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Searching for the Blues Legendary Sindhi sarangi player Lakha Khan showcased in new docuseries produced by the Aga Khan Museum in collaboration with Amarrass Records

When people think of the Blues in musical terms, it is usually in reference to the genre of African-American music that originated in the American Deep South in the mid-1800s. Since its inception, American blues music has resonated with people all over the world and has influenced other musical forms, including jazz and rock.

But is the wellspring from which American Blues draws its inspiration universal? Does it provide for equally compelling and eloquent expression in other folk music traditions around the world — with songs that come out of hardship and speak to the human condition?

Acting on the conviction that every culture has, at its heart, its own equivalence of the blues, Ankur Malhotra and Ashutosh Sharma, founders of New Delhi-based Amarrass Records set out on several journeys through Rajasthan, in northwest India, to search out the "Indian blues."

The company's project and mission to conserve, promote, and sustain traditional folk music resonated with the Aga Khan Museum, which partnered with them to produce the three-part docuseries “Searching for the Blues.”

“Their premise spoke to the Museum’s wider goal of fostering understanding and appreciation that Muslims have made to world heritage,” says Amirali Alibhai, Head of Performing Arts at the Museum. “In this context, the idea is to search the world for artists outside of urban centres who may not be well-known and who may be playing the last instruments of their kind.”

Driving through the desert, from village to village, Ankur and Ashutosh met folk musicians who were masterful at their craft. Many had played in large groups at festivals in India; some had played internationally. Then without fanfare, they would disappear back to their homes. “People didn’t know their names, where they were going and what they were playing,” says Ankur. “In the shifting sands of the desert, we found that the blues were everywhere.”

Clockwise from top left: Haakam Khan, Pempe Khan, Nihal Khan, Sidi's of Bhuj, Padma Shri Sakar Khan and sons Ghewar, Firoze and Dara Khan

EPISODE 1

INDIAN BLUES

The first episode introduces the principal figure of the series – Lakha Khan – a seventh-generation Manganyar Sindhi sarangi player and vocalist who was familiar to people in his own region, but unknown in other parts of the country – even in Delhi, just 800 kilometres away.

A folk version of the classical sarangi, the Sindhi sarangi is a bowed, short-necked string instrument played like a cello. Translated, sarangi means "100 Colours." An ancient instrument from the Indian subcontinent, it is said to closely resemble the human voice.

Although it was dark by the time Ankur and Ashutosh pulled up to Lakha Khan’s home in Raneri, a small community near Jodhpur, they were invited inside for tea where Lakha Khan played for them. “He sang a Hindu devotional song,” recalls Ankur. “It was a melancholic tune. . . he had the blues.”

Lakha Khan, who is now in his 70s, had played regularly during the early- to mid-1960s and earned his living performing at local weddings, births, and celebrations. These were often for the same families his forefathers had played for, continuing relationships that dated back hundreds of years. He first started playing internationally in the late 1970s and remained active throughout the 2000s.

Lakha Khan vinyl album cover, 2017
Lakha Khan 'At Home' album cover, 2012
Lakha Khan 'Live in Nashville' album cover, 2014

Although Lakha Khan had received some recognition, says Ashutosh, “it was nowhere close to what he and his art deserved.” Amarrass Records felt compelled to develop his career, keep his music alive, and create a legacy for generations to come.

That brief meeting 10 years ago signalled the beginning of a new chapter for Lakha Khan that has since seen him performing for audiences around the world, including at major venues in Europe and the U.S., and recording numerous albums to acclaimed critical reviews.

Footage from these international concerts is highlighted in the series, clearly illustrating that Lakha Khan’s secular music and universal spiritual message is not defined by language or geography. In 2021, the maestro received the Padma Shri Award, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. Although Ashutosh acknowledges the notable achievement in receiving such an award, "respect is still few and far between," he says.

VIEW EPISODE 1: INDIAN BLUES

episode 2

lakha khan: keeper of india's songbook

Episode 2 features footage of Lakha Khan at home, performing songs and instrumentals that speak to the worldly and sacred nature of his music, including Hindu bhajans, Sufi kalaams, and folk songs. Fluent in five languages, he sings in Seraiki, Sindhi, Marwari, Punjabi and Hindi.

View episode 2: keeper of india's songbook

episode 3

sau-rungi: hundred colours of blue

With the introduction of some of India’s next-generation musicians, the final episode grapples with the question of how to carry on and preserve a centuries-old oral and musical tradition. We meet Dane Khan, Lakha Khan’s son, who, a decade ago, was driving a truck and showed little interest in following in his father’s footsteps.

But with his father's growing prestige and frequent touring, the opportunity for Dane Khan to provide for his family while also continuing the family musical tradition into the eighth generation became a possibility.

His progress as a musician is evident in concert and home footage, where the master and his son are seen playing the sarangi side by side — a poignant and optimistic conclusion to the docuseries.

For more information about Lakha Khan, visit amarrass.com

CREDITS

Amirali Alibhai - Executive Producer, Aga Khan Museum

Amarrass Records (India)

Amarrass Society for Performing Arts (India)

Ankur Malhotra, Amarrass Records

Ashutosh Sharma, Amarrass Records

Imran Babur (Video Director / Editor)

Marisa Segala, Founder, Second To The Left

Peter Hvalkof – Music booking at Roskilde Festival and 2006 – 2020 Global CPH/Alice CPH

Simon Broughton, Editor, Songlines Magazine (Media)

Aasawari Kulkarni, Department of Fashion Communications, National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi (Album art)

Sumer Singh Rathore, Freelance Journalist (Video)

Jay Viswadeva, SAMA Arts/Navras Records, London U.K.