THE LOST TRIBE OF THE FERENGI SITAR PLAYERS
by Al Gromer Khan ©
When Hector Berlioz remarked in the second half of the nineteenth century that “Indian music still finds itself in deepest darkness and barbarism, with hardly any desire for aesthetic form” he overlooked, among other things, the fact that India and Africa, as cultures, are concerned with translating from an ordinary to a metaphysical state. Such musical cultures demand another way of looking at art, one that Hector could not possibly have taken into account. It was the hippie-generation a good hundred years later – however tragically their illusions were subsequently shattered – who for the West shed some light on the universe of classical Indian music. And however much Ravi Shankar may have gone around hippie-bashing, it was only thanks to them (and Cannabis rather than beer?) that enabled him and Indian music to find access to the West on a larger scale.
Those Westerners, often talented, idealistic, sensitive musicians, who, under the influence of Ravi Shankar and Beatles took up learning the sitar sooner or later knew when they were beat, and, even after going through thousands of practice hours, henceforth avoided anything to do with, and anyone involved in, Indian music. Others were forced into an amateur status, performing their sensitive art at noisy Indian restaurants whose managers welcomed the opportunity to exercise a little revenge upon former colonial masters. Musicians of whom the British sitarist Dharamvir Singh (rightly?) says: “Westerners don´t deliver!” (source: Clem Alford). There remained a handful structure freaks, amateurs, who, after frequenting Ali Akbar Khan´s college, teach stuff that can be written down: successions of fixed notes that try to compete with western classical music on a linear level. And can´t win, for western music has always had another repertoire: frequent changes, from one emotive room to another, thus developing a great deal more entertainment in terms of rhythm and melody, with harmony changes providing further complexity, a type of music which has always supported institutions and feudalistic rule, rather than requirements of the human spirit. Indian music, on the other hand, derives its complexity from an entirely different place.
“Tedious business, this Indian music”, used to remark with a clipped upper English class accent an old friend from England, around 1973, when his ´na finger´ became rigid from playing tabla. And since “one life-time wasn´t enough to learn Indian music ...”, why did one continue on this tedious path?
Because humans invariably follow the peak experiences of their lives. Because in the light of them everything else fades to grey, doesn´t trigger one´s motivation. And because there is a subtle element in pulling a zinn-plated steel string sideways across a bronze fret, making it resonate on a tabli of mahogany and pumpkin. Something blissful and ancient and refined, that appeals to the mystic and defies the ratio´s grasp. If you go into this music in a serious way you will not be any use for anything else in this world. Vilayat Khan Sahib´s fateful words ring in my ears. And it was Vilayat Khan who was guilty of weaving the magic net.
An older soul will always recognize another. One who is motivated from within and not from circumstance, even if the latter belongs to a different tribe, religion, race, nation, colour of skin. The mystic in me sees Vilayat Khan´s sitar comprising all music. All types of music, all traditions, all Mozart, all Bach – albeit on a condensed, an abstract, a universal and a subtle level. All African rhythm, all experimental futuristic tribal sound – and remaining in one specific emotional room for longer periods, thus providing the kind of timeless bliss one sought in Indian music. A kind of music from which all other styles and cultures branch out – ever new ways of looking at a melody, a subject.
No other type of music seemed as essential, as satisfying. Vilayat seemed to operate closest to the source of all music. Of course you got from him the occasional regally removed utterance, you know: Let them eat cake ... Yet his music, though operating within the realm of Indian classicism, became a kind of visionary abstract music, one that would contain only a minimum of ´entertainment´ with a number of possibilities to translate into another sphere of thinking and any number of moods of sublime refinement. It is only natural that, as a Westerner, one ceases to think of it as “Indian” music. And after a time ceased to think of oneself as a “white” performer of a traditional foreign art form. As far as I was concerned Vilayat Khan could have just sat on stage and smoked a beedi, it would still have been a worthwhile experience. It was obvious that Vilayat had this sort of demand on himself as well. And apart from his perfection as an instrumentalist he appeared regally aloof, intercultural, universal – ancient sound art.
So I went and sought discipleship with Vilayat´s younger brother Imrat Khan.
I should not and I won´t criticise Imrat Khan. At least not as an instrumentalist, as, no doubt, he was one of the great masters of Indian classical music. Art, however, is not defined solely by how perfect someone masters one´s craft. Other things need to be taken into consideration. First of all: what is this artist´s prime motivation? Is he motivated by spiritual growth, or by a hidden deficit? Will he/she take virtues of neglect into account? Is he/she in love, i.e. in a state of trance, when ´singing the love song´, or simply pretend to be? Will he/she ignore the pre-conceived form when the inspiration demands it? Is there a balance between the structural and the emotional in this person´s art? Will he/she overwhelm you with their music … or seduce you? Will he/she follow bhava where it takes them, even though it may manoeuvre the player onto unsafe ground? Will this artist´s music linger in you long after the show? Is this artist taking an interest in contemporary culture, in the expressions of the young, or will he find in them a threat? Is this artist genuinely interested in philosophical questions? Or is all that covered in: We are Muslims, we are special!? Is he/she aware of the fact that technical perfection breeds arrogance? What about humility? And self-criticism? There are many points of view to consider.
“He will never be one of us!”
It was not until about ten years into my relationship with Imrat Khan that I became conscious of the fact that I´d usually left his tour de force concerts impressed, albeit exhausted. Vilayat´s performances, in contrast, refreshed and elated me, even though both apparently played the same music, followed the same tradition, had practised the same taan-work, the same style of sitar. My perception was limited at first, but I am sorry to say that quite early on a gut feeling arose: my teacher would do almost anything for money. (Once, by chance, I came across a cheap American B-picture on television, a flick that didn´t make any sense on any level, artistic or entertainment, in any respect: a huge excavator was digging a hole in the ground and my teacher ´s surbahar was providing the sound track. His name was prominently displayed as film score composer und surbahar virtuoso.)
When conflict arises there is usually a misunderstanding at the base. Despite my young years I´d been yearning for something beyond the ordinary, something sublime. It was my folly to associate my teacher with that principle. Because he was Indian, and playing sitar, one assumed ... Amongst other things had I overlooked the fact that, when I was twenty my teacher already had five children which his music had to house, clothe, and feed. But why would he not point it out to me when I took a wrong turn in my sitar practise? Why would he mock my playing when I played with passion, attempting to tell my own story via this difficult instrument?
Angry and frustrated? No, no, no. Well, occasionally – but not for long. And nothing beyond any sensitive person´s depression so typical for the later stages of life. As a matter of fact I feel extremely lucky to have lived in the second part of the twentieth century, enjoying sixty-five years of not having to live in a war zone, not having to live in a dictatorship. One loved the possibilities of being able to choose a path out of many global traditions, and create something beautiful from it.
Thirty odd years ago my identification with my idol (Vilayat) had become obsessive and intense, so much so that I started using the name ´Khan´ added to my professional identity. That was after the Gandha-band ceremony with Imrat Khan in 1975 – a lifetime ago – when he uttered, “You are like my son now – a real ´Khan´.
There are, apart from a professional career, a number of things involved when you take up an exotic art form: belonging, reassurance, identity, fashion, cultural aestheticism. In retrospect, and in terms of career, there are bound to be more foolish things you can do as a young German than to take up Indian sitar music professionally, but I can´t think of any ...
But I had help.
Yet so absorbed was I with this music for the following three decades that I failed to be aware of having become the favoured object of ridicule for Indian musicians, ethno musicologists, Indian restaurant owners, organisers, Indian immigrants, fellow European students of Indian music even. Behind my back, “He´s calling himself a ´Khan´- hahaha.” “A German sittoar player – hahaha – just what the world´s been waiting for!” Very funny.
And just as your music, after about thirty years, is starting to make some sense, you begin to get the beating. In the course of thirty-five years, if the REAL Indians tended to get invited to festivals with public money available, even if they happened to be mere local amateurs, of course you tend to get annoyed. Because this is such a personal, intimate, fragile and sensitive art, you don´t get even, you get hurt. Only in between, on unexpected occasions, my teacher ´s statements to the contrary seeped through: “He is the only western student who has the feeling for our music ...”
But let´s go back just once more. To London, around 1969. I had just met my teacher, still under the spell of Vilayat Khan´s memorable concert at Westminster Abbey. Going to ask my teacher to accept me, instead of going to Vilayat Khan who corresponded to my inner spiritual tribe, was perhaps my first and major mistake. I have often wondered if things would have turned out differently had I asked Vilayat Khan. Perhaps not. I don´t know. Anyway, it´s 1969, India is still fashionable with us young ones. Flower Power is still in bloom and India is still called “Third World” (demeaningly called “Turd World” by Shiva Naipaul) and “primitive” by the more conservative contemporaries – still a convenient term to use for those who sought advancement in terms of global politics.
At the time I was desperately trying to succumb to a sitar guru´s atavistic rules and value systems, his systems of hierarchy. This might have worked out if the relationship had been based on unconditional love on both sides, with the addition of a teacher´s responsibility, his accepting you wholly and sincerely, and providing you with something more precious than the white man´s materialism has to offer, something beyond the western rational mind.
But Gharana music, the bread and butter of a family, the Secret Doctrine, is not, and never was, meant to be taught to outsiders. Had this changed at all? No. But I was totally unaware of this. Old India Hands warned me.
My teacher ´s lessons should not have differed from those he gave his own sons. And he should not have made false promises. “I will present you on the stage with me.” Or create illusions of a successful career with Indian sitar music for me: “It will be like in jazz: first the public accepted jazz only from the black American musicians, while later on white European musicians also became prominent”, etc. Instead the duties came. Exhausting afternoons spent at crowded department stores at London´s West End during which I was, in unavailability of Indian servants, given the position of ´assistant´ or general help, buying sweaters, cardigans and four sizes of underwear for his harem.
“And now I want you to ... “, wash the car, vacuum clean the flat, go shopping, cut ginger and garlic, wash up. The work was never done. Plus the ever present “Can you organise ...” Then there was the question of life-style: I had become a vegetarian, a macrobiotic, and us hippies knew what the effect of alcohol and meat was on the psyche – I hated what people became when they´d been drinking, so I avoided it. My teacher, however, drank beer and whiskey – despite his pronounced Muslim faith, complete with knitted white cap, on stage.
At a time when exciting and important changes are taking place in society and, at twenty, you want to be part of it, do you want to be forced into submission by someone who´s intellect is limited to practical every day solutions, who´s basic motivation is based on money and career? Someone who´s ideals stem from feudal nineteenth century? At a time in your life, in your mid-twenties, when you are supposed to make your mark in the world, your teacher appears to find a threat to his life-style in your new found hippie freedom and tries to break your spirit, albeit with no intention of allowing you to be part of his family, his gharana, his life. It seemed I couldn´t do anything right. For example, when mentioning many thousands of dead Vietnamese from Agent Orange or half a million Cambodians dead on Kissinger´s orders, my teacher didn´t even bother to reply. He wasn´t interested. But certain utterances stayed with me: “I don´t want your friendship!” “You are lazy!” “Your meditation is rubbish!” “You will never be able to play like me!”
At the slightest dispute between myself and his son, with the latter being the scheming liar, my teacher would automatically and invariably take his son´s side, never mine.
If one has had to cultivate a rebellious aspect of one´s personality in order to cut off certain inadequate German roots it will be inevitable that after a time one will come back with snappy remarks, which, of course, didn´t go down well with my teacher, and which put a further strain on the relationship. But does one want to embrace another system full of constraints and snares after having run from narrow minded post-war Nazi Germany, from a nation of materialistic workaholics? Of course one should always follow one´s teacher´s command in the tradition of Indian music. Rebellion is not happening. Does not exist. End of discussion. But what, if, after years into the student/teacher relationship you find a strange undercurrent, an inexplicable feeling of rivalry in the teacher´s personality, something quite robust, almost sexual, something stemming from rutting animals. It is only a gut feeling at first, but after having lived a little more, it gains clarity.
“I don´t want your friendship.”
Some utterances stick with you and overshadow the years to come. I would say that friendship is the very trump card, the best thing that humans can come up with. It beats everything, even art. To openly reject someone´s friendship belittles both the pronouncer and the recipient as human beings, and as artists. I suspect that this competition thing stems from the time of India´s Independence. The feudal Rajah Courts were eliminated, and the musicians were left out in the cold. One assumes that in the old days, the days of the Rajahs, amongst the musicians there was a certain playful and good-natured competitiveness which after Independence inevitably turned into a matter of livelyhood, of life or death even, later on.
I´d had to run away from the German national service, where authentic Nazi commanders were still firmly in place. I owned few possessions, a few LPs, my favourite jeans, Jack Kerouac´s ´On the Road´, a small mahogany Buddha statue, and my obsession with sound. But did one want to be forced into submission by someone who did not know who Goethe, Brecht, or John Cage were? And when, for instance, quoting William Burroughs: “There is a basic incompatibility between institutions and freedom of thinking” Khan Sahib´s reply was succinct: “I don´t want to hear this kind of rubbish!”
If you were born in Germany immediately after the most terrible world war the world had ever seen, born with an oversensitive nature, too sensitive for this world, continuously intoxicated by sound, born into what is probably the most rational and materialistic culture on earth, a prison for the spirit, (where spiritual longings exist only as projections and within phony institutions), if, as a twenty year old, you start looking for the real thing, so to speak, in India, then a certain amount of responsibility is called for in a teacher who is meant to represent that. Wouldn´t you say? Someone with enough understanding and sensitivity to see: this boy has discarded his home, family, security, forsaken his culture, given up his religion, nation, education and career. Desperately in need of belonging. Such an Ustad should not start each and every sentence with ´I´, ´me´ or ´my´, or blurt out on every occasion that “these silly young westerners have way too much money and freedom.”
The traditional “Indian approach” to art and spirituality is a practical one: You practise it, or you don´t – there is no third way. Intellectual analysis and abstraction hardly come into it. I had grasped the idea. However, if this approach does not lead all the way to some kind of enlightenment, western education and career are preferable. As indeed a sharp intellect is preferable to dog-like devotion, and as, on a mere structure level, western contemporary music is preferable to one-dimensional raga without bhava.
In the years that followed I invited my teacher to Germany, organized numerous concerts for him, provided hospitality and was given hospitality in return in Bombay, Calcutta, London, and during his stay in Berlin. Letters were exchanged, orders pronounced. “Can you organise ...” and “I want you to go and see ...” such and such lawyer, producer, business entrepreneur, pop star, impresario ... “Tell him to produce my record!” Khan Sahib seemed magically drawn to “important people”, “responsible people”. It didn´t seem to matter that those “important people” were cold hearted lawyers and businessmen who used exotic art for self-aggrandisement while it was still fashionable. But my teacher had no time for losers, even if they happened to be old souls, or God-intoxicated, or well on their way to be Zen masters. “This time you have to give me at least ... x amount of Dollars, Pounds, Deutschmarks.” “I have to think of my career first!” “Is your mother rich?” The words still ring on.
Meanwhile I started giving concerts in Germany and Britain. Pre-mature and nervously at first, showing the meagre repertoire of taan-work I had been given by Khan Sahib, or taken from other sources. But I played with a lot of passion, diving headlong into the Vilayat-mood which seemed to magically sustain me during performances. Audiences applauded enthusiastically. “We need some sitar music, can you help us Mr Khan.” Yes, of course. In Germany in the Nineteen seventies modern classical composers wanted to be with it, the Church even. Therapists wanted to learn. The phone kept ringing. It seemed a cool sort of life. It was not until the sitar fashion started to wane that the self-doubts started and the long process of withdrawal of the public from Indian music began.
Around 1976 in pop culture Punk Rock put an end to popular music culture as we knew it. It also signalled the end of an era in which Indian music played a role in western music, while those western contemporaries who´d started to learn Indian music remarked that there were more worthwhile things to spend one´s life with. In the meantime, teams, hordes, armies of Indian musicians had got wind of what one can achieve in the West if one, like Ravi Shankar, adjusted one´s music to the Californian listening habits. Lured by the scent of money they started on their journey west, and met halfway there with the “spiritually” inclined Osho followers on the eastern trail, who´d had enough of materialist thinking.
In 1984 one last visit to Calcutta followed, during which my wife and I were warmly received and made feel welcome by Imrat Khan and his entire family. (I still wake up sweating of a night-time, afraid and embarrassed of having overstayed our welcome.) But after having lost serious money organising Indian music concerts back in Germany for the first time in the 1980ies I stopped concert direction and didn´t take it up till 1995 with other types of ethnic music. My teacher ´s letters had long ceased to arrive.
Seven years in a small room at the outskirts of Munich, near the US Army base, followed. Oblivious of goings on in the outside world, I drank chai, smoked beedies and studied Vilayat Khan live-recordings of different decades. My practise consisted, in an unorthodox way, of alap phrases rather than scales – trying to get the subtle nuances right. An almost superhuman strength is needed for this task, if you haven´t taken this music in with your mother´s milk, heard it as a young boy, danced to it during your adolescence. So you work with trial and error – the inner witness as the only judge, the content instead of the structure, the chai rather than the cup. A whole new universe of music opened up in a single phrase of Vilayat Khan´s alap, in the pauses he left. A new language, consisting of subtle waves – those of trance state.
And today? Is all entirely well with Indian classical music and the said goal of bringing the performer and listener alike to a plane sublime?
During the later years of the 1980s changes had began to occur in the ´outer world´, that of culture, society, politics. One of which was that people, interestingly Indians in particular, had begun to revert to ´their roots´ as a means to self-definition and self-confidence. “We are Muslims, we are different.” “We are Namdhari Sikhs, we are especially pure.” “We are Indian – a high technology culture.” Amazing what “our music” can do! (May I enquire what “our music” means if you are an Indian but not a musician, and me a musician playing the sitar, but not an Indian?)
The tribe, the herd as a means to creating personal identity. Funny how those same Indians who seemed overjoyed at a young westerner having taken up their classical music twenty years prior, now pronounced it ´our culture´, and guarding ´their culture´ jealously. They now began to look at my music with a very critical eye, and in a much more discriminating way. Remarkable – and utterly unexpected – was the hostility, open and undercurrent, that I now received from sons and daughters of Indian expatriates in Germany and Britain. Young lads and ladies, twenty, thirty years younger than me. “You are calling yourself a Khan to pretend to be Indian and get more recognition that way!” The idea had never even occurred to me – I´d been so intoxicated by Vilayat Khan s alapas.
In Germany persons in charge of cultural institutions now found my music ´rather too traditional´. At the same time, if Indian music was required, ´real´ Indians were called, just to be on the safe side.
Honeymoon was definitely over.
I mean India had never been easy for us new ´old India hands´ if funds from a well-to-do family were not available. And if you told friends or family that you were about to spend the winter months in India, learning, practising Indian music, mothers looked on in concern. And it was often enough with mixed feelings that you drove to the airport. You slept on floors in cramped apartments in outskirts of mega cities, forever fearful of hepatitis, malaria, pickpockets, bureaucratic officialdom.
During the 1980ies Indian music in India seems to have changed too. If bhava is lost, all is lost. What remains is a perfectly delivered craft, ´Romantic Evening Mood´, doodly flute for the Curry Mahal. Indian musicians now appeared to be professional investment bankers, business persons, doctors, students of technology, or accountants. Couldn´t they make a living playing their music? Or were they aiming at higher things, beyond the dhal-jawal philosophy? BMW, white wine, Gucci beckoned. But can you enter into – and provide – bhava if you practise your music after office hour in the evening? Practise like jogging? That would be, as A A Gill once put it, ´doing the stations of the cross as a fitness-training´.
You don´t blame the simple riksha-wallah for entering into a Faustian deal, he might be suffering great need. But if you mention Amir Khan or Vilayat Khan to some of to-day´s Indian musicians in the West, they wobble their heads with such earnestness that you can be sure that their thoughts are entirely elsewhere. Eventually and inevitably they will bring the discussion round to money. “Why don´t you organise ...?” They will inform you that “Hariprasad gets fifteen thousand Dollars fee – and pays the tabla player two hundred ...”
While in America, say, in places like New York, the human soul has somehow come to terms with its inherent materialistic life-style, creating new and exciting types of contemporary art, literature and music, India still seems split down in the middle. Because it´s roots are so old and strong, India´s art doesn´t lend itself to fusion, unless the highest common denominator is found; which, by the way, is always subtle. Has to be. But Indian musicians, when in need, will join any fusion project. But they will neither like it very much, nor will they fully comprehend the concept.
Latterly, on the way to India, strange persons cross one´s path. They are not paan chewing, chai sipping, paradoxical thinking, wise, absurdly funny, sensual, emotionally refined, strong and stoical-as-mules-Indians. They are Indians devoid of the sweet smile, without the hilarious and relaxed “Which country Sir?”. These Indians are on the westward trail, wearing base-ball caps and they carry the now ever present beer bottle in one hand, mobile phone in the other. They bump into you, and each other, on the side-walk. Somewhat paranoid, a little insecure on account of the slowness of their own culture. Musicians, too, seem to have lost their smiles while being more than ready to sell out to the anyone who offers the highest price. (Punjabi folk-music, apparently, lends itself just fine as a contemporary Bollywood disco dance). And like good old Ravi they desperately try to extract something muscular, something equally impressive as Beethoven´s sixty-piece orchestra spectacle from their apparently weak culture. The computerised bass drum has long been added. And then there are those who look like car mechanics and vacuum cleaner salesmen from Bombay Santa Cruz, with their Seventies hair-style. They have reduced Indian classical music from a) art to b) craft, to c) sports event, to d) circus act? As an older Indian gentleman, a music lover, recently remarked, “It used to be that musicians had something to express and did so lovingly, nowadays musicians only want to impress.” Can that be enough? “He is the best now! He can play this taan double time, he can play this tihai nine times in treble speed!” Perhaps this is typical for young souls: A deficit motivation at the base, in awe of the apparent superiority of the former colonial masters in most material and seemingly in intellectual areas too?
Has the folly of competitive thinking already been there in Moghul times? “He was the best archer, he could shoot riding backwards and kill twenty enemies in five minutes!” Meanwhile, looking at the global rich list, you will find Indian billionaires ranking near the top. A Jain, complete with his extreme vegetarian outlook, as the new director of a powerful international investment bank. Ah, but to me that is not a sign of India´s strength, but of its weakness.
When it comes to Indian classical music and The West, you know, “East is East and West is West, and the twain ... “, and globalism and all that, we might, after forty, fifty years, draw conclusions, or at least ask some certain pertinent questions. Perhaps we should enquire as to why Indian musicians come to the West at all? Given that the western mind might not have access to the emotional universe of Indian music at all, yet always ready to frantically applaud a display of virtuosity, the kind of virtuosity that might tempt the performer to cultivate the clever, the muscular aspect, of his art even further. As a performer you feel it every time you start playing Indian classical music to a Western audience: the restlessness, the almost overwhelming unspoken demand of the listener to speed up, to overcome the donkey pace, to provide more frequent changes, just a little more ´entertainment´ per time-measure, the desperation trying to overcome the contemplative aspects that constitute the core of Indian music, and which can only be penetrated if one stays in one specific space for a certain length of time. If you give in and adjust to that frequency of thinking, shorten the alap to ´auchar´, then all is lost. The audience will want more and more of everything, leaving you breathless, where less would have been more, and thus providing the recipe for translating onto a more refined sphere of emotion.
Vilayat Khan, again, was the great redeemer: when the applause got more and louder, his music became softer, quieter, the notes scarcer. I seem to recall what Vilayat Khan told me one foggy afternoon in the late 1980ies, in Leicester, England: “The people in America were very kind – but it seemed that nobody was really interested in music.” He returned to India. Imrat Khan, in contrast, settled in St Louis.
When I played in Tan Dun´s opera Marco Polo in the 1990ies, Tan Dun told me: “In Chinese music we never used to write anything down, but now we have proper notation.” Proper notation. Right. Is that another example how The West still colonises Asia, albeit in cultural terms? Proper notation. Ali Akbar Khan´s College comes to mind.
If one starts comparing Western and Indian “classical” traditions on a mere structure level, then Indian music will be short changed once more – and Zakir-Bhai and Anoushka will have to enter into ever more kitschi obscure fusion projects.
What exactly is the position of Indian classical music in India and the rest of the world to-day, in respect to this dawning age of swiftness, rebellion, abstraction, extroversion (and the computerised bass drum) in respect to a music for the future? Has Indian classical music had the strength to resist the satanic temptations of pop, fusion, Bollywood, MTV and all this boundless, brainless extroversion with billions of dollars involved?
Yes and no.
Protagonists like Ustad Shujaat Khan or singer Sanhita Nandi, for instance, are there. And a number of others, too. A strong power is manifest from ancient roots – a music that makes you transcend the ordinary in both worlds. Such protagonist will demask and resist influence of modern day accoustic art. But then what? Can you cultivate an art form entirely separate from everything else that goes on in the world. Can such an art form continue to exist in a vacuum, in an analogue universe, as it were? Would this not resemble certain types of animals one sees in the zoo: without the subtle acoustic and olfactory stimulation from the environment they are used to, their senses and sensations are not being triggered. Same with any ancient form of art: the older the culture the more subtle the sensations concerned. What if Indian music stubbornly tries to resists any modern day influence? Will those musicians not become supernumeraries in museums of folk art? The solution, as I see it, would be the said denominator on a higher level of aestheticism: a type of emotional abstraction. As Idries Shah said in the late Sixties: “Being a man of timelessness and placeless-ness the Sufi (wise man) brings his experience into operation within the culture, the country, the climate in which he is living.” It seems that an artist who has absorbed the western mind is required, someone who has seen its quality, potential and its shortcoming, someone and would, for once, neither sell out in the West, nor despise it, nor try to compensate feelings of inferiority. Shujaat Khan again comes to mind. His series of YouTube videos for Indian television is exemplary. With him sitting amidst antique objets de art and so many flowers that it ends up looking like an English funeral, he presents the cream of Indian classical. And admirable his presenting Shahid Parves, a fellow contemporary sitarist; not looking upon him as competition – a sign of his greatness! Shujaat´s own sitar music appears to be relying on sound, on vocal music. In spur of the moment raga elaboration he will – as Vilayat before him – find a small, unspectacular, hitherto unnoticed aspect of the subject and use it as door to a metaphysical sphere. Music found, in the vast landscapes of the subconscious, not music man-made! Improvisation based on subjects so simple that it looks like a children´s song, with complexities evolving by repetition, rather than superimposed and excessively rehearsed taan-work being displayed on a see-what-I-can-do level, that is so common nowadays. This can only be achieved if you love music more than ego and money. As an example I admire Sujaat also for his intelligence of not trying to become a carbon copy of Ustad Vilayat Khan but rather cultivate one aspect of his father´s music and personality, using that as ´a door´ to enter a timeless zone, and thus finding another cosmos of possibility of lyricism within the tradition, finding his own style and musical personality. I feel that a very fine balance has been achieved between the magic and the entertaining aspects of sitar culture.
And what about the Ferengi sitar players? I´ve heard that there are pockets of them in the big cities around the world. They are hiding away, afraid of getting hurt further. Or else swept away and discarded by the seasons of the Zeitgeist. Could there be a blessing in this, in this existing devoid of cultural, political, religious identity, having got lost somewhere in the way from the West to the East and back? Perhaps there is. Yes, I think there could be. One can rise above the distinctions of race, culture, religion, become the “New Man”, as Montaigne was a new man in his day. Rise above all by means of the jhalla-rhythm of years. Make the mind stronger and the soul shine.
Al Gromer Khan ©