would give a sign that now I could go.”
It was at the palace that he was bestowed with his first title, that of Ustad (or Master Musician)—an honorific he was never comfortable with and rarely used. He told the king that he couldn’t accept it without his father’s permission, as his father was his guru and had the ultimate word about his development as a musician. The king wrote his father a telegram, and his father approved the title; however, he would tease Khansahib about it, and in turn Khansahib found it to be too embarrassing to use.
After Jodhpur, Khansahib moved to Bombay, where he earned acclaim as a composer of several film scores. He composed extensively in India, beginning with Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan (1952), followed by Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder (1963), and Tapan Sinha’s Khudito Pashan (“Hungry Stones,” 1960), for which he won the “Best Musician of the Year” award. In 1993, he would go on to score some of the music for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.
It was in 1945 that Khansahib recorded a raga he had newly created in Bombay, at the HMV studios. It was entitled Raga Chandranandan (meaning “moonstruck”) and was based on the four evening ragas: Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandakauns, and Kaushi Kanada. This record was a huge success in India and would later find a worldwide audience, becoming a raga he would be remembered for eternally. When speaking about creating compositions, Khansahib said:
“Creating a new raga is very difficult. I can’t avoid old ragas, you see. I have to take the help of the other ragas, then give a new face. And there are already so many ragas there…If a new raga is too much like an old one, you get confused. You have to learn to recognize them. You have to learn so many ragas, not just the notes, but the heart of the ragas.”