“You would know about Rajasthani folk, Baul singers, Gujarati folk,” Ustad Shujaat Khan asks rhetorically. “These are folk traditions that have been exploited so much that they are coming out of my ears.” He is speaking in the context of the new album featuring him along with Pakha singers or Dogri folk singers of Jammu, recently brought out by Sa Re Ga Ma. The mild mannered sitar maestro has, in fact, no ire against either the much exposed musical traditions of India or those who use them for commercial gain.
With folk artistes today touring the world, their demos on laptops at the ready to impress potential impresarios, playing as easily “on footpaths” as in concert halls, “they have no soul in their music anymore.” But, he points out, everyone has a right to earn a better living. “We are quick to judge them but it’s a romanticism in our hearts to say, ‘That person never sold his reality, his soul. Gharib rehke they did their thing.’ But why should one remain poor?”
He is only stating that in planning this new album, which is arranged by his son Azaan Khan along with Upamanyu Bhanot and contains some compositions and lyrics by Azaan too, there was an underlying feeling of trying something novel.
“Recording companies are always looking for something new. So I said let’s try some people who have not been heard by the rest of the country. That’s how the idea for the album evolved.”
With traditional artistes, the transfer of knowledge through the generations is a blend of intuition, inheritance and on-the-job polishing, without much space for the theoretical aspects of music considered so important in formal training. Giving an example of the extent to which the Pakha singers are untouched by the mainstream music industry, the ustad says, “They are so raw that when we tell them in the studio, ‘ Is sur se gao, us sur se gao (take this or that pitch),’ they have no idea.”
It hasn’t been easy, he admits. “My life is much easier going into a studio, playing some beautiful sitar and walking out.” But this album took some 10 to 15 days of his time, while the arrangements took another one-and-a-half to two months. In a world of multi-track recording and sound file transfers through the Internet, it is no longer strictly necessary to be in the same studio with one’s fellow musicians. But with the Pakha singers, he says, “Yes, we had to sit together, absolutely. Some parts we had to record with them and then I tried to amalgamate my singing with them.”
While state-of-the-art recording makes it possible for one person to sing and accompany himself on a number of instruments, Shujaat Khan’s live concerts are a special treat anyway, with his trademark way of singing while playing the sitar in the gayaki ang made famous by his illustrious father, late sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan. This project used both approaches, and Shujaat believes, “We should use technology to our benefit,” and that as long as the result does not sound “plastic”, technology is good for the industry.
The album, “Satrangee”, contains a mix of compositions — hence the title which means ‘rainbow’. Besides Pakha, there is folk from Bihar and some Sufi compositions, including one composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan. Are there many such compositions yet to be made public? “There are none available. These are just private recordings,” he states, explaining they were made “just for fun” when his father was sitting with friends. ek is mein se ek nikala Any plans to bring them out as a collection? “I don’t know,” says Shujaat, saying he is not looking for such an opportunity, but if a time comes when it seems apt to do so, he might.
He muses, “Everyone is chasing what is new. Why are we looking for something new? Can we do anything (ultimately) beyond the 12 surs? Can we do anything different from what God has given us? An innovation that happens naturally, it sounds nice. But many are forced. And you know they are forced.”
As for Azaan, he says, “Yes, he has learnt from me. There is always music in our home. But he is not a sitar player. He plays the guitar and piano. He composes. He doesn’t do the same work as me.”
The ustad describes his own contribution to the album as that of “an actor” while “Azaan and Upmanyu Bhanot are directors. And this is another reason for us to be very excited about this. They are so young.”
While the family has something ‘new’ to celebrate in terms of the next generation’s first steps in the professional world, the maestro maintains there is nothing further “earth shattering” to relate. “This is my life — performance, travel, holidays with my family.” Meanwhile, business as usual is music to our ears. Ustad Shujaat Khan is slated to play at the Delhi Music Festival on October 4.