His Magic Touch
Shujaat Khan on on his music, his turbulent relationship with his father, and that which is greater than music.
He can trace his lineage all the way back to Mian Tansen the great court musician in Emperor Akbar’s court. His father is the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan, ranked among the greatest musicians of the century. The older Khan has made headlines not just for the way he changed the nature of sitar music to its present gayaki (vocal) style, but also for. thumbing his nose at the government of India, turning down the Padmashri and Padma Vibhushan saying the committee was incompetent to judge artistic creativity. Vilayat Khan is known not just as a master musician, but a temperamental, non malleable, incorruptible man.
Shujaat Hussain Khan was a child prodigy, who gave his first performance at the age of six, and today had surpassed other musicians in popularity, artistry and skill, but the road to success has been far from easy for the eldest equally willful child of Ustad Vilayat Khan.
In an exclusive interview with Little India Shujaat Khan talks about his music, his turbulent relationship with his father, and today at the height of his career, what is greater than his music.
Your father, Ustad Vilayat Khan once said in an interview that his earliest memories of music were in 1932 as a child of 4-5 years at the Royal Albert Hall when he drifted off to sleep while hearing his father perform. He woke up to see yellow colors all around him, and was told, by his father “Son that is the color of Rag Basant. What are your early memories?
Mine probably should go back to the womb if the scientific theory of an unborn child being able to hear what is being spoken to it is true! My father was obsessed with the belief that his wife was carrying a boy, that it could not be anything but a boy who would be a child prodigy and will carry on his musical heritage. He made my poor mother sit through concert after concert as he performed way past her 8th month so the unborn child could imbibe his music. He would have been mortified had I turned out to be a girl!
But my earliest conscious memories are really of being in Simla. We moved there when I was six and I remember the colors, the beauty of the mountains and working on music with my father. I don’t really remember the first 6 years, or what I learnt musically even though I performed when I was six. I remember the concert I played in but I don’t have any particular memories of doing riyaaz(practice) or what kind of riyaaz it was. Most of my subsequent memories span nights and mornings of music, this beautiful home that we lived in. I remember the great tenderness with which my father taught me initially, but then it was replaced by a harsh regimented style where he started pushing my buttons but that happened later. So the early memories of music are very tender and happy. He would sing and we would work on one thing for months, not realizing, I was being taught.
Is it true your mother, a well educated Bengali Brahmin, met him, of all the places on a dance floor and was floored by not his musical prowess but his dancing abilities?
It is very true. My father was very handsome, and is a man of great grace and finesse, a total charmer and was very fond of dancing. She was floored by his charm and saw this suave, polished, loving man, not realizing how tough the life of a musician is. He was also always surrounded by sycophants. They separated when I was about 11.
That must have been tough.
It was. I was not young enough to be oblivious to what was going on and not old enough to know what to do about it. I chose to stay with my father, since he was also my guru. My mother always had her own life and was busy with it, so growing up, the closeness a child is supposed to feel for a parent, was something I had more with my father.
One gets the impression that Khan Sahib has very strong opinions, strong likes and dislikes, and always wants things his own way. How did you handle that?
He is still very much like that even today. My hopes and dreams that one day I will be sharing this strong father and son relationship with him hasn’t happened till now. It has been a strange relationship.
I have seen his tenderness, and then the harsh demanding discipline. Still what was really interesting was to see how intuitive he is. He knew how far he could go with each student. He would bring them to the point where if they went one step further they would break, and then ease up.
” I think the worst thing about being taught music by musicians of that generation – and most of my contemporaries will tell you similar stories – was the ruthless harshness with which we were taught. Musician fathers in those times just did not understand that their sons needed occasional tenderness, a loving hand on their shoulder at least some times. These men felt that by treating their sons really harshly and pushing them ruthlessly they will make them strong men. I don’t think I need to whip my son to make him strong.
I can tell you horror stories of the treatment I had received during my practice sessions but I don’t like to speak about it because these stories have already scared a lot of people from pursuing music. It made learning music difficult, and excessively stressful. At the same time a lot of musicians who will tell you their hair strands were tied to the ceiling fan, or they were tied to a tree and whipped, or their guru let the dog loose on them, say so to prove that by suffering such hardships they are more exalted than you. I can say yes that part of the relationship was terrible, but I also remember my father walking in while I was practicing and seeing that after hours of practicing, I was about to reach a point where I was going to break down, saying, okay stop, let’s go and sit outside. It would be very early morning in Simla and we would sit down and see the sun come out and he would talk about a particular raga and also add if you are learning to ride its okay to fall. He would then tell stories that were mesmerizing and beautiful- like the rising sun.
Your cousin Shahid Parvez said his father did not have any other student and so it was hard for him to be a teacher.
Well my father on the contrary had plenty of students including Rais Khan, Imrat Khan’s son Irshad and Shahid Bhai, who is one of the very talented sitarists today. But I also have a complaint against Shahid Bhai. I have seen him give many interviews but not once has he acknowledged my father’s tremendous contribution, to his music.
Forget about my personal complaints against my father, if some one was to ask me who are the musicians who will go down in history as having made a major contribution to music in India in the past 100 years, I would unhesitatingly name Ustad Vilayat Khan as one of the leading lights. My father is not a very pleasant person and not easy to get along with, but you must give credit where it is due and I am disappointed that Shahid Bhai has never done that.
I still remember those days when Shahid Parvez came and stayed with us for months and we learnt together from my father. He needs to stand up and acknowledge the years my father taught him. I believe that to a great extent his music is what it is today because of Ustad Vilayat Khan.
Listen to Vilayat Khan sahib’s music and then listen to Shahid’s father Aziz Khan sahib’s music and you will see whose touch is more predominant in Shahid Bhai’s music. His father learnt from my grandfather and he follows my father’s style including the gayaki ang. Any one who knows anything about music knows that the entire Itawa gharana owes its present popularity, form and existence to the innovations my father brought to it.
You walked out on your father as a teenager.
Yes. We were constantly at loggerheads and were just not getting along. It was his good luck that I turned out to be this child prodigy, but even then whatever I played wasn’t good enough for him. I understood the expectations and did work very, very hard. At the same time I want to assert that, child prodigy or not I was not more special than any one else. There are other musicians who are as gifted. I just had the good fortune of learning from very accomplished teachers like my father and Amir Khan sahib. So destiny and luck do play a part. Having said that I must add that you need tremendous courage to be a musician of high caliber. It is excruciating to sit for hours and keep practicing through sheer will power when your body has given up already. There were people, who were his sycophants and always around him who just would not let me forget whose son I was, not appreciating me for what I could do. I was sick of people introducing me as Vilayat Khan’s son and what a great honor it was to be his son, but I wanted to have my own identity. There have been times when we played together and I upstaged my father. He didn’t want me to, but I took the liberty. It was my way of proving that there were times I could do one better. My father wanted me to be submissive to his wishes all the time and that desire to dominate filtered into all areas of our relationship, to the point that one didn’t know where the demanding father ended and the demanding teacher began. So I walked out at 18.
Where did you go?
I went to Bombay and did a lot of back ground music for films. I was very fond of playing light classical music . Only Vilayat Khan Sahib, Rais Khan Sahib and I had this knack of playing light classical and Rais Khan Sahib was not playing anymore and so the field was wide open and I decided to fill in that gap. I played with Lakshmi Kant Pyarelal , R.D.Burman, Khayyam, O.P.Nayyar. I got a lot of work and the money was great. I did a lot of traveling all over the world and a large part of the time I would come to the US. At times I would play concerts, at others there were none to play. I just never wanted to play the sitar at a club or a restaurant, because for me, sitar was a sacred instrument. I did play the guitar and sing at Spanish restaurants. The Americans thought I was singing Spanish songs, but actually I was singing Hindi songs! It was funny! I made money doing odd jobs. In Florida I worked as a telephone operator for two days at a friend’s farm. No one would ever allow me to do that in India!
I also remembered being taken advantage of. People would invite me and underpay me. There was a doctor from Florida who is one of the most affluent and well known men in that area. He asked me to come and perform in a house concert, for $500, which was a big amount in those days. I drove all night to reach Florida, performed before a very excited audience. He then gave me an envelope with cash in it. I opened the envelope to pay my accompanist and I saw it had only $410. I said to the doctor, “There must have been some misunderstanding, the money is not the right amount.” He said “Oh well, you are such a great artist and every one wanted to hear you. There were more than the expected number of guests and I had to arrange for tea and samosas for them and that cost 90 bucks. This is a man with millions and four fancy cars standing outside his palatial home!
These trips made me realize that all this gypsy living was fun, but making music is what I was born to do and if I let that talent go to waste it would be a shame. So around the age of 22-23 I started to get back to being serious about my music. I went back to India and played in any concert that was offered to me.
I was in touch with my father, but there were 3-4 years when we did not talk at all. My father has hurt me deeply and maybe I have hurt him too. Anyway on my return every thing seemed to be positive work wise, the organizers were open to hosting me again. Around that time in 1984 I also decided to get married, and since I was still trying to make a comeback a friend of mine who owned tea estates in Assam offered me a managerial position. Things were not very good financially, and if you are married or have a family you can suppress your own hunger, but to see the hunger of your child or to realize that my daughter wanted something and I could not give it to her are the moments that are painful to endure.
The adulation that the world gives you only comes when you succeed. Otherwise people push you down. That is the way the world works and why should any one make an exception in my case? When I saw my daughter and wife going through hardships I decided that if things didn’t pick up in 3-4 months, I would go ahead and take up the job. I kept the appointment letter, but then suddenly people started calling me telling me my music was being missed.
Things fell into place and it has been very smooth since then. I have not risen to or fallen from great heights. It has been a steady progression and I quite like it that way.
Your father would go deep into the villages looking for people who sang folk tunes and I heard that you accompanied him. Is that where your love for folk tunes comes from? Your CD Lajo Lajo has been an all time hit. How did every one react when you veered away from the purist classical tradition. You have also said that folk music demands something much more complicated than classical music.
Absolutely. The intricacies and intonations we use for folk music is not used in classical music and every musician cannot use them. Every classical musician cannot become a folk musician and vice versa. You have to actually get the feel for it, enjoy it and also be willing not to look down on it, as a lot of Indian classical musicians tend to do. They call folk music unrefined, but that’s where classical music came from.
I was surprised at the success of Lajo Lajo, because I expected there to be a lot of opposition, though I am not the first one who did it. My father sang folk at the end of his concerts, starting with Rag Bhatiyali, Pahadi and then Rajasthani Maand and purists thought even then that he was crazy. They said the same thing when he introduced the gayaki ang. I grew up with folk music around me and when Shashi Gopal of Magnasound said every one sings and plays folk music at concerts, but no one has thought of releasing an album and would I do it, I said sure. While we did get criticism from the purists the resounding success of that CD has silenced everyone. I enjoyed doing it and my message to the purists was if you don’t like that aspect of my music, stick to what you like!
Interestingly it has made a lot of young sitarists want to cut an album where they can to sing! Some of them said oh we have been training vocally and that made me laugh. Vocal training is full time business and if that is what they have been doing then when are they practicing the sitar? I don’t claim to be a singer. Playing the sitar is what I do and I sing by the way.
What did you dad have to say about Lajo Lajo?
He said achcha hai -of course he had to add, I would never do it, Shujaat. If you are doing it, that’s fine, bahut achcha hai – kam se kam sur mein hai chalo!(well at least it’s in tune!)
I write as well. If you listen to the song Yeh Inayaten Ghazab Ki, I heard the first two lines some where, drew from it and added a few more lines. I also wrote Tere Bina in my CD Waiting for Love. When I play classical instrumental music, often the audience cannot fathom the intricacies and the depths to which I go unless they are trained in music, A lot of people cannot understand the level of what Vilayat Khan plays and yet they also can’t handle CholiKke Peechey Kya Hai kind of music. I have found a happy medium with my music where my folk tunes attract a lot of attention, the lilting music attracts even the non Indians and as soon as I walk in I hear voices saying please sing Lajo Lajo, and I say sure, I will do an hour of classical music and then I will sing your requests. I have also attracted the young crowd because they connect with the simplicity and richness of the lyrics and music. That is the reason why Lajo Lajo and now my latest Hawa Hawa have been so well received.
You have done extremely well with Ghazal, the group you formed with Persian music legend Kayhan Kalhor. Amjad Ali Khan said fusion is like a flirtation. It gives you momentary pleasure, but you can’t create a legitimate child from it.
There is nothing wrong with fusion. It is an experiment between different artists from different parts of the world, but it has its good and bad performers! There is one group of musicians who experiment unsuccessfully. Somewhere down the road they realize that they neither have the talent nor the dedication to practice for hours, but since they have to earn a living, why not gather some others with the same mindset, attempt to get the maximum out of their minimal talent, and end up creating something that no one wants to understand. These guys have given fusion a bad name.
Then there is the other group of musicians who have established solos careers and the world has accepted their talent and if at that stage they choose to mingle with equally talented musicians who are solo artists from other countries and want to create something together, then even if you don’t like fusion, at least you know that whatever they will create will be high class stuff and not something mindless without rhythm and tune. For me it’s like a picnic and also very enjoyable to work with another artist who is gifted.
And funnily enough Ghazal has become a legitimate child because we have kept commercialization out of it and we are totally committed to maintaining the high quality of composition, rhythm and melody improvisation.
How do you perform with a Persian musician? I believe the tuning, mode, rhythm and approach in both Persian and Hindustani music is different.
I’ m not very familiar with Persian music and am not trying to inter-connect the two genres. I met Kayhan through friends of his who asked me if I would like to play with him. I am very particular about who I play with. We clicked and we finished the tracks of the first CD that came out in 1997 in one night. We take 3-4 notes, improvise the introduction and then we come back to the same notes. We keep away from the mainstream and take a raga which has some similarities for both Persian and Indian classical music and improvise. We find that at times our collaboration has confused people. They know what I do and what Kayhan does as a soloist.
Then Indians think their music is the greatest and everything else is inferior and Iranians think that too – and they might say oh I would prefer to hear these great artists in a solo performance God knows what will happen when they play together, but when we do, they are floored. At times I have sung in Persian much to their delight. Urdu is derived from Farsi and sometimes there are couplets I have heard that come in my mind, while singing and I add those couplets into my performance.
How easy it is not to have ego clashes? It was really nice to see how vocally appreciative you were on stage of Kayhan and Sandeep Das.
There are so many wonderful musicians in this world, but they don’t have the grace to share the stage with others. You have to put your ego aside. What we do together as musicians is not the only thing we do, and so we don’t have to try and upstage each other. It should be a pleasant experience for the audience and it should be a fun experience for the artists. The day it stops being that we will stop collaborating with others.
There has always been this rivalry between the Maihyar gharana represented by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and the Itawa gharana represented by your father. Yet you went ahead and cut a dual album with Tejendra Majumdar who is a disciple of Ali Akbar Khan. Was it building bridges or rebelling against your dad?
I think if it wasn’t for the competition from those two, my father may not have been challenged or risen to such heights as a musician. I think Tejendra Ji is a brilliant artist and a wonderful human being and I realized that he was a person who was ready to share his music and the stage, something many brilliant musicians aren’t able to do, and we went ahead and recorded the album. Vilayat Khan and Ali Akbar Khan have the highest regard for each other. Besides, can there be any profession where there is no rivalry?
Has the audience and the way you teach music changed over the years?
It’s interesting to see so many dedicated students who are non Indians. A lot of Indians living here take their heritage for granted. They are also spoilt by visiting musicians giving impromptu lessons at low rates to make some extra money on their tours so I have had Indians complaining about how expensive it is to learn from me. Well, if you can spend thousands on shopping and weddings, then you need to pay your dues to an artist of my caliber who is willing to spend time teaching you. If you learn western classical music from a renowned artist you will pay about $200 an hour. I refer other sitarists who are willing to charge less to Indian students who have tried to haggle with me on price. The western students are very different They have grown up in a country where they take anything they pick up very seriously and are willing to pay the price to learn, even when they have to work twice as hard to learn Indian classical music.
While it’s great to perform in Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall, I still play my best music when I can look into the eyes of my audience, in smaller house concerts.
When you look back what are the lessons life has taught you?
There aren’t too many regrets though I wish I had a better relationship with my father, and that I could be less stubborn. When some one hurts me it’s hard for me to reach out. I don’t want to play 300 concerts a year, and I have no interest in rewriting musical history. My father doesn’t like my laid back approach to music, but while music is an intrinsic, very beautiful part of my life and my soul, unlike the statements you hear from other musicians, I don’t eat and sleep and crap music!
My family means more to me than anything else. I have been with the same woman for close to two decades, and I have not pushed my kids into endless, agonizing music practices. My daughter is a published poet and artist and is studying fashion technology. My son was voted the MVP in basketball and makes music on the computer. My wife was clueless about my music and actually saw my first concert six months after our marriage. She sweetly asked santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma what he did when he came to bless us!
I get a lot of appreciation and adulation for the kind of music I create. This is a business that involves a lot of money, fame , egos and distinct personalities and I try not to get into all that. My life revolves around 70-80 ragas out of which 30-40 I play really well, others I manage. Even mastering these many ragas is not possible in one lifetime, so I can’t keep running for more; so if someone comes and asks me questions for which I don’t have a proper answer it is only right to say, please go to someone else who can answer that question or teach you what I don’t know correctly.
I try to live my life humbly and honestly. The honesty was not there always. There was a time when I tried to con my way through life, because I had insecurities; we all do. Maybe there are lesser now. Today I am comfortable with who I am and where I am. I have shared some very beautiful moments learning music with my father and Amir Khan Sahib, but I have also learnt so much from people around me. The other day I was in New York in the subway and I heard an African American man singing a beautiful melody. Behind the New York Plaza there is a cathedral and this black man sits there sometimes playing the saxophone. The sound of music in a quiet night is mesmerizing. Growing up in a household where music was the way of life and hearing so many musical geniuses coming and performing there was not just an honor, but I unconsciously imbibed a lot of what they played and sang and I see that in my music today.
And what does your father have to say about your music and the fact that in spite of all your rebellion you did make it?
It bothered him to see that I was so immensely talented and yet refused to toe the lines he set for me and wasn’t a go getter. I am shy by nature and don’t go around asking for work, and that added to the friction. There is no undisputed champion of the world in music, but I hope that today he is a happy man to see that finally I am one of the forerunners in classical music, which is far more than what I set out to be.
He did say in an interview that he is very proud, not just about the fact that I am a top notch musician, but also that I walked an honorable path and came up the ladder with dignity.