A musical genius

Debarati Palit Singh
Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Sitarist-vocalist Hidayat Husain Khan, who will begin his India tour this month, talks about performing in India, carrying forward his father’s legacy and the changing role of the sitar in international music

The sitar, an integral part of Indian classical music, has evolved over the years. Thanks to Indian sitar maestros, the stringed instrument has found its way into various other cultures and music genres. 

US-based Indian origin sitarist Hidayat Husain Khan, who has been performing internationally along with his global fusion group Sufi Music Ensemble, has taken the sitar to greater heights. He has also been collaborating with international artists like Ndugu Chancler, Alicia Keys, Usher, Will.I.Am, Jay-Z and others. 

Son of the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan, he will embark on his India tour this month. He recently performed a musical theatre with Danish Hussain, which premiered in April 2019 in New York City. In August, he will begin his US classical tour to 15 cities followed by a 10 city tour with his group. 

The sitarist-vocalist, who has been taking forward his father’s legacy, has also created music and lent his voice to several film compositions and has performed at numerous classical and fusion concerts, both independently and in collaboration. 

Prior to his India tour, he tells us more about his journey so far.  

- You have performed across the world. Is the experience any different when you perform in India?
Absolutely. Because there is no place like India especially when it comes to performing classical music. Even though audiences across the world have become extremely educated I still feel a special connection with the Indian audience. 

- How tough is it to carry forward the legacy of your father, the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan?
(Laughs) Impossible. Having said that, I do my own thing and try not to think about the legacy too much. Musicians such as my father (Ustad Vilayat Khan) have given so much to the world of music. Not just me, all sitar players and music students are carrying forward his legacy. 

- You have trained under your father. As a musician, what are some of the qualities that you have imbibed from him?
The first and foremost quality that I have learnt is to be a life long student. Being a musician is about the journey not the destination. He believed that creativity should be taught from day one. He never gave us lessons etched in stone, rather he would give us an idea or direction, for us to explore. 

There is no denying that the sitar and classical music in general have evolved over the years. How important is it to stay connected to your roots and at the same time evolve with the changing times? 

It’s a very personal choice that each one of us makes. I believe classical music should remain pure to its roots and form. No compromise there. Fusing music is a completely different skill set. I find it best to listen to the fellow artists and let the moment be your guide. 

- Sitar exponent, the late Nikhil Banerjee, had always believed that the main objective of Hindustani music is not to entertain listeners but to make them a part of an uplifting experience. Do you agree? With changing tastes of music lovers, isn’t it a challenging task?
I totally agree with him and yes, a very strong yes there. It’s always been a challenge. It’s no different now. 

Along with your global fusion group, Sufi Music Ensemble, you have collaborated with several international artists such as Ndugu Chancler, Yo Yo Ma, Zubin Balaporia, Jay-Z, among others. How do you see the changing role of the sitar in international music?

Over the years, the exposure to the sitar has evolved and people have become educated to its capacity. It’s not the hippie era anymore where people love the twang of the sound. It’s been integrated in lots of background scores and albums in jazz and different genres of music. They are being used very beautifully and most people have a good sense of how to use the instrument and the sound.

- What gives you more creative freedom and which is more exciting — jamming at the studios or performing live on stage?
It’s really hard for me to decide which one I like more when it comes to studio versus performing live. I think I am happiest when I am able to do both. I do love being on musical tours but that does get tedious. Studio is a place where you can sort of do some experimental and creative work so as I said, I don’t know which one I like more.

- Are you working on any album at the moment?
Currently, I am working on four different albums. I am working with my jazz ensemble melodic intersect. Second one is in a fusion space. There are two classical albums too.

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