Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shujaat Khan – “Most duets are a farce”

Shujaat spoke to Deepak Raja on September 18, 2002

Surprising as it might seem, I am not a great enthusiast of the duet in Hindustani music. In most cases, it is a gimmick – especially when it is arranged between people who are ill-matched. In 90% of the cases, it turns out to be a farce. The quality of music turns out to be far inferior to what each of the musicians can turn out in a solo concert. This happens because there is neither a musical compatibility between them, nor a personal rapport. Each goes off into an ego trip trying to dominate the music. He ceases to be himself, and makes a mess of the music.

For myself, I find that there are very few musicians I can play with. One of the considerations is this notion of seniority. My seniors will not play with me because I am their junior, and I will not play with my juniors because I am their senior. There are very few contemporaries – plus or minus five years in age – whom I can possibly combine with; but not all of them wish to play with me.

I played with Ashish Khan once. A very good musician. Excellent concert. But, he had problems with my singing. He felt this was disturbing the flow of our music. A similar problem emerged recently with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. I would personally be quite happy to jettison my singing if it was only an ego trip for me. In truth, I have neither the desire, nor competence to be a vocalist. But, if the audiences like it, and demand that I sing, I am not going to shut that out. After all, I am a professional musician, making a living. Singing is a small part of my presentation; if it makes people happy, I will oblige.

A duet succeeds only when the two musicians don’t have to carry a massive burden of baggage on their backs, can play together without nuts-and-bolts planning, and with gay abandon. In this sense, Tejendra Majumdar and I are getting our act together very well. We have done only one concert together so far, but have done four recordings. The other person with whom I have a great partnership is the Iranian Khemancheh player, Kayhan Kalhor. I have done at least fifteen concerts with Kayhan, and a coule of CDs. And, of course, I have been able to accompany my father Vilayat Khansaheb effectively. But, that is hardly something to talk about.

Right from the first recording I did with Tejendra we have had no problems. That first Charukeshi we recorded together was a miracle considering that these two guys, trying to make music together, did not know each other at all until then. Tejendra is a wonderful human being, and an outstanding musician. We respect each other as musicians, and like each other personally. We have never had to do any detailed planning for our duets. The only thing we discuss and plan is the format of the performance, and the bandish-es. If anything like a method has emerged in our duets, it is intuitive. And, because it is intuitive, it will keep changing.

There is, indeed, a difference in our approach to music. In his gharana, they tend to open up the raga across the melodic canvas faster than we do. Our style adopts a step-by-step approach to melodic progression up and down the melodic canvas. So, sometimes, I find that he is racing ahead of me. But, the moment he realizes this, he comes back. In the duet, this occasional mismatch of progression approaches is not as disturbing as it might be in a solo, because in any case, we are often responding to each other’s efforts in a different region of the melodic canvas. The totality is, therefore, scattered anyway. So, it is not something that worries either of us.

As far as I can see, the only thing that has stabilized formally between us is that he allows me to lead the transitions – the shifts from one movement to another, and the stepping up of the tempo. He gets too deeply involved in his music to lead the way, and I like taking responsibility.

Tejendra and I have not done much more of stage concerts together because of problems of coordinating dates and schedules, and also because of the money. From the point of view of the concert hosts, the cost of the engagement doubles. So, our duet appearances have been limited to those who can recover the expense, and hopefully make a profit on it.

The collaboration with Kayhan Kalhor, the Iranian Khamencheh player, is an entirely different kettle of fish, and we have a lot of setting up to do. The Iranian Maqam system is broadly like our raga system. But, their intonations are different, and their phraseology is rather limited. But, there is some very deep musical thought in their system, just as there is in ours.

Kayhan and I might share some common scales, like Darbari or Yaman; but Hindustani musicians tend to do much more with it through improvisation than the Iranians would do. I cannot work on the scale as Kayhan does, because that would make the music very repetitive. And, he cannot do what I do with the scale because of his musical background.

There is a difference in our handling of the rhythm also. They think mainly in a rhythmic cycle of four beats, while we have innumerable talas, with their individual cadence patterns. So, sometimes, it can happen that if we are working on an 8-beat cycle, I will always come back on the first beat, but Kayhan might come back on the fifth, because he thinks in 4-beat patterns.

With Kayhan, therefore, there is a need for strategy. We simplify the melody and the rhythm to a great extent, so that each of us can handle the music in our own respective ways, while working together. Our third partner, the percussionist Sandeep in our ensemble, has now mastered the stylized rendition of the “theka” in a way that works for my duets with Kayhan. He simplify even the “theka” to as little as two or three beats to make sure that Kayhan is not strained by having to count the beats. To help Kayhan handle the rhythmic cycle – we work primarily in 8-beat cycles -- I give him frequent cues for his return from a round of improvisations back into the composition. And, for the “sawal-jawab” type of interaction with the tabla, to which I am averse, I leave that part entirely between Kayhan and Sandeep.

Even though there is some “setting up” required with Kayhan, we have worked well together because we like each other immensely. He is much younger to me; but hardly matters. We are good friends. I also admire the mind-blowing music he is able to create with his small, and relatively crude, instrument. He is an outstanding musician, who gets deeply involved in his music. We come from different traditions; so we have no scope for problems of one-upmanship. And, personally, I would like more and more people to appreciate the little-heard music of Iran, and the even more obscure instrument Kayhan plays – the Khemancheh.

This is why I was very happy when an Indian organization came up recently and asked for a duet concert between Kayhan and me in Bombay. Yes, the fees are nowhere near what we get paid in the US. But, we are both treating it as a picnic, and an opportunity to promote Iranian music, the Khemancheh, Kayhan, and of course, our partnership. And, the audiences will get excellent music. I know that our classical music crowd will be disappointed in the absence of thoroughbred Hindustani music. But, this is a different kind of music – possibly for a different kind of audience. If some people feel cheated, I cannot help it. You cannot please everyone.

If my partnership with Tejendra and Kayhan can produce equally good results, it just proves that the essence of a successful duet is a high level of individual musicianship, and the personal chemistry between the artists. Nothing else really matters.

©Deepak S. Raja
The finest duets of Shujaat Khan with Tejendra Majumdar have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

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