A Self-made Man

Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan keeps a safe distance from cliché and euphemism,the two cushions that Hindustani musicians love to fall back on.

Written by Arunabha Deb | New Delhi | Published: May 14, 2012 5:31 pm

Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan keeps a safe distance from cliché and euphemism,the two cushions that Hindustani musicians love to fall back on.

Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan keeps a safe distance from cliché and euphemism,the two cushions that Hindustani musicians love to fall back on. He shared a complex relationship with his father,Ustad Vilayat Khan,arguably the greatest sitar maestro of all time. And unlike most children of maestros,he is not coy about addressing the relationship. The father-guru contrariety is often contentious,but few musicians,whether parent or child,talk about it. Khan gave his first performance at the age of six,but his father never went overboard promoting him. “At times I missed it,” he says. He left home in his early twenties. “I wanted to travel,I had girlfriends,I went to clubs — and all this needed financing. I couldn’t finance these while I lived in my father’s house. I also didn’t like the atmosphere at home,with all his cronies always hanging around,praising him.” His quest for his identity had the happiest consequence that a maestro’s child can ask for: he has never been perceived as a chip off the old block.

Musically,though,he never felt the need to be a rebel. Anyone playing the sitar (and honest enough) will acknowledge that there is a pre-Vilayat era and a post-Vilayat era in the history of the instrument. He set the standard by which the sitar,both in terms of its sound and its playing style,is evaluated today. It is difficult for any sitar player,let alone his son,to escape his influence. Khan readily admits that he couldn’t help but realise his music within the framework of his father’s familiar style. Yet,his style is not an imitation of his father’s,nor is it similar to that followed by other sitar players of his gharana. The Imdadkhani School,named after Khan’s great-grandfather Ustad Imdad Khan,has produced fine sitar players. Among Khan’s contemporaries,his cousin Ustad Nishat Khan and Ustad Shahid Parvez are prominent representatives. Khan’s baaj is easily distinguishable from the two; he has introduced elements that have not been played by Imdadkhani sitar players before.

“I have always been open to other influences. Yes,Ustad Vilayat Khan is my only guru,but that never stopped me from learning from other people and absorbing their music,” he says. He has learned from Ustad Amir Khan,who had also greatly influenced Ustad Vilayat Khan. He has been inspired by the music of Pandit Kumar Gandharva and Pandit BhimsenJoshi. Joshi’s affection for him was quite public: he regularly invited Khan to perform at the Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav in Pune (a festival he organised in his guru’s name). In 2004,the year Ustad Vilayat Khan passed away,Khan played an unforgettable Yamni at the festival. Joshi,despite ill health,sat by the stage throughout and Khan,in his characteristic good humour,told him that his recital was not worth the trouble.

It is not common for Hindustani musicians to acknowledge their different sources of learning. But Khan speaks enthusiastically about his experiences with other maestros. He recounts many encounters,but one he holds special. “I was travelling to London once and Pandit Jasraj was on the same flight. I walked over to business class at night,when everyone else was sleeping,and sat on the floor next to him. A few days back I had heard him sing a bandish but I had not been able to understand the antara. I told him that and he immediately started teaching me the bandish. So many miles up in the air.”

Over his career,he has woven his influences into a performance format that appeals to a wide audience. Uninitiated listeners engage with him more than with his contemporaries,though he doesn’t compromise a raga with gimmicks. He enhances the melodic aspects – or the lilt – of a raga with care; phrases that,by themselves,might seem unexceptional,find new expression in the context in which he places them. When he plays a vilambit (slow) composition,he first carefully establishes the bandish by coming back to the mukhda (the start) through simple,yet piercing,improvisations. This drills the melody into a listener,who responds to the mood rather than the grammar. The virtuosity of the Imdadkhani gharana comes later in the recital,by which time he usually has his audience hooked. His persona adds to the experience. If he finds the lights on stage too harsh,he announces that he is not Madhuri Dixit. If he finds the first few rows empty,he tells the listeners at the back that he is wearing cologne,so they could move forward. These gestures make the listening space less intimidating.

Being a popular Hindustani musician is walking a tightrope: Khan attracts enough criticism for being “populist”. Imdadkhani loyalists see his innovations as dilution. A common complaint is that he does not have a large repertoire of ragas and repeats ragas in his concerts. Khan is happy to meet this criticism. “My great-grandfather basically played only two ragas: Puriya and Jaunpuri. My grandfather also moved around six or seven ragas. My father,over periods of five or seven years,did not concentrate on more than five to six ragas. I play about 15 evening ragas. And about 10 morning ragas,” he says. And then he cannot resist the jibe: “What to do? I don’t have an MA in music from Bhatkhande University. So I don’t know 300 ragas.” He says that he always has the demography of his audience in mind when he plays. “I will not play raga Shree (a complex and contemplative raga) at an IIT fest. That’s stupid. I will play a raga that will have an instant appeal in that context,” he says. But he knows where to unleash the cerebral riffs. In a private concert in Kolkata last year,he played a Bilaskhani Todi that would force his detractors to reconsider their critique.

Most critics are miffed by his singing light classical and Sufi songs in classical concerts and  transpose their ire on to his playing. He often concludes his concerts with a vocal-sitar presentation. Most listeners love these; many wait for them. His husky voice has many fans. His vocal-sitar albums (Lajo Lajo,Hazaron Khwahishein) sell as much as his classical sitar ones. Even with the sitar,he has stepped out of the classical domain. The name of his latest album proves he is unabashed about his experimental ventures. Sitar Lounge contains short renditions based on ragas,played in an electronic soundscape. Does he worry that his identity as a classical musician will be diluted? His quick answer renders the question silly. “I don’t care about that. I play whatever I like to. I am not trying to make a point,nor am I scared of what people will think of me. I am a musician with a big heart and I want people to know that.”

He has not forced his son Azaan to take up the sitar. He plays the guitar,recently released a Sufi album and his father is at ease with his choices. “Many people say that you should let your children be,but they end up somehow influencing the kids to do what they have done.” he says. He was clear that he did not want to impose the burden of his legacy on his son. “He will soon understand whether or not listeners are accepting him. Hopefully,they will. If not,he will have to figure out something else. An MBA,a job…you know.” The idea of legacy sits heavy on Hindustani music. Not many musicians have the courage to see through its arbitrariness. Khan belongs to the first family of the sitar. It is heartening that he wears this badge lightly.

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