Stars of India

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."

The most familiar form of sitar music is a Ra--ga-- , but a Ra-- ga-- is not a type of song in the western sense. "By and large," Shujaat explains, "for each piece of music you are given certain notes to play with. It is very rigid: there are certain notes that you may touch while you are playing a particular Ra--ga--, and no other notes shall be touched. It's like a boundary that is given you, within which you are free to improvise, create, and develop your ideas."

Ra--ga--s are designed to evoke mood and color, and vary accordingly. "Some are quite simple," Shujaat explains. "Others get more and more dramatic as you go. Some Ra--ga--s use one set of notes while you ascend and a different set while you descend. Two different Ra--ga--s might have the same set of notes but a different mood, so you would play them differently." Although the different combinations of scales yield a theoretical 68,848 possible Ra--ga--s, they tend to appear in broad groups. "You may not announce what it is you're going to play," Shujaat says, "but for a person who's clued up to the music, once you start it could be very easy for him to know what Ra--ga-- you're going to play. Any competent sitar player should have at least 50 Ra--ga--s to choose from; I have around 150. Some people know many more, but knowing them and performing them are two different matters."

Although Ra--ga--s have their roots in Vedic recitation, they also have been influenced by traditional folk styles and are more accurately regarded as Indian classical music. "It's not church music," Shujaat insists. "It can be meditative, or very serious, or frivolous, but during a particular piece you should be able to project many different kinds of feelings and thoughts. The word is khayal, which means 'thought.' When you're playing khayal, it means you're thinking of different things, different feelings.

"In fact," he continues, "I'd say that during their performance, a person should be able to project all different kinds of feelings to the people in the audience: anger, jealousy, bewilderment, everything. It's just like painting a picture, but in the presence of people rather than in your studio."

Unlike the West, where the tendency is to regard our classical music as the province of the elite, India's general population is very much behind the Ra--ga--'s classical form. "In Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, it's not unusual at all to have three or four thousand people show up, and in some places twenty, thirty thousand might show up three nights in a row to hear classical music."

Those who immediately think of Ravi Shankar's marathon performances on The Concert For Bangladesh or other '60s artifacts need not fear the Khans' Meyerson appearance: That kind of recital is more and more a thing of the past. "There was a time when a musician was judged by how long he could play without repeating himself or boring people," Shujaat explains. "Sometimes it could go on for six or seven hours, but now things have changed. Now--within the same framework--everyone is trying to put their ideas across in a smaller amount of time, to the point where it's unusual for a Ra--ga-- to go over an hour and a half."

Almost all sitar music features accompaniment by the tabla, or tuned hand drum, as will the Khan's Meyerson recital. The tabla is responsible for the Ta--la, or rhythm structure, of a piece. "Although there are tabla players who are big stars in their own right," Shujaat says, "the tabla's basic role is timekeeper, to accompany and hold the cycle together."

One point upon which the Khans are not typical is their singing while playing. "Only a few sitarists sing while they play," Shujaat says. "It could be folk songs or Vedas, but singing is not really important. If there is something that's old and pretty, with beautiful words, we'll try and share that with the people, because it can make things more intimate. But I don't--by a long way--consider myself a singer, and it's not an easy thing to do, to play and sing at the same time."

Actually, it's not that easy just to play the sitar by itself. "Most of the work on the sitar is done on one wire." Shujaat explains. "There are other wires, like the drones, which help keep time and fill up the sound, and then there are the wires that are tuned for resonance only. With the left hand you do all the pulling. By pulling the wire you can slide around five to six notes, which produces a sound like the sa--ran.g1-- or violin. On the right hand, which does the plucking, you use only one finger. Plucking makes the staccato tone, like a piano, going from note to note."

Shujaat prefers not to make a big deal about the technique the sitar requires. "What I respect," he says, "are the musicians who can do a difficult thing without making it look complicated. I know musicians who are not doing very much, but they make it look very dramatic."

He feels that the West's discovery of Indian sounds is not so much based on an elemental appeal, but rather our ravenous appetite for novelty. "At the moment, the West uses a lot of sa--ran.g1-- and tabla and sitar," he observes, "but they're just vying for a new sound. The music has the same lyrics and the same beat. People listen to it a while and then move on, like they did with Afro-Cuban music."

Shujaat is also leery of many virtuosos' tendencies to belabor the audience with their skill, losing sight of the most important factor to any performance. "There is excitement. There is skill. There is brilliance and technical virtuosity," he says. "But by and large, the important thing in music is not to get shell-shocked. You don't want people leaving and having to hold onto each other; you should be relaxed and happy at the end of a show."

Shujaat and Vilayat Khan and the Music Festival of India come to the Meyerson on Saturday, September 27. Tickets are available at all Dillard's stores or can be charged by phone. Call metro (817) 589-7477, (800) 654-9545 or (817) 571-4926.


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