A Rumi touch to emotions

A Rumi touch to emotions

Ustad Shujaat Khan is collaborating with Indian-American singer Katayoun Goudarzi and two other musicians to record Sufi poems from the 13th century.

Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan

A team of four musicians led by sitar maestro Shujaat Khan has just released an album of Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry.

Called This Pale, it features six tracks sung by Iranian-American singer Katayoun Goudarzi, accompanied by Shao Andalibi, who plays the Iranian ney (a wind instrument whose sound resembles that of the flute), and Shariq Mustafa, who plays the tabla.

Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, has been translated into languages across the world. In this unusual recording, Katayoun sings his poetry in the original Persian (also called Farsi). The tunes are composed by Shujaat Khan, who plays the sitar on each of the tracks.

In an interview with DHoSShujaat Khan shared his thoughts on a host of ideas. Excerpts from an interview

How did you come to do Rumi? We haven’t seen anyone in India taking up his poetry and rendering it in the original Persian.

You see, because it is a different language, no one wants to do it. Sometimes we have a little bit of an attitude that Indian culture is the greatest in the world. That I understand, and it probably is. But in different parts of the world, there have been wonderful, great writers, poets, and musicians. Rumi is probably the world’s most-read because so many people have taken him with them to the West.

I have known Katayoun for a long time and I thought it would be a wonderful idea — to hear the feelings and emotions of people from other parts of the world. It has the risk of not becoming a huge bestseller. That is not always important. When it comes to the fine arts, it is most important for us to do something beautiful, and for people to enjoy it. We do Kabir, so it was nice to do something a little different.

What is it about Rumi’s poetry that inspires you?

Oh, it talks about emotions and love and the heart. Fulfilling love and unhappy love and finding love. Poets have a great way of expressing those human emotions and going really deep into your soul. That is what I find enjoyable.

What were the challenges of working on this project during a pandemic?

I’m here in India and Katayoun is in America. And that makes it more difficult. But sitting in front of screens, you see each other. It’s like being in the studio in different rooms. There is a divide, but as humans and musicians, we have to find ways and means to get to the emotionality from inside, come out from adverse circumstances. And there is no point in waiting for the pandemic to end because we really don’t know. And whatever one can do in safety, we must try it out. And technology is a great thing. 

Musically speaking, how did you approach the project? Did you go with ragas and then look at creating a freer form of the raga?

No, when I am composing songs, I don’t do it in any raga. When we play classical music, we surround ourselves with that fence and see what we can develop within the boundaries laid down. But when I am composing, I like it to be free-flowing and use just phrases. We make it as uncomplicated as possible. You see, it is simple music.

Yes, it is. It doesn’t seem like something you’ve notated minutely. Or even something scored in the manner of a film orchestra.

That is already happening in the world and music is getting more and more complicated. More instruments. More electronics. A lot more dramatic and theatrical music is being composed and I try to give an alternative to people to come back to the basics, the basics of just people sitting and playing simple music.  

I had the good fortune of interviewing Ustad Vilayat Khan, your father, when he came to Bengaluru in the early 2000s, and his views on what is called fusion are well known. He said you could play Moonlight Sonata or raga Chandni Kedar, but you couldn’t play the two together. What are your views on collaborations such as the ones between Pandit Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin?

I don’t look down on experimenting at all, I have no problem with that. My father had his own opinions, which are great, and he lived by them. I have my own opinions, and I live by them. I want to make it clear there is nothing wrong with fusion, or different kinds of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and performing…. But most of the so-called fusion that happens is, by and large, by people who have not been able to establish themselves as solo musicians. There has got to be 90 per cent of your work as a soloist because that is how I recognise you. You see, with Anushka (Shankar), 90 per cent of her work is with other musicians. So I get to hear very little of who she is, and her development as an artist. 

When you travel, and you hear music elsewhere, are you inspired to take ideas from other musicians?

I don’t force myself to take something… I listen to music, and I listen only to good musicians. And there are phrases of beauty that jump out. And some of them stay with me. So I see it as a natural organic process and not a formal one. 

This Pale is available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and a host of other online platforms.

Katayoun Goudarzi has worked with Ustad Shujaat Khan on several projects over the past decade. She talks about their latest album, This Pale.

How is it collaborating with Ustad Shujaat Khan? 

Shujaat Khan is an exceptional musician. He is always kind, courteous and considerate. He also has a great sense of humour. I often jokingly tell him that I want to be just like him when I grow up, which makes him laugh.

What are the similarities and differences that you notice between Persian music and Indian music?

When listening to Indian ragas and Iranian dastgahs, I find an obvious musical exchange between the two regions but find Indian classical music far more complex.

Tell us a bit about your educational and musical background and your influences.

I started taking piano classes when I was seven and started to sing in the school choir when I was eight. I continued with voice classes both in college and afterwards with western Classical singers as well as Broadway and jazz singers. I still have a vocal coach that I see regularly.

Do you have more collaborations lined up?

If all goes well with the pandemic, hopefully we’ll perform ‘This Pale’ live in a series of concerts. 

What thumb rules did you keep in mind when you picked up Rumi’s poetry for rendition?

When I select poetry for an album, I have to be emotionally attached to it so that my performance is genuine. Another point that I always keep in mind is that the selection has to be cohesive and make sense as a story. My approach to selecting Rumi’s poetry was very simple. I wanted to make sure that our album told a story while each song stood on its own. So, I selected a handful of ghazals in a certain order and shared them with Shujaat and he connected with them and that was our starting point.