Stars of India

Two generations master an ancient art

No other medium--save perhaps the chemical--can dislocate or transport with the potency of music. Sound, rhythm, and tone all combine to evoke moods that can transcend the limits of everyday life and experience. The effect of music of another culture--built on utterly foreign assumptions according to blueprints that assume an entirely different geometry--can be more powerful still.

Perhaps this is why modern Western pop artists have long been fascinated by the music of India. From the experimentations of George Harrison and Roger McGuinn in the '60s to Tom Petty's sitar-laced "Don't Come Around Here No More" and Eddie Vedder and Joan Osborne's fascination with Qawwa li-- singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, (who performed Muslim religious music of a type closely linked to North Indian classical singing), Indian music has long been used to introduce a dreamlike, otherworldly air into what would otherwise be standard rock songs. Francis Ford Coppola knew what he was doing when he chose the Doors' "The End"--full of sitar-type guitar parts, dronings, and tunings--for Apocalypse Now, his surreal epic of Western man gone mad amid the unutterably foreign jungles of Vietnam (even though Indian music is closer to the music of Western Asia than Southeast Asia).

Ancient--tracing its roots back over 2,000 years to the chanting of the Vedas, the texts that form the basis of Hinduism--and complex (with 10 to 72 basic scale types, depending on region), the music of India is an overlay of influences. Drawing from Muslim invaders in the north, Hinduism, and dramatic tradition, it has avoided the Western fascination with harmony and instead stresses rhythm and melody; next to it, tunes based on our two scales can sometimes seem rather puny.

The embodiment of Indian music--to the West, at least--is the sitar, its most popular instrument. About 4 feet long with a bulbous body, the sitar is made of a combination of seasoned gourd and, most commonly, teakwood. Although the form we know today appeared around the end of the 19th century (and continues to develop), oral tradition puts its design at roughly 700 years old. It has moveable frets and three kinds of strings (melody, drone, and those that are not touched at all but which vibrate sympathetically) that are played with a wire plectrum called a mizra--b. It takes years of practice to master.

No one knows this better than Shujaat Khan, who will be coming with his father, Vilayat, to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center as part of the Music Festival of India, currently traveling America in celebration of India's 50th anniversary of independence. "I was born and brought up a performer," Shujaat explains, his voice smooth and modulated. "For me, my childhood is like what would happen to a racehorse. You go and see this horse, which since his childhood everyone has known that he is going to run, and that is it. He's not a show horse."

Shujaat admits with little regret that his mastery of the sitar has left him little time to appreciate the history and theory behind the instrument. "I am not so much clued up to the history, because I never really read anything about it," he says. "Since childhood, if I had time to read, I would really rather practice--to be a better musician--because to me, I am the one who has to perform. I let other people talk about it.

"I have students who know more about the explanations of music than me," he says with a gentle chuckle. "I come from a family of musicians; I was pretty certain about what I was going to be even before I was born--the seventh generation, father to son, all doing the same thing. When I was 2 1/2, there was a small sitar given to me, and I started fiddling around on it. At 3, I was actually practicing properly, and I gave my first solo concert at 6."

Precocious though he may have been, young Shujaat hadn't begun to woodshed. "When I was 12 or 13," he recalls, "my father told me that if I had decided to really carry on with the sitar, then I would have to go into seven or eight years of really serious practice, like eight hours a day.

"So I would go to school around nine, get off around two and play some sports, then sleep from five to eight. From nine at night to about five in the morning, I would practice, then catch another two or three hours of sleep. During this time, I saw perhaps two movies a year. There were no outings or TV."

This sounds like the kind of a regimen usually recounted on a psychiatrist's couch, but Shujaat is only appreciative of the intense training that dominated his teens. "Nothing was forced upon me," he says. "My father just said, 'If you want to be a musician, this is what it takes.' After a while, I was pretty firmly entrenched, and it became easier. I think it's like that for any musician--with any instrument: that you must put in five to seven years of really dramatic time. The benefits are that now I'm 37, and I have my pick, my choice, of concerts. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do, and I can play places like the United Nations or Carnegie Hall or whatever."

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