The music of sitar artists Ustad Rafique Khan and Ustad Shafique Khan isn’t bogged down by their illustrious ancestry

Ustad Rafique Khan and Ustad Shafique Khan, at a concert recently in the city, treated listeners to an evening of moody, expressive sitar music.

The brothers are from a well-established family of music; their early training came from their father, the sitar player Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. The duo’s musicianship focuses on ‘tantra-kaari’, or string work. This means they use the sitar for its own qualities as an instrument, and not necessarily to imitate the voice (this would be a ‘gayaki’ performance).

The raga chosen by the Dharwad duo was Keervani: this is one that has found many applications in the Hindi film world. For instance, the evergreen ‘Ye Raatein, Ye Mausam’ is set to the raga.

Kirwani includes some form of all seven notes, and thus allows space for a variety of moods. Ustads Rafique and Shafique Khan began with a lengthy, meditative opening alaap, setting the tone of the evening. A composition followed; here, the brothers alternated in taking a leading and supporting role. While Rafique launched a feverish improvisation, Shafique played supporting notes in the background, and vice versa. On tabla, Pandit Rajendra Nakod chose to provide accompaniment by bringing the lightest possible touch to his instrument.

It’s easy for the sitar to sound maudlin, or cliché, given the instrument’s popular use in film and TV soaps – as well as its somewhat ubiquitous nature in world music. To a listener who is unsure about the imaginative potential of the instrument, Rafique and Shafique Khan are a fitting answer. Earlier, Ankush Nayak opened the evening.

He has been learning sitar from Rafique Khan since he was nine. His biography describes him as possessing an “interest in laya” and his hour-long performance lived up to that descriptor.

Nayak’s raga of choice was Patdeep, a seven-note creature often invoked at dusk. The raga has all notes except the ‘ga’ (or gandhar) sung in their pure form; the ga is sung ‘komal’ (literally, gently, or slightly lower in pitch).

This seemingly simple combination of notes gives the raga a pathos that has been often used in film songs – think the 1971 film Sharmilee’s “Megha Chhaye Adhi Raat”, or, more recently, parts of “Ae Ajnabi’ from Dil Se. To Nayak’s credit, the pathetic power of the raga didn’t dominate the performance. Nayak’s Patdeep is a feather-light, almost ambient being.

In some parts, the artist’s technique transforms the clang of sitar strings into a smooth sound reminiscent of a good slide guitar solo. Again, for much of the concert, Pandit Nakod’s tabla accompaniment was delightfully understated; through most of the concert, his hands alternately transformed the instrument into the barest whisper, a gurgling stream; at other carefully selected parts, it was a galloping horse, or an army marching.

Correction

This article is corrected for a factual error