He chooses a steady pitch

He chooses a steady pitch

Sitarist Ustad Irshad Khan shares his musical journey

Irshad Khan, Indian soloist
"I give full-fledged performances on the surbahar. But it’s a much more difficult instrument to play. "

Ustad Irshad Khan, sitarist and surbahar player, belongs to a family of legendary sitarists. His great-grandfather was Ustad Imdad Khan, after whom the Imdadkhani gharana is named. Ustad Irshad Khan was in the city recently for a concert organised by the Bengaluru-based Swartarang Academy, a school for sitar learning. The ustad, a child prodigy who gave his first public concert at the age of seven, has performed in over 40 countries. His passion for music was obvious as he spoke about his style of playing, his focus on technical perfection, and the emotion that drives his music. Here are some notes from the conversation...

You’ve played in over 40 countries. You must play to several kinds of audiences...

I do play all over the world, but the best audience for me is here. My heart is always in India, and playing here is different. People here understand culture and language, and that makes all the difference. I always look forward to coming to India. But, has living and playing abroad brought in other influences to your music?

One has to be so powerful inside that, rather than getting influenced by others, you should be influencing them. I have been travelling abroad since I was 12 years old. But looking at the way I play, nobody can say I have been living abroad, because music-wise, I live in India. When I play the sa, that single note represents the entire history of music. It is the same the way the note has been played since the time of the buzurgs (elders). I’m not bragging, but every note and phrase I play has a truth behind it — it has to be justified. It’s like a conversation. Everything I say has to have justification, a reason.

When I am playing jhala, gamaks and taans (various elements of a concert), they have to be true. There is no gimmickry in it, no shortcut.

Do you mean that you play just what is needed, not more, not less?

It is more about the way notes and phrases have to be played. If you are playing (decorative elements such as) a murki or a gamak, the timing is important. It’s like an accent. For instance, if a Bengali is speaking Kannada, you can make out the accent. In the same way, if I play just one phrase, you can identify my musical background.

What is the one aspect of playing that defines you?

When you are playing a raaga, you become it. Shree, the raaga that I played today, is one of the few purush or male raagas in Indian classical music. So, the attitude of that raaga is masculine. When I played Jaijaiwanti, you get the feeling that you are interacting with a ragini (a feminine raaga).

Whatever work you do, you have to love it, and then it shows in your work. We call it ishq (love). My first love was my sitar and surbahar; I’m still in love with them. Every time I play them, I fall more and more in love with them.

Would you say this ‘ishq’ is what defines you as a sitar player and sets you apart from others?

Yes. Ishq is not so much your love for the instrument as your love for music itself.

You are also one of the few ‘surbahar’ performers. Not many people play it today…

I give full-fledged performances on the surbahar. But it’s a much more difficult instrument to play. 

How important is teaching to you?

I have been teaching since I was 8 or 9 years old! I used to teach my father’s students. When I was 14, I was teaching music in colleges, in Berlin. I don’t have concerts every day, so I enjoy teaching. But, as a musician, one needs opportunities to perform. Else, they can get rusty. It’s like a cook who has cooked a lot of food for you, but there is nobody to eat.