Shamim Ahmed was a sitarist much loved by his guru Pandit Ravi Shankar with whom he travelled internationally from the mid-1960s onwards. He also taught at Shankar’s school in California for many years, while also performing and recording in his own right.
Born in Baroda (Vadodra) Gujarat in western India in 1938, the musical tradition of his family was khyal (northern classical singing). His great uncle was the doyen of Agra gharana Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. He was mentored by his father but when on a visit to Agra Shamim fell ill with typhoid fever. Upon recovery he was dismayed to find his vocal range much diminished rendering him to contemplate life from a new perspective. He decided to take up the sitar and returned to Baroda and the local Music College. He threw himself into learning the instrument, confessing later in life, he would ‘walk three miles a day for any chance to play the sitar.’
In 1951, Ravi Shankar performed in Ahmedabad and through family connections, Shamim was introduced to him. A few years later they met again in the course of a musical competition in which Shamim was playing. Shankar invited him to his home where the young man played for the respected maestro. The next day they underwent the ganda-bandan ceremony – the thread-tying ritual that symbolically binds guru to shishya (student-disciple) – in December 1955, making him one of Shankar's earliest pupils. From then until 1958 he would make the 1000-kilometre journey from Baroda to Delhi by train in order to study. In addition to ordinary lessons, intensive practice periods sometimes lasted five or six hours. Honouring the guru-shishya tradition, Shankar provided his shishyas with accommodation, victuals and necessities without asking for recompense, even after Shamim Ahmed was awarded a Government of India musical scholarship in 1958.
When Shankar moved to the US in the early 1960s, he made sure Shamim Ahmed accompanied him. He made some early recordings (one of which is shared tonight) and also accompanied the great tabla player Allah Rakha on his ‘fusion’ recordings with jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
Shamim Ahmed had a sweet, full-throated voice on the sitar, very similar to his guru's. He recorded as a principal soloist for a variety of record labels across the world. He was one of a select band of Shankar disciples, including Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Manju Mehta, Kartik Seshadri, Barry Phillips, Partho Sarathy, Anoushka Shankar and Lakshmi Shankar.
In person Shamim Ahmed was an extremely modest and humble man. After one recital he asked a journalist quietly, without being pushy, if, when he next spoke to Shankar, the journalist would give him an honest account of how he had played. He defined Shankar's character in three words – "discipline, devotion and compassion". That description applied equally to Shamim Ahmed Khan. (The Independent)
Shamim Ahmed passed away in February this year in Mumbai.