Ashraf Shareef Khan – The Musical Prodigy
Classical music is a dying art in Pakistan. However, there are some who have dedicated their lives to preserving and promoting this art form. One such name is Ashraf Shareef Khan, a sitar player who now calls Germany his second home.
Ashraf sb. is a prodigy of the Asian sitar master Ustad Muhammad Sharif Khan Poonchwala. His music has a unique touch, a combination of technical proficiency and global appeal. Given his family background, one would assume that playing sitar would come effortlessly to him. This is far from the truth. Though from all the South Asian instruments (Bechatrvina and Surba) his father and grandfather were experts in playing, sitar attracted him since childhood. Despite all this ‘reyaazat’ is key, without that it is not possible to develop this skill of sitar playing.
“Sitar is my childhood love. You can’t explain this you only feel this and it gives you a special energy and satisfaction. When I proposed to my wife I told her I am already married. She was shocked and asked if I had married in Pakistan. I told her she is sitting right in front of you and it was my sitar.”
Ashraf sb.’s first performance was at the age of ten in 1979 at YMCA, Lahore. The event at which he performed had all the renowned names in the field of classical music present. Backstage his father asked him how he was doing and Ashraf sb. confessed that he was terrified. To this he got a good scolding from his father. By the time they were on stage the ten year old Ashraf had shaky legs, but this phase lasted for ten minutes only. After that he started enjoying his performance and even tried taking some additional opportunity from his father.
This episode gives the impression of a very strict father, so how difficult was it to thrive under his scrutinizing eyes? To this he responds that his father had two roles in his life, that of a father and of a teacher and mentor as well. As a father he was very kind hearted and affectionate. As a teacher, he opted for a strict role. There are incidents of scolding in public that felt humiliating at the moment but in retrospect they helped in grooming his craft.
The first time he stepped out of his home country was in 1992 to the United States of America for a concert series and in 1998, he settled in Germany. Talking about the reasons that led him to move, he puts his finger on a combination of fate and dying respect for the field of arts in general that started at that point. Here he pauses and reinforces the fact that he is able to professionally pursue his passion only because of Pakistan and all the support and mentors he had here. Referring to the period of General Zia, which is considered the turning point in the social fabric of Pakistan, interestingly he shared that it was a good period personally for musicians to the extent that they got to perform regularly at the President House and at the Governor House. Governor Jilani was very fond of music and raag malkosh was his favorite which Ashraf sb. had to play multiple times whenever their group went to perform.
“Sitar is not my instrument, not my profession it is my passion.”
When asked what he means by ‘his music’ a term that Ashraf sb. used quite frequently in his conversation with our team, he responded that he was not conscious of this but his reference is to South Asian music. As for the specialty of his family traits, they concentrate not just on the instrument but on vocals as well. The sitar feels like singing and not just playing and this is what he himself tries to achieve.
Ashraf sb. has a long list of honors credited to him which include; Khwaja-Khurshid-Anwar Award and the Hazrat-Amir-Khusro Award for musical excellence in 1990, he was chosen by the United States Information Agency to represent Pakistan at the International Sound Celebration Festival in Louisville, Kentucky (USA), in 1992, Colombo University Kelaniya Award (Sri Lanka) for musical excellence and recently he was awarded life time achievement award by All Pakistan Music Conference.
Apart from Australia and Latin America, he has performed all over the globe. In 1999 he performed at the prestigious Medina Festival of Tunis in Tunisia, at Okinawa’s “Sugar Hall” in Japan, at “Symphony Space” at the Manhattan Broadway in New York, and at the “Cairo Opera” in Egypt to name a few.
Someone who has achieved so much recognition for his music globally, what does it mean at a personal level other than the fact that it is a family trade? A one word answer to this is ‘everything’. When pressed for more details, he shared that he went through a phase where he was in search of spirituality and used to go to a spiritual guide. One day he gave him an advice that he cherishes to date.
“Whatever you are looking for, meaning, peace or spirituality you will get it. All you need to do is work on your craft with honesty.”
This has been his mantra of life since then and this defines what music is for him personally.
Talking about his weak points, he shared that he lacks the marketing edge that is needed today to promote ones music. He considers himself to be one of the few left from the old school who still stick to the old systems of the field. As one of his friends summed it up from one of his websites, it seems the artist passed away in the late 1990s. There is a similar story for social media. Whatever, presence he has it is because some of his students have put them up and he is yet not comfortable with these latest mediums and techniques.
Coming to the subject of preservation of the classical music and our traditions, Ashraf sb. shared his opinion and said a lot needs to be done. There are many individuals who are doing a lot of work on their individual level but that is not going to help. In today’s global world, a collective representation is needed and for that, clarity at home is the first pre-requisite. We are not clear as to what we call as our classical music. Internationally, people associate dhol and qawali as Pakistani classical music because of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and because these are the genres that we promote most of the time. Many a times after his performances, he is asked which part of India does he belong and when he tells them he is from Pakistan, people are shocked because they associate South Asian classical music only with India.
Within Pakistan, he believes that it is important that stigma be removed from music and all the fields of art. Religion has been made a barrier but it is not in majority of the other Muslim countries. Except for Saudia Arabia, the rest of the Middle East is quite connected with music and have their local traditions that revolve around it. For him this proves that the current state is a direction that our society took and it needs to change. He suggests that like in the rest of the world, we should start with the basics and introduce the subject at school level so our kids are familiar with our traditional roots and when they grow up a few will surly think of taking it up more seriously and this is how the tradition of classical music can be preserved.
As far as contemporary music is concerned, Ashraf sb. is of the opinion that as long as its good music that sooth you, he is happy with it. His own collaboration with his German colleagues ‘From Berlin to Lahore’ has some new sounds. However, he doesn’t believe in fusions and mixing things up.
On the topic of stereotypes, he shares that one that he faces is when people have a hard time absorbing the fact that the South Asian classical music is very much part of Pakistan. When after a performance two girls came up to him and when they got to know that he is a Pakistani, their reaction ‘why are you from Pakistan’ struck him and added to the realization what the image of his homeland has become. However, when he brings people to Pakistan and they get to experience the country holistically, they fall in love and then they go ahead and defend it when the topic comes up. So he always tell foreigners and this is the message that he wants to convey that there are problems but once you get to meet the people and experience the country first hand your perceptions will change.
‘This country is a gift and it is important that we step up and take good care of it and stop misusing it ourselves.’