The Song of the Surmandal

An Interview With Niaz Khan

Niaz Khan is certainly a well-travelled, multi-talented and multi-lingual individual. He has been to many countries around the world, from Russia to India, can sing in many languages, play the surmandal and makes a variety of instruments, from the druza to the harmonium. A man of many talents, as we said before, and certainly one with an interesting backstory.

Born to an electrician, Mr. Khan grew up in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. Niaz Khan’s family, was not at all happy when they learned that he was planning to take up music professionally, but they eventually came around to it. Interestingly, his father himself used to play the flute in his spare time. Even as a child, he had a wonderful singing voice which led to his appearing on various shows for children such as Storay (which means stars in Pushto) and led to his being selected as a student of the legendary Bade Fateh Ali Khan at the age of eight. However, he emphasizes that he was not taught by only one teacher but by many, the full list of which can be found in his biography.

 He was in fact introduced to his instrument of choice thanks to Bade Fateh Ali Khan, in whose house he discovered his first surmandal, badly broken. The great singer’s family warned him against even touching it, saying that his teacher would be angry. Despite their protests, he started to play a little on the instrument, upon which he found his teacher staring at him. However, instead of scolding him, he sat him down and began to teach him the fundamentals of the surmandal. Kind of like the teacher you would love to have, right?

He in fact taught himself how to make the surmandal, which launched him into the world of instrument-making. Even though he is not an instrument-maker by profession, he proudly tells us that he can make about eleven instruments to some degree.

He speaks positively of modern technology, saying that it has helped him find many new and eager students who are ready to learn music. It also supports his endeavor, the Khushal Music School, which is an academy which teaches singing, playing music and making instruments to its students.


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Zohaib Hassan

Zohaib Hassan Khan (b.1987) is a sarangi-player who associates himself with the Amritsari gharana. He learnt how to play the sarangi from his uncle, Ustad Bakhtawar Hussain Khan Sahib, as his whole family played the sarangi. His ancestors included the noted Ustad Hussain Bakhsh Khan Sahib, Ustad Peeru Khan Sahib, Ustad Nathu Khan Sahib and Ustad Abdul Mir Khan Sahib. In 2003-2005, he started to play the sarangi while doing his matriculation, but he could not pursue higher education due to financial constraints. He soon began to play the sarangi professionally, and started to play for Radio Pakistan in 2008. He has worked with many Pakistani music directors and musicians since then, and is currently attempting to teach another generation of sarangi-players through the Lahore Sarangi School and a series of video tutorials


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Niaz Khan

Niaz Khan (b.1993) is an instrument-maker, surmandal-player and singer. His father was an amateur flute-player, but used to work as an electrician professionally. He has two brothers and two sisters, and has two daughters as well. His family had no tradition of playing classical music, and in fact disapproved of his choice of music as a career. As a child he was a talented singer, which led him to appear on local PTV television programs for children. Eventually, he went on to learn singing from the world-famous singer Bade Fateh Ali Khan at the age of eight in Islamabad. Even though he was his main teacher, he also learned from Khan Sahib Sultan Fateh Ali Khan, Khan Sahib Rustam Ali Khan, Ustad Lal Khan, Ustad Arshad Haneen, Ustad Nawab Ali, Ustad Nazir Gul, Mir Tabassum and Khan Sahib Hamid Ali Khan.

He does not restrict himself to any one genre, singing and playing both folk and classical music in over eight languages. Other than the surmandal, he also knows how to make the rubab, chitrali sitar, sarinda, harmonium, tabla, dholak, druza, dhol and flute. His association with the surmandal started when he found a broken surmandal in Bade Fateh Ali Khan’s house. He started to tinker with it, upon which his teacher found him, and began to teach him the basics. Niaz Khan started an academy to teach children singing and playing music, in which some students are taught for free, known as the Khushhal Music School. He teaches many students currently through online apps such as Whatsapp or Messenger, and has visited many countries such as Afghanistan, Kuwait, India, Qatar, Iran, China and Russia to play music since 2006.


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Muhammad Asif

Muhammad Asif (b. 1951) is a Pakistani luthier and proprietor of Bombay Music Store, one of the last sitar shops in Lahore. Opened by his father Muhammad Azim c. 1925, the store supplied Radio Pakistan and various artists with a range of string instruments: from tanpuras to sitars. Muhammad Asif claims that his ancestors made scabbards in the Mughal era, much like Ziauddin, another sitar maker in the vicinity.

One of his brothers, Muhammad Akram (who died in 2017),  used to specialize in making harmoniums while, on the other hand, another of his brothers, Muhammad Alam, was a sitar player. Muhammad Asif helped lawyer and intellectual Raza Kazim create the sagar veena, a novel instrument that is similar to the chitra veena.  It broke new ground in the music industry through its revolutionary design in 1970, which included its sliding bridge, impressive resonance, and fretless neck.

Muhammad Alam’s children do not help him at his shop in Bansanwala Bazar, but are government employees, an occupation their father approves of due to its financial security.


Save the Sitar has interviewed Muhammad Asif. To learn more about him and his unique store, check out his interview, Bombay in Lahore.


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Bombay In Lahore

A Century Old Sitar Shop: Our Interview with Muhammad Asif

As we entered Bombay Music Store, we could not help notice the inescapable sense of bitterness and decline which was bound to the very soul of the shop and its aging proprietor, Muhammad Asif.  Despite our countless interactions with Lahore’s aging classical musicians who are subject to poverty, mistreatment, and social ostracization, there was something that stood out   

At the age of 70, Muhammad Asif is still single-handedly running his family’s music store in Bansanwala Bazaar despite recent bouts of age-related diseases.  Founded by his father c. 1925, the store used to sell everything from tanpuras to harmoniums, supplying Radio Pakistan and notable artists with the best stringed instruments of Lahore.  Sadly, it has fallen on hard times, with a sharp decline in business since 2000. Instead of the sitars and tanpuras which once filled the shop, one can only see cheap Chinese guitars, which sell better, lining the shop nowadays.

When asked about the origin of the store’s name, a rare smile flashes across his face as he recounts how his father, Muhammad Azim, used to spend much of his time in Bombay. When he started a music shop in Lahore, he wanted to pay homage to the city, resulting in the shop’s unique name. Even though his father himself was a luthier, he narrates how his ancestors used to craft sword sheathes in the Mughal era.  Interestingly, another sitar maker in the vicinity, Ziauddin, claims that his ancestors had the same occupation at that time.

Muhammad Asif first learned how to make instruments from his father, and later on went on to specialize in sitar-making. One of his brothers, Muhammad Akram (who died in 2017),  used to specialize in making harmoniums while, on the other hand, another of his brothers, Muhammad Alam, was a sitar-player. Muhammad Alam used to teach at Alhamra, and also used to perform on Radio Pakistan, being one of Pakistan’s foremost sitarists.

He believes that Alhamra, for which he has repaired and crafted countless instruments, is an organization which is helping preserve classical music in Pakistan, a stance which in sharp contrast to his overall negativity when asked about other NGOs and the government.

When asked about the chances for the revival of classical music, he is not optimistic. He states that even though there may be some young people who are eager to learn it, there are none who can teach them properly anymore, dooming classical music forever. A prime example are his own children: rather than teaching them his family’s age-old musical traditions, he is happy to see them financially secure due to their government jobs.

Out of all the work he has done in his life, he seems to be the proudest of his work on the sagar veena. He helped lawyer and intellectual Raza Kazim create this novel instrument, which is similar to the chitra veena.  It broke new ground in the music industry through its revolutionary design in 1970, which included its sliding bridge, impressive resonance and fretless neck. The fact that he is not given credit for his work on the sagar veena on the internet raises many questions in our minds…

The tone of his final message matched that of his whole interview: he solemnly states that all the old classical musicians are dead, and that there is no longer any chance of survival left for classical music. The old way of making instruments is dying out too, and soon, nothing will be left. Upon this solemn note, he waved us goodbye as we wrapped up our microphones and tripod to return to the noisy street outside.


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