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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

learn music."

"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

the sitar."

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

be good."

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

Festival of Music from India, McCarter Theater,

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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