Figments and frets
A musical instrument can be very unforgiving. Sometimes owing to its presence, where it peaks over a golden period marked with intense experimentation and intelligent use in a lustrous lineage, and at other times, owing to its absence from the music scene, reminding people of its glorious past. The surbahar, the dwindling Imdadkhani icon is one such instrument.
Though the surbahar looks intimidating to any willing taker owing to the skills required for ‘chikari’ (a set of strings used in playing the climax) tuning, brave hearts like Ustad Imrat Khan feel it gives a number of natural harmonies that lie unexplored. “These natural harmonies make our music ‘exotic’ for the West. Surbahar and sitar throw a plethora of them when played in a duet.” Like figments? “Yes.” Khan, the younger brother of late Ustad Vilayat Khan (even at 77 he takes pride at being known so) who was trained and taught by the world renowned sitar maestro regrets being unable to pursue the surbahar at concerts owing to ill health. The sitar maestro was recently in the Capital to introduce his youngest son Azmat Ali Khan at a music-festival — planting another seed in the rich legacy.
What is the first thing about micro tones and ‘tarab’ (sympathetic strings) he had learnt over duets with the sitar? “Duets with Vilayat Khan meant a lot musically. He and I discovered many unknown terrains of sound patterns in sitar and surbahar and aspects related to microtones and the sound behaviour of sympathetic strings. At times I would be busy running my finger over the ‘baaj’ (the main string) and Vilayat would throw open octaves after octaves on the sitar. I explored corresponding sounds. Sometimes, he would go beyond six octaves during our private practice sessions. No one could compete with him.”
Khan who resides in the United States came with the sweet stubborn side Ustad Vilayat Khan was known for — doing what only he would want to do at a concert — and refusing what people would expect him to do. Khan focussed on only one melody –Jhinjhoti – it helped him establish his young son’s finger-work and ease over the ‘todas’ and ‘jhala’. Co-incidentally, Jhinjhoti was also picked by Ustad Shujaat Khan, Imrat Khan’s nephew for his duet with Tejendra Majumdar on sarod a day later. Wouldn’t Imrat Khan have chosen Darbari and Malkauns on the surbahar? “I would (laughs), but, thanks to my values I have been taught by Vilayat Sahab, I don’t like half-ways with music. I wouldn’t play the surbahar unless I have the time to mull over the ‘aalaap’ in Darbari and Malkauns. The Dhrupad-ang in surbahar and the raga-swaroop (form and flow) is sacred. There’s no room for compromises in the Imdadkhani style. Our family considered ragas from the Bilawal ‘thhat’ (family of ragas) the purest and the most beautiful.”
Ustad Vilayat Khan was a temperamental man. We tell Imrat Khan that Pandit Kishan Mahraj used to address Ustad Vilayat Khan as the “sun” and Pandit Ravi Shankar the “moon”. “How accurate! Vilayat Khan was really the ‘suraj’ — full of energy. He was short tempered, alright, but he was like a father to me. I was young when my father died. Vilayat was this beautiful man I would idolise all the time. It helped me become his shishya. I would do his laundry and shoes. No one would do it today.” Would he become furious while imparting lessons? “Vilayat would give me only one chance to play a piece. So, gaining perfection was the only way out to avoid his scathing remarks and shouting. It helped me survive in his absence. I wish people in India knew Vilayat Khan better.”