Ahead of the UAE National Day, Nabeel Khan, a 23-year-old accomplished Sarangi player and descendant of the legendary 15th-century Mughal musician Mian Tansen, has composed a heartfelt rendition of the UAE's cherished National Anthem on the sarangi—a short-necked three-stringed instrument widely used throughout South Asia for both folk and classical Hindustani music.
Originally from Delhi, Nabeel now calls Dubai home, propelled by the opportunities offered through the UAE Golden Visa programme. His performances at prestigious venues worldwide, including the Louvre Museum, Sikka Arts Festival, and the Theatre of Digital Art, have garnered global acclaim.
Nabeel's latest musical endeavour, a tribute to the country that has embraced him with immense love, is inspired by the profound lyrics and enchanting melody of the UAE's National Anthem, Ishy Bilady. Expressing his connection to the composition, Nabeel said, "When I first heard Ishy Bilady, it touched my heart in an indescribable way and inspired me to compose its tune on the Sarangi as a gift to this great nation and its visionary rulers."
As the UAE's first and only Sarangi player, Nabeel is on a mission to revive the unique musical instrument. Shedding light on its historical connections to the Middle East, he said, "Sarangi flourished in Persian courts and the Middle East region before finding its way to India. Its hollow chambers are made of camel bones, and its playing strings are made of goat gut. Although it gained popularity in India, it sadly faded into oblivion in its birthplace. It's my solemn mission to revive the Sarangi in this region, embarking on a new journey by blending Indo-Arabic melodies with this classical instrument."
Nabeel's impact extends beyond personal success; he currently has over 50 students worldwide, all learning the Sarangi online. Notably, four of his disciples reside in the UAE, including an Emirati woman.
Raised in a family of revered sarangi players, Nabeel honed his skills under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, the great Sarangi maestro Ustad Sabir Khan Sahib and his father Ustad Naser Khan. Swiftly emerging as a prodigy in Hindustani classical music, he made a striking entry onto the international stage with a memorable debut performance in Oslo at the age of 15. This was just the beginning; subsequent concerts took him to various countries, including the UK, France, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the UAE, solidifying his reputation as a distinguished Sarangi player.
Reflecting on his early experiences, Nabeel said, "I remember how my classmates and teachers would look at me with awe when I returned from my Oslo tour in 2015."
However, despite his musical prowess, during his college days, Nabeel found himself drawn to another object crafted from a single block of wood: the cricket bat.
"I was a big fan of MS Dhoni and used to spend most of my time playing cricket. I even became the captain of my cricket team and aspired to become a batsman," he recalled.
Nabeel's cricketing dreams, however, met an unexpected halt when a ball hit his right forefinger, chipping the nail and rendering him unable to play the Sarangi for several days. "That day, my father said it's enough. In hindsight, I think it was destiny as I went back to focusing on the Sarangi. It's a legacy handed down by my preceding generations, and before long, I realised the importance of preserving it.”
Nabeel Khan belongs to a traditional family of Moradabad Sainia Gharana which traces the tradition of its music back to Mian Tansen. The young musician crafts Sarangi instruments himself using tun wood and affectionately describes the Sarangi as the Queen of India's classical instruments. He emphasises its unique capability, stating, "It is the only instrument which can produce almost all the nuances of vocal music of any style."
Despite its rich tonal diversity, the Sarangi faced challenges in fully integrating into classical music due to historical associations with performances by women in lower castes. While it found a place in classical music as an accompaniment for khayal vocal performances, the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century saw the rise of the harmonium and violin as less demanding alternatives, gradually sidelining the Sarangi.
Nabeel, however, aims to breathe new life into the sarangi by revitalising its use as a solo instrument. His recent experiments showcase the instrument's versatility, as he pioneers Western music on the sarangi, creating unique renditions of iconic pieces such as The Godfather, Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and My Heart Will Go On.
Nabeel's ancestor, Mian Tansen, is revered as one of the greatest musicians in India. He held the esteemed position of a navratna, one of the nine gems in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was a great patron of art and culture. Numerous legends surround Tansen, including tales of his purported ability to create rain and fire solely through his musical skills. While some might dismiss these stories, Nabeel holds a different perspective, stating, "Mian Tansen was at a different level. There are so many accounts about how his renditions could tame animals and turn day into night, while his voice could replicate the roar of a lion or the chirp of a bird. We aren’t anywhere remotely close to those skill levels. But as a Sarangi player, I know it is a very challenging instrument and demands rigorous Riyaz (practice). Like a sensitive girlfriend, it gets upset if you ignore it. So you have to win it back."
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