Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shahid Parvez – “Duets satisfy audience appetite for novelty. Most partnerships don’t work”

Shahid spoke to Deepak Raja on January 8, 2004

Upto the age of 15, I was trained on the sitar by my father, Aziz Khansaheb. My uncle, Hafiz Khan, better known as Khan Mastana, trained me on the sitar as well as the surbahar upto the age of 12. Based on that training, I have evolved my music. Though I do play the surbahar for personal pleasure, I perform only on the sitar. My music is, without doubt, the music of the Etawah gharana because that is my training.

It is not surprising that the music of this gharana is spreading faster than rival styles. The main reason is the scientific technique. This has to do with the posture, setting of the hands, and the handling of the acoustic and harmonic ambience of the melody. The realization has now dawned that this is the best way to handle the sitar. The content of the music can vary a bit. But, once a certain technique is accepted, the content tends to follow from it. The second reason is the richness of our gharana’s idiom. Our legacy has evolved over several generations, with a number of very competent performers contributing to its enrichment. Some worked on the right hand, while others developed the craft of the left hand. Some developed the Jod or taan-s, while others worked on the Jhala. This accumulated legacy gives every sitarist a huge fund of musical ideas to draw upon and develop according to his own temperament.

This is why, I think, our style is acquiring a following even amongst sitarists not trained by the gharana stalwarts. It is important that the technique be understood properly, and sitarists be taught to convert this technique into the content of music. Until recently, this gharana has not devoted sufficient energy to teaching. The first person to take this up seriously was Shri Arvind Parikh (the seniormost disciple of Ustad Vilayat Khan). Following his example, I have started training promising youngsters. Our efforts will result in an orderly transmission of the gharana’s music.

Engineering the instrument
Over the years, I have shaped the acoustic features of my instrument, and my technique to deliver the quality of music I play. I have been using an ebony Jawari bridge since I got this instrument made about ten years ago. In earlier years, when I was working with my grandfather, Waheed Khansaheb’s sitar, I used the ivory bridge, and later, a deer-horn bridge once ivory was banned. Under the impact of my strokes, deer-horn, the ivory substitute, became unstable in five or six days of playing. I experimented briefly with the polymer material that some sitarists have tried. The sound of this material was a trifle metallic for my liking. I have also tested the ultra-light hard wood from Japan that caught sitarists’ fancy for a while. That material withstood my strokes pretty well, but produced a very shallow sound. After experimenting with these materials, I have settled down to an ebony bridge, which gives me the best results with the sophisticated microphones we have today. I have to rework the Jawari every ten days or so. This is fine since I have learnt to fashion it myself. There are no longer any great craftsmen left on whom we may depend for periodic restoration. Nobody taught me this craft. I studied the way Bishandas ji (Bishan Das Sharma of Rikhi Ram, instrument makers of Delhi) and Hiren Babu (Hiren Roy, instrument maker of Calcutta) fashioned the Jawari bridge to suit my acoustic preferences, and figured it out. I am learning all the time.

When I wanted a new sitar, I started with the obvious solution in those times – Hiren Roy – but finally decided to design my own instrument. Hiren Roy’s reputation as a sitar-maker is well deserved. His workmanship was outstanding. The timbre of his instruments is mellow. But, no matter how you fashion the Jawari bridge on his instruments, the volume output of the main melodic string is subdued compared to the other strings. I have noticed this in all his instruments. Have you noticed that, no contemporary sitarist plays a Hiren Roy sitar any longer? I asked Hiren Roy if he would make an instrument to my specifications. He said my specifications were impractical. On the other hand, he would also not guarantee that an instrument made to his specifications would satisfy my acoustic requirements. So, I gave my specifications to a sitar-maker in Miraj (a small town in Western India, also a major center of instrument making), and got the instrument made. I then took it to Rikhi Ram in Delhi, got the joints reinforced, and the frets reset. The tumba of my instrument is smaller than a standard sitar. The natural pitch of the instrument is, therefore, higher than the normal. I am now happy with the instrument, and it responds perfectly to my ideas.

My pitch is half-way between the standard C# in our gharana and D. An intermediate pitch is appropriate because of the smaller tumba (chamber resonator) and the thicker tabli (the cover of the resonator), my instrument sounds dull at C#, and too stiff to play at D. A higher pitch does tend to reduce the acoustic sustain of the instrument. To compensate for this possibility, I fashion the Jawari (the timbre control bridge) in such a way that stroke power is not dissipated in volume, but gets converted into additional sustain.

The music
It is true that I work more extensively with rhythm than anyone in our gharana has so far done. In addition to Roopak and Jhaptala, which are now very popular, I have played in tala-s of eleven, thirteen, fifteen and eighteen beats. I have performed bandish-es in cycles with fractional beats such as 5 ½ , 7 ½ etc. Such cycles are improvised, and do not have the status of tala-s in the Hindustani tradition. I have performed duets with vocal music in ultra-slow Ektala and Jhoomra. If we say that our gharana specializes in the “Gayaki anga” (vocalized idiom), we must look beyond the traditional Teentala for our repertoire. Also, I believe that it is not what we do that matters as much as how we do it. As long as we make judicious use of novelties, continue to treat the raga with respect, and keep the music organized, these deviations add to the richness of our music.

There is a mistaken notion that I play almost entirely with one Tabla accompanist, Vijay Ghate, or that he is my first preference. We have practiced a lot together, and have a great understanding. Driven largely by convenience, we have also performed a lot together. In reality, however, I have performed with every Tabla maestro of our times, other than Ustad Allarakha. In 1976, when I was just 18, I have played with Karamatullah Khansaheb. In 1977, I have played with Dawood Khansaheb. In later years, I have performed several times with Afaque Hussain Khan, Shanta Prasadji, and Kishan Maharaj too. In the generation after these giants, I have played with almost every significant Tabla exponent. On my recent tour of the US, I played 27 concerts with young Akram Khan.

A musician may get along better with some percussionists than others. But, it is impractical for him to restrict his exposure to one or even a handful of Tabla accompanists. It would also be suicidal. Every percussionist stimulates you to thinking differently about the relationship between melody and rhythm. A musician who denies himself this advantage will stagnate.

Duets, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Like all other musicians of my generation, I have had my share of duets – with other instrumentalists as well as vocalists. They seem to satisfy the appetite of audiences for novelty. History tells us that truly great duet partnerships are rare. We will never again hear anything comparable to the Ravi Shankar-Ali Akbar Khan and the Vilayat Khan-Bismillah Khan partnerships. Some partnerships work. Most don’t. For duets to work, the musicians need to be of comparable caliber, and relate to each other with respect and affection. Without these ingredients, duets can easily degenerate into a mindless competition for applause. This is what happens in a majority of cases. In some unfortunate situations, they can even create unpleasantness between musicians. Though I am happy to work on promising duet ideas, my personal preference remains for the solo, where I can present my music in and orderly fashion.

©Deepak S. Raja 2004.
The finest recordings of Shahid Parvez have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd. New York.

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