One of the cornerstone of Hindustani classical music is the Sitar. A Sitar player is almost a pre-requisite in the set up. It has been practiced as a solo or an accompaniment instrument in almost every baithak. Being one of the most emotive instrument, it lends itself to multiple essences.
The Sitar has evolved over the years. From its inception to date only the basic shape and name have stayed constant. The changes though subtle, were very dynamic. One of the contributors to these changes is Ustad Vilayat Khan. Along with Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustadji is the prominent exponent of the Sitar. He introduced the concept of ‘Gayaki Ang’, a unique rendition where voice blends with the instrument, to the Sitar.
“There were limitations to the sitar while playing this style so he tweaked the instrument to make it more emotive. He made some structural and string changes for that so one could play the vocal and also the traditional instrumental style. To me personally it has the most dynamic range of tones,”
said Hidayat Husain Khan, Ustadiji’s youngest son.
Unusual style of learning
Hidayat started playing the Sitar, under the tutelage of his legendary father. He learnt not only the nuances of the instrument but also picked up the way of life as an Indian classical musician. He imbibed the outlook his father had towards life, the way he carried himself as a musician and also to be open to other genres of music. Though his learning was the traditional gurukul style, he was left free to explore his imagination.
“Abba would teach us an idea and then ask us to take it further. It helped us experiment and explore our own creativity. He would help crease out technical flaws and give guidelines. But he was clear about one thing that he can only teach you an idea rest is upon you,” quipped Hidayat.
Usually the students of Indian classical music follow a strict and somewhat restrictive regime. Most gurus bar their students from exploring other genres and hobbies. Their daily activities are restricted to practicing their art. With Hidayat and his siblings there were no such restrictions. They were encouraged to pursue interest in fashion, learn about the economy, sports etc.
“Only thing we were not allowed was to practice a performance. I have never done it in my life. I have done it in an abstract way so that when you perform on stage it does not look like a rehearsed lecture,” said the Sitar player.
Hidayat Husain Khan- the Sitar player
Once an artist is on the stage, the smallest of things can make a difference. Their mind set at that moment, fatigue from travel or back to back shows or even the quality of the sound. Most musicians would agree that they are seldom satisfied with the quality of the sound at their disposal. At times it just a bad day. One may give it their best but still fail to connect with the audience.
“May be you spot that one guy in the audience who is appreciative of your music, you can get inspired by that person. If you feel that you are not making a connect, you need to tweak your music accordingly,” opined Hidayat.
“There are concerts where you feel you have performed well but the audience thinks otherwise. And also at times the other way around. So there is no fixed formula for a successful concert.”
Collaborating with western musicians
The New Jersey based Sitar player is known for his ‘out of the box thinking’. He has dabbled into various collaborations while making sure the Sitar never loses its essence. Hidayat has showcased his versatility in several film score compositions and has performed in numerous classical and fusion concerts. He has worked alongside illustrious musical names including, Ndugu Chancler, Ronnie Woods, Alicia Keys, Usher, Zakir Hussain, Pete Townshend, Will.I.Am, Jay Z.
“I have had many bad collaborations,” chuckled Hidayat.
“I love music and jamming with other musicians. When I listen to others play I get inspired. For me, it is very important to have an offstage chemistry with the artist I am performing. I do not enjoy collaborating where I am told how to play my sitar. As I never force my style of music on other musicians,” quipped Hidayat.
Hidayat Husian Khan – the tutor
Along with being an exquisite sitar player and vocalist, the torch bearer of the ‘Etawa Gharana’ is also well-versed in the ‘Gayaki Ang’. The multi-dimensional Sitar player, had been teaching the Sitar to the Indian classical music enthusiast in the United States. Though Indian Classical music is followed in very small pockets, there are many schools who teach the art in the States. Teaching classical music is considered more lucrative than the professional jobs. Hidayat, at a time, had more than 200 students under his wing but he stopped teaching.
“I had 15 kids in a class that lasted an hour. Imagine tuning all the sitars in that time and teach the students. Some kids could pick up fast others would lag. An artist who is learning music since his childhood, reaches musical maturity only in his 40’s. It like getting a PhD. Parents do not realise this. They want their child to be an overnight star. Parents enroll their children, irrespective of whether they want to learn or not. They need to realise that in this genre of music their kids are not going to become or be treated like rock stars. Just because 4 or 5 Indian Classical musicians become famous globally it does not mean everyone will. There is a lot of exposure but I think it is useless. I sincerely hope there is some check and balance on this,” asserted Hidayat.
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