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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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Seven Generations of Sitar
Two’s company and three’s a crowd when it comes to
sitars, the multi-stringed relative of the lute used in the classical
music of north India. This news comes from sitarist Hidayat Khan,
who joins his father, the distinguished sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan,
in a concert of Indian music at McCarter Theater on Thursday, June
3, at 8 p.m. The San Francisco Chronicle has called Vilayat Khan "the
greatest sitarist of the century." India’s "Mid-Day" newspaper
called his son Hidayat Khan, "a young Vilayat Khan in the making."
Vilayat, 70, the sixth generation in a dynasty of sitar players, is
gradually turning over his mantle as reigning sitarist to his sons
Hidayat, 24, and Shujat, 40. Shujat, a sitar player based in Los Angeles,
has been honing his musical career. He was not included in the Princeton
concert for reasons of musical balance.
"If three sitarists perform together, it would be a lot of confusion,"
says Hidayat in a telephone interview from his home near Princeton.
By preference, sitar players improvise in order to achieve the most
intense performance possible, and sitarists prefer to perform with
no more than two in order to improvise. There is no artistic objection
to three artists sharing the stage, only to the three being sitarists.
Indeed, virtuoso tabla player Zakir Hussain, using the pitched Indian
double drums struck with the fingers, joins Vilayat and Hidayat Khan
to provide the essential percussion underpinnings for the McCarter
A type of dialogue takes place when two sitars perform together, according
to Hidayat, with each performer spurring the other on. "Each plays
separately," says Hidayat. "One plays a subject, and the second
plays a subject of the same atmosphere. It builds up in length and
intensity, perhaps in volume and in speed. Even when I’m playing with
my father, it’s not a composed piece. It’s all improvisation. It’s
a matter of atmosphere, of his mood, and my mood. Sometimes there
are subdued things, at a volume so low you think that nothing’s happening,
and the music exists in your imagination. In contrast, sometimes you
make every last bit heard with volume and power. Sometimes the two
sitars play at the same time. It’s a matter of both of us understanding
each other and the audience."
Mastery of Indian music takes time, and is eventually
rewarded by recognition from those attuned to the nuances by which
quality is judged. The outward sign of having arrived is the title
"ustad," a title for which objective criteria are not enforced.
"Everybody can become an ustad," says Hidayat "because
nobody tells you not to. By no standard at age of 24 do you become
a maestro of any kind of music. Some musicians younger than I am call
themselves `ustad.’ But that’s almost like disrespecting the name
ustad. I don’t like to do that; the title holds too much meaning for
me. People to whom it is given should receive it rightfully.
"There is no such thing as a `big ustad’ and a `small ustad.’
I am definitely not an ustad. It doesn’t matter what kind of training
you receive, until you have the necessary experience, you have no
right to be an ustad. When you sit on stage and want to make someone
cry, or laugh, and know how to do it, you’re ready to be an ustad.
If you go up to somebody and say `boo’ you will scare them. But being
a maestro is subtle. When you can see that the audience is moved by
your music, you’re ready for the title. It takes years." Hidayat’s
unhurried approach is the heritage of his father.
In an interview for the November 15, 1995, issue of U.S. 1, Vilayat
voiced both his sense of tradition and his search for novelty. Stressing
the venerable history of his family, he proudly traced his musical
heritage six generations back to Srujan Singh, head of a small state
in north India, who kept musicians at his court. Emphasizing originality,
he talked with satisfaction of his contributions both to the design
of the sitar, and to the style of playing the instrument: his physical
modifications of the instrument gave it added resonance and introduced
the musical interval of the fifth to sitar playing; his innovative
singing style of playing the instrument expanded its expressive possibilities.
In concert, Vilayat looks for a balance between convention and originality.
"I’ve given a thousand concerts," he says. "[But] I want
the next concert to be different than the last concert, and better
than the last concert… I may have played a piece 20 times before,
but today should be different."
Hidayat, who is at ease in both India and the West, was raised in
the circle of his venerable father. Contrasting his growing up with
the outlook of the West, he says, "Growing up in this whole atmosphere
of a music tradition is a novelty. Here in the United States, tradition
is not important. Everybody is a regular Joe. But being the son of
my father was like being the son of king. India is a society where
age is respected. You stand up when an elder enters the room. The
best seat in the house is given to an old person. But when I was 10,
50-year-old men would be touching my feet. These people would do anything
for us because we were my father’s sons. It might have been easy to
get used to it, and to get upset if someone didn’t fall at our feet,
or cater to our whims. My mother was strict about seeing that our
heads were not being filled with air, and would explain that this
adulation was not for us, but for our father. She was very strict
and taught us to understand the situation. She would say, `Don’t think
that this is reality: this is the world of music. Don’t forget that
you are a normal human being. These people are doing this because
they’re so touched by the music, they’ve lost track of reality. You
must allow it, but not let it turn your head.’"
Hidayat’s mother is the constant companion of her distinguished husband.
"My mother always tours with my father," Hidayat says. "They’re
always on honeymoon." The couple has four children, of which Hidayat
is the youngest. "My eldest brother, Shujat, plays sitar. His
40th birthday was May 19. He’s a successor to my father. Shujat and
I performed extensively together in 1997. I have one sister, Yaman,
who’s a really nice painter. My other sister Zila sings beautifully
and gives music classes."
Hidayat, who says that he grew up all over the world, was born in
1975 in Dheradun, Uttar Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas
in northern India. The region, he says, is famous for its basmati
rice, the best rice in India, and its Doon School. "I went to
that school when I was 10 and 11," Hidayat says. "It was an
international school with high standards. It also had sports and music.
I couldn’t continue because I was traveling with my dad in order to
"My brother was playing sitar," Hidayat says. "Everybody
was playing sitar. My father had extensive experience in the singing
style of playing sitar; he even gave vocal concerts. He always wanted
one of us to be a singer. We always had musical games in the house.
I started giving vocal concerts at age nine. I sang till I was 13
or 14. At that time my voice was changing, and that gave me time for
the sitar. My father thought that I should learn sitar because of
the family tradition. When I started I totally fell in love with it."
I ask if Hidayat ever just quietly fooled around with the sitar before
he was permitted to learn it, but he dismisses the idea of being a
clandestine sitar player. "It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to touch
it," he says. "It’s a very difficult instrument, and at first
it’s painful to the fingers to play it. You’re never just having fun
fooling around with a sitar. Besides, I was having a full life without
Hidayat started on sitar during the roughly two-year
period when he lived in London and Leicester, England. After he had
played for about six months, a leading Indian musician, the sarod
player Amjad Ali Khan, visited the family and was amazed at Hidayat’s
skill. It was the beginning of his full-time concentration on sitar.
"My vocal training helped the sitar," he says. "It showed
up in my playing. I would imagine everything, not just as played on
the instrument, but played as if I was singing it. For the first year
I was sounding great, but then I had some bad times."
"By the time I was about 18 or 19," Hidayat continues, "I
was well developed as a musician, but my sitar skills were not up
to my musical level. My capabilities of producing things were in my
mind, but not in my hands. It went to the point where I didn’t want
to do music. There was [too much] pressure, not from the family, but
from visitors. People would say, `So, will you be better than father?’
or `Who has to teach a fish how to swim?"
To add to his woes, Hidayat experienced discomfort among the musicians
who were his peers. "At about 20 I played in Delhi. Most of the
people were not ustad’s kids. They were good musicians, and the press
raved how well they were doing, though they were nobodies. They singled
me out. Whatever I did was not great, just what was expected. It made
me feel bad. I was dismissed because everyone expected that I would
Hidayat told his father about his decision not to pursue music, and
Vilayat reacted wisely. "My Dad said that if I didn’t want to
do music it was okay, but that I should learn music, and be knowledgeable
because I already knew so much, and because I come from a musical
Hidayat remembers the turning point. It came rather suddenly. "One
day," he says, "I was at home in the evening alone. It’s a
rare thing to be alone in India. Everybody is always around. I put
on a recording of my father’s. The house was on the ocean. It had
a beautiful view. By the time the recording finished, it had become
dark, and I had seen the sunset. That day I realized there was nothing
in the world that I wanted to do more than move people the way that
music moved me. I was not in tears, but I was in awe. That was the
day I decided."
Hidayat’s performing keeps him, to some extent, apart from the large
Indian community of central New Jersey. "Mostly," he says,
"the Indian community is not into Indian classical music. There’s
a lot of sociability and community gatherings. But I’m not a part
of that. Because I’m in music I’m away playing on the weekends, when
the gatherings take place."
Hidayat is, however, into developing a growing discography. Two new
CDs are ready to be issued featuring Vilayat and Hidayat on sitar,
with Zakir Hussain on tabla. In CDs, as on the concert stage, two
sitarists are company. Three would be a crowd.
— Elaine Strauss
91 University Place, 609-683-8000. Sitar master Vilayat Khan,
his son Hidayat Khan, and Zakir Hussain, tabla. $27 & $30. Thursday,
June 3, 8 p.m.
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