Shujaat Khan

Shujaat spoke to Deepak Raja on January 16, 2004 

Success and growth as a musician are different things. But, they are connected. If success is of the right kind, comes in good time, and one has the ability to digest it, it can be a great aid to achieving growth as a musician. On all counts, I cannot complain.

I have heard it said that an Indian musician does not achieve any credibility amongst Western audiences until he also commands a considerable presence and stature amongst audiences at home. This is not the way it has worked for me. US and European audiences opened up to me before the Indian market acquired serious interest in my music. Even today, when I am well established in India, almost seventy percent of my work is abroad.

There is a good reason for my exceptional success abroad. In the West, nobody cares about whose son you are, or whether your father is still around and whether you are still considered a “promising artist”. The market is willing to give you an opening if you deliver the goods, appeal to the imagination of audiences, and make people happy. Every decent musician can do this. But, the Western market also expects you to conduct yourself professionally – and this, every Indian musician cannot do. I have made a better headway abroad not because I am a great musician, but because I am a no-fuss, easy-to-deal-with guy who also delivers musical value. I don’t expect to be treated either like a king or God; I handle all my travel arrangements on my own, arrive at the venue in time, do my thing, collect my cheque, and disappear until the next time. It has taken me more than fifteen years to arrive at a situation of people valuing my music, independently of my professionalism.

Having achieved prior success abroad has helped me immensely in dealing with the Indian market. Whatever success I have in India today has been achieved with my self-esteem intact -- without the crawling, maneuvering, networking, and deal-making that dominates the world of professional Hindustani music. Because of my success abroad, I can command my price in India. It is not as if I do not do small concerts, subsidized concerts or even free concerts, in India. But, I have the freedom to do them when I so wish and for my own reasons. I don’t have to do them either because I am desperate enough to accept peanuts, or because I fear the consequences of poor visibility.

Having done well abroad has also helped me musically--allowed me the time to liberate my Indian presence from the towering shadow of Ustad Vilayat Khan’s music. Had I been more dependent on Indian audiences for my livelihood, the market may have forced me to become a Vilayat Khan clone. You and I know what Ustad Vilayat Khan means to me musically. I cannot cease to be Vilayat Khan’s son and disciple any more than I can cease to be myself. I also love doing some of Ustad Vilayat Khan’s stuff – even willfully in addition to doing it unconsciously. But, I don’t want to be coerced into reaffirming my lineage at every concert, and in every raga.

By now, when India is taking me seriously, I am past forty -- no longer a kid. Nobody in his right mind can expect me to be a replica of Vilayat Khan at this stage in my life. I am not saying that the chain of expectations has been entirely broken. I can still hear orgasmic sighs and moans piercing the silence when, once in a while, I resort to a Vilayat Khan cliché. But, nobody feels cheated if I don’t do it. 

With the passage of time, of course, an entirely new generation of listeners has emerged. To them, Ustad Vilayat Khan or Pandit Ravi Shankar or Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – though they are all alive – are only as real as Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. These audiences are willing to accept me for what I am. So, from every angle, my prior success abroad has worked well for me. Of course, every gain demands a price. The price I have to pay for this is that I am away from my family for almost six months in a year. 

I have often been asked how different the content of my music abroad is from the music I perform in India. Today – and increasingly over the last three or four years – there is no difference. But, I am a very situation-to-situation musician, and the environment affects me. Under ideal conditions, I deliver superlative music. Under less-than-ideal conditions, I deliver only competent music. The West provides me with ideal conditions far more consistently than India does. 

By conditions, I mean the concert halls, the sound systems, the professionalism of the concert hosts, and the conduct of the audiences. Amongst these factors, the acoustic environment is the most important. I agree that in my grandfather’s time, great sitar music was performed without acoustically engineered concert halls and without electronic amplification. In those days, the audiences were small – 100/150 people – the sitars were designed to address these audiences effectively without amplification, and the music was appropriate for those conditions. Unfortunately, my music is a product of the microphone era and I play an instrument designed for electronically manipulated delivery of output. I have been pampered by the opportunity of performing at the finest concert halls in the US and Europe. The contrast hurts. 

Audiences abroad will not allow me to stagnate

With the success and financial comfort I have achieved by now, my music could easily have stagnated. But, I am not satisfied with the music I am playing and, as I grow, my musical perceptions are also changing. Also, fortunately for me, the quality of my audiences, especially in the US and Europe, will not allow me to stagnate. I do not have any strategy for change at each stage. Nor do I – as a rule – analyze my music. But, when queried about it, I can look back and decipher some patterns of experimentation I have been through. The residue of each stage has probably remained in my music. 

The early days were of playing the true Vilayat Khan music. Then came the stage of western influences. Both these faded away. Then I was on a simplification and relief trip. Vilayat Khan’s exploration of the melodic potential within a small region of the melodic canvas was so dense and rich that the listener got tired of it. It worked for him. But, I wanted to introduce some relief. So, after an intense phase of melodic exploration, I started introducing lighter passages, less dense in melodic content. Sometimes, I went so far in this direction that the profundity of the music got diluted. Similarly, I started simplifying bandish-es. That effort also went so far that the bandish virtually lost its contours, and almost became a scale rendering to percussion accompaniment. Both these fads passed. Then, at one stage, I started working on introducing the unexpected in my phrasing strategy – the kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of notes and phrases, Ustad Ameer Khan’s gift to Hindustani music. Even in this direction, I went so far that, sometimes, that I lost a grip over the expected. This too passed. 

As a practitioner of an improvisation-dominant art form, I have persistently crusaded – through my music – against the dominance of sitar music by “Tihai-s”. If you are a master of the rhythmic element, and have a melodic imagination, you don’t need tihai-s. It is not as if I don’t use them. But, I am ashamed and even apologetic when I do. What is so musical about an expression which, everyone knows, you have practiced and perfected a thousand times at home, and will culminate with unfailing mathematical accuracy? There is something so childish about it! I never stop marveling at musicians who deliver pre-composed tihai-s, and look around for the applause. A small occasional tihai, which almost composes itself, and surprises even the musician, is a musical delight. That is the real role of the tihai in instrumental music.

I am attracted by the prospect of charging the atmosphere with the music – of saturating the air with the character of a movement. In this direction, I often find myself unearthing and reliving memories of my father’s music of the 1960s, and how he handled the exploration of melody. This is why, increasingly, I play fewer movements, and explore each of them in a sustained manner over a certain minimum duration without a break. You can see this most clearly in my jhala. My percussionist has been instructed to refrain from clever playing once I begin the jhala. In the jhala, I like taking up themes, and weaving my improvisations around them. With the constant acoustic-rhythmic experience of the jhala, like prayers being sung in a temple to the accompaniment of the temple gong or the bells, one can have the audience swaying in the seats in response to the music – put them in a trance. That’s why they are there, to begin with.

And, finally, my current fad. Bandish-es – vocal and instrumental – have traditionally been composed to begin on certain beats of the rhythmic cycle. I am now working on composing and playing bandish-es, which commence on unconventional beats of the rhythmic cycle. Their beauty is highlighted when I take an amad tan and dovetail it smoothly into the mukhda. The subtle interplay of melody and rhythm in such dovetailing fascinates me for now. So, if you are looking for something special in my music at the moment, look for what I am doing now in the medium-to-fast tempo bandish-es.

I am embarrassed by my success

By any conventional yardstick, I am a successful musician. I must be the only Indian musician to have had an Income Tax Department raid at home. I have and can buy everything I want. I even have a Grammy nomination to my credit, a hard-core dollars-and-cents testimony to musicianship, which cannot be bought, influenced, or lobbied for. I am secure enough in my profession to do all my experimentation with new directions in the concert hall, under the flood lights, in public gaze. But, when I study the music of the greats of my era, I am embarrassed by my success. I don’t deserve it. I have no desire to become a Page 3 celebrity. Unlike Ustad Vilayat Khan, I am not driven by the conviction of being born for a place in history. I am satiated with what I have. All I want now is to play the music that I am happy playing, and enjoy the love and warmth of my family and friends – all those who are not here only because I am Ustad Shujaat Khan.