Saturday, September 27, 2008

Shujaat Khan -- “Success and growth as a musician are different things”

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.

(C) Deepak S. Raja 2007
The finest recordings of Shujaat Khan have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Purnima Sen – “I could easily have become a knowledgeable musician nobody wanted to hear”

Introduction: Groomed by three Ustads of the Agra tradition, Purnima Sen (born: 1937) is a rare female exponent of the avowedly masculine style. She holds a first degree in Anthropology from Hunter College, New York, occupies the top grade rating on All India Radio, enjoys a respected presence on the concert platform, has released four CDs, and divides her time between music, and caring for a family of successful legal professionals.

Purnima Sen spoke to Deepak Raja on January 6, 2003.

My father was an Economist, and headed the Economics faculty at the Baroda University from 1939 to 1944. That was towards the end of Ustad Faiyyaz Khan’s life. During that period, he heard the great Ustad on several occasions, and no wonder, developed a love for the Agra style. From my childhood, I was very keen on learning music, and my parents were most encouraging. But, when I was very young, my family moved to New York. During our stay abroad, my father made it a point -- whenever we came to India – to send me to a music teacher to learn music. When I graduated from Hunter College, New York, I had scholarships to study further. But, instead, I decided to return to India with my parents and study music. That was 1957, and I was 19 then.

My father took me to Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan, and requested him to teach me. The Ustad was a towering figure in the music world. He was the seniormost vocalist of the Agra gharana, and an adviser to All India Radio. He could boast of a galaxy of distinguished disciples. Teaching a near-beginner could not have been an easy proposition for him. But, my father persisted. Khansaheb auditioned me, and despite his reservations, agreed to teach. My father wanted the best available teacher, but also had apprehensions about the suitability of the masculine Agra style for me. Though the issue was not immediate – I knew so little then! -- Khansaheb was sensitive to it. He assured my father that I would learn to sing like myself, and not like him. Thus, I became a Ganda-bandh shagird (a ceremonially initiated disciple) of Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan.

He was very enthusiastic about teaching me. One day he landed up at our house, without notice, at three in the afternoon, and asked me to sing Multani. I was stumped by the suddenness of this test. But, I sang. He was very pleased, and asked me what I would like to learn next. This was an unusual situation. A disciple dare not suggest what should be taught next; the Ustad always knows best what to teach at each stage of progress. I had just heard Kesarbai Kerkar’s Lalit recording at that time, and loved it. I wanted to learn the raga. So, very hesitantly, I suggested Lalit. He hummed and hawed for a while, and said: “Lalit is very complicated. But, you can manage”. So, he taught me Lalit. Thereafter, he also taught me Desh and Basant. I learnt six ragas with him in about 18 months, before I got married, and moved to Calcutta in 1958. I did not realize how much he had taught me in so short a time. But, by the time I moved, I could perform a raga passably for 30 to 45 minutes.

Vilayat Hussain gave me a letter of recommendation to his cousin, Ata Hussain Khan, who lived in Calcutta. Ata Hussain was reserved initially – I was only 21 then. After auditioning me, he accepted me as a disciple. On the very first day, he took up Desi Todi – a raga I did not know – and asked me to follow him – to merely reproduce what he sang. He unleashed his sparkling tans, which left me stunned. He said: “Never mind; try whatever you can manage”. He was testing my grasping power. By the fourth session, I could reproduce his tans. Thereafter, my training settled down to an even keel. He was a very good teacher, who never lost his temper. He taught me most of the ragas I know. I studied with him for twenty years – from 1960 to 1980.

While Ata Hussain Khan was teaching me, his nephew (and Vilayat Hussain’s son-in-law), Sharafat Hussain started accompanying him to our house, whenever he visited Calcutta. On those occasions, Ata Hussain would ask Sharafat to teach me. Gradually, Ata Hussain encouraged Sharafat to initiate me into the more advanced aspects of Agra vocalism as, by now, his own health had started failing. From 1974-75, Sharafat Hussain started staying with us on his visits, and got more intensely involved with my progress. This association continued for almost ten years -- until he succumbed to a cancer. That brought to an end almost 30 years of my apprenticeship with Ustads of Agra-Atrauli gharana.

I have never looked at music as a career. It is as much a part of my life as is my family. I was empanelled with All India Radio in 1976, and am now a top-grade artiste. My concert appearances have been limited largely to Calcutta and Delhi, the two cities where we have homes, with an occasional concert in Bangalore. I have not promoted myself actively. I have made four CDs abroad, and they have happened on their own. I do teach music in Calcutta. This, too, is very limited because I and my husband divide our time between two cities. This can make unreasonable demands on my students.

All my Ustads, starting from Vilayat Hussain, were sensitive to the masculinity of the Agra style. This was important because the forcefulness of vocalization and intonation determines everything else. Ata Hussain, who taught me for the longest period, accepted that just as a woman speaks differently, and walks differently, she would also sing differently. If she did otherwise, she would sound ridiculous. So, they allowed me to interpret Agra vocalism in a way that suited my voice and personality. The issue became more pronounced in the tans department where the typical four-stroke tans of Agra-Atrauli style exposed me to the risk of harsher expressions. Sharafat Hussain worked very hard with me on this, and made it possible for me to sing them without sounding unmusical.

The same was true of Dhrupad-Dhamar. According to the convention in the Agra gharana, the Nom-tom alap and Dhrupad-Dhamar compositions were an essential part of my training. But, I was instructed not to perform them because they were too aggressive for me. I was fortunate in having this sensitivity amongst my Ustads. Without it, I could easily have become a knowledgeable musician, whom nobody wanted to hear.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2003
Read a detailed profile of the artist in: "Khayal Vocalism: Continuity within Change".
The finest recordings of Purnima Sen have been produced by India Archive Music, Ltd. New York.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Alladiya Khan-Kesarbai legacy: in sepia tones

An extract from:
The Music Room
By Namita Devidayal

About the book: When Namita is ten, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighbourhood in Mumbai. There, in a cramped one room flat, lives Dhondutai with her bedridden mother and their widowed landlady. Little does Namita know that - despite her squalid surroundings - Dhondutai has inherited riches of a different sort. For, she is the only student of one of the legendary Jaipur gharana vocalist, Kesarbai Kerkar.

Dhondutai is the keeper of all the gharana’s secrets and of their rarest compositions. And yet, after a lifetime of training with the best teachers, Dhondutai found fame and recognition miserly towards her. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesar, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline, like her teacher?

The Music Room is the story of Namita and her teacher, of the charismatic Alladiya Khan who was unable to pass on all his skill and knowledge to his sons, and of the foul-mouthed and bewitching Kesarbai. At its heart is Dhondutai, a character half tragic, half victorious; diffident yet full of single-minded determination. The Music Room is beautifully written, full of anecdotes, gossip and legend.

Namita Devidayal was born in 1968. She graduated from Princeton University and is a journalist with The Times of India. She lives in Mumbai. This is her first book.

The Vikramaditya Music Conference (1944)

The musical event of the century

It was the musical event of the century. There had been nothing like that before and there hasn’t been anything as grand since. For seven days, the air reverberated with music. Afternoon concerts merged into evening sessions, and late night ragas heralded the dawn, while the sun’s first rays would start filtering in through the glass windows along the hall. People reportedly fell sick from sleep deprivation in their eagerness to grab as many performances as they could. The week-long festival took place at the monumental Cowasji Jehangir hall—which has since been resurrected as a modern art gallery.

A vast private home next to Bombay’s opera house—a fifteen minute carriage-ride away from the venue—was converted into a day-and-night mess where food was cooked in gigantic vessels and served all through the day and night for the artistes and their ensembles. Some preferred eating before they performed, some after the show. There was no sense of time as they drifted from performance to rehearsal to performance. A humungous cauldron of steaming tea was perpetually on the fire.

It was at this festival that unknown musicians became overnight stars. A young man from Punjab with a gourdlike stomach and black twirling moustache stole the show with his brilliant renditions of khayal and thumri, and Ghulam Ali Khan became Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, though some suggest that the preface of Bade or ‘big’ may have had more to do with his physical size rather than his musical stature. A young sitar player from Calcutta, Vilayat Khan, shot to fame and went on to become one of the all-time great musicians of the century. A startlingly unassuming tabla player took the audiences by surprise with his virtuosity. He was Ahmadjan Thirakwa. But it was the vocalists who were applauded the most.

The conference was like a snapshot of all that had happened in the music world in the last fifty years. Great artistes performed and then, the following day, put aside their egos and accompanied their gurus on stage. Backstage, the harmony was countered by personality clashes and ego battles. The best known fight was the one that took place between Faiyaz Khan and Omkarnath Thakur, both famous singers, who argued over who would sing last, for the chronology of performances was a reflection of seniority and stature. The best always sang last.The decision of who went before whom had led to legendary quarrels which sometimes lingered on for generations, and was carried on by the artistes’ students.

One musician had left his position as court singer out of fear that the whimsical ruler would make him sing before a lesser musician. In this particular case, Omkarnath finally won—and established his position as arguably one of the finest singers of his generation.

An intriguing couple sat in the front row through most of the performances: an old man with white whiskers, and a pretty girl in her late teens. She wore a traditional nine-yard sari and a blouse with short puffed sleeves. Every one knew who he was—the great Alladiya Khan, but they could not place the girl who sat next to him, attentively listening to the music, her hands neatly folded on her lap. When anyone asked him who she was, he would laugh and say,‘My granddaughter!’ But they knew she couldn’t be. She wore a bindi—the mark of a Hindu. Some would then whisper among themselves, ‘She must be Manji Khan’s daughter. He’s so modern, he is the only one who will let his girl come out in public.’ And if Dhondutai and the big Khansahib heard this, they would just smile at each other.

Dhondutai later told me how Alladiya Khan was able to sneak her into the best seats in the house, which were a thousand rupees each, a princely sum in those days. These front rows of red velvet-lined sofas were reserved for wealthy connoisseurs and maharajas. Many of them bought the tickets because it was the thing to do, but didn’t show up.

Alladiya Khan could get Dhondutai to sit next to him because there were inevitably empty seats all around. ‘Because of his age, he couldn’t sit for long stretches. He would make me sit there, go away, and then come back, and I would report every thing that went on,’ she said. She dutifully sat there, concert after concert. She described who sang and what ragas they sang. There was one musician who was so restless as a stage artiste, that he started his performance on one end of the stage and by the end of it, had shifted to the other end, she recalled with a laugh.

‘There was a singer, Karamat Khan, who was supposedly one hundred and twenty-two years old. I asked the big Khansahib whether he was really more than a hundred years old, and he said, “Yes beta. I don’t know his precise age, but I do know he’s much older than me.’’’ ‘There were very few people Alladiya Khan wanted to spend time with, so he would chat with me a lot. Of course, it was always only about music. He would tell me of the days he tried to become a teacher of Pharsi (Persian) to earn a living right after his father, a reputed singer, died. That was before he joined the family ‘business.’ After that, he started training seriously under his uncle who would tell him, there should be no relationship between an artiste and a clock and taught him from midnight onward. Until you can translate what your mind wants into your voice, you shouldn’t get up from your practice…’

Dhondutai’s voice trembled slightly as she remembered her days as a pretty young thing who had the blessings of the greats. I couldn’t help the thoughts that passed through me. She had it all—the training, the exposure, the life-long commitment. What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t they recognized her as the real heiress of this music? It didn’t make sense, and these questions troubled me for years.

The last to perform at the Vikramaditya Conference, in deference to his stature, was Alladiya Khan. ‘When he started singing, his voice was slightly shaky, and I remember my heart sinking slightly out of concern that he would falter,’ said Dhondutai. He was over ninety years old. Would he be able to sustain an entire concert? A few seconds later, without blinking, he shot off a taan like a lightening bolt. You could almost sense the wave of electricity go through the audience. That was the last time Alladiya Khan sang in public.

© Namita Devidayal
Reproduced from: The Music Room, with the kind permission of the publishers, Random House India.

Book published: September 21, 2007. Pages: 320. Cover price: Rs. 395.00