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There is no place like India for me: Hidayat Husain Khan

Sitarist Hidayat Husain Khan talks about his lineage and upbringing, his diverse performances across the world and his love for the country.

SAKSHAT CHANDOK | Kolkata |

Hidayat Husain Khan is a torch-bearer of an exemplary musical lineage. His father, Vilayat Khan, is still considered the most stupendous of sitarists to have ever lived. Having been brought up in a family canvassed with the prowess to create eastern classical music, Khan had a repertoire to perform from a young age.

He couldn’t help but follow his family’s bloodline and learn to play the sitar. Having performed all over the world, he has now taken to creating fusion music, amalgamating the genres of the east and the west. He recently performed in Kolkata at the Kala Mandir auditorium with pianist Utsav Lal. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Q) You are a descendant of a family which has had a long line of musical legends,particularly your father, Ustad Vilayat Khan,who is hailed as one of the greatest sitarists of all time. In what ways has your lineage influenced you?

Every part of my gene is influenced by my lineage. More and more scientific research is telling us how the gene matters and how things are passed on from generation to generation. Music is embedded in my genes and the lineage matters and makes a big difference in your thinking. One of the greatest things about being born in a musical family is that you are surrounded by great musicians. So, you imbibe their way of living, their habits and it makes such a massive difference to making music a part of your life. So, I also have a sense of responsibility coming from a lineage like this.

Q) Tell us something about your training routine when you were a novice in the field of music,just learning the ropes.How hard was it to get a hang of a complex instrument like the sitar, let alone master it?

I honestly don’t think I have mastered it yet or even gotten close to mastering it. Classical music is a journey which you spend your entire life learning. One of the greatest things of learning from my father was that he was a very strict teacher and disciplinarian. But, he strongly believed in teaching people creatively and he would always give ideas. He would ask us what else can be done, how far we can push ourselves and then guide us through it. My learning process started off with singing; I first started learning how to sing and then I started playing the sitar much later at the age of around 14. My father encouraged my mother to play the sitar when she was pregnant with me, so it has been embedded in me even before I was born. It comes very naturally to me: playing the sitar didn’t feel like I am learning something new, it felt like an extension of me.

Q) Your new track Black Seat Bass has been created with a blend between bass duet and sitar. Do you feel such fusion music comes naturally to you, or do you feel yourself going back to the roots of eastern classical music, as has been the norm in your family?

The roots are always there, because that’s where my foundation was laid. Living all over the world for more than half my life and studying abroad just helped in having a diverse taste in music. I feel that fusion music comes naturally. If I am creating music that has not been forced on me and it is music out of my own desire, then it has to be music that I am totally comfortable with and feel natural about.

Q) Speaking of fusion music, you have performed with western artists,including Alicia Keys, Usher,Will.I.Am and Jay Z.Their genres of music are vastly different from eastern classical.Tell us about your experience of performing with them.

When you are blending music, you cannot think like a classical musician, you have to just think like a musician. You have to let go of a lot of your disciplines, you have to creatively think and just let the music talk to you and feel it naturally. It’s just like a pinch of salt on a plate of a delicious dish. The foundation is all there but just a pinch of salt adds texture to it. So, infusing music and working with these people has really taught me to just let go of the walls. All the musicians are such humble people and we all had a willingness to learn from each other in the time that we spent together. They wanted to learn classical music from me and I also got to learn from them, so it was a mutual exchange and an amazing experience.

Q) What are your views regarding the current status of eastern classical music? Do you feel less people appreciate the genre today because of radical changes in musical tastes,especially of younger generations? If so,what advice would you give musicians regarding the revival of this age-old genre?

I don’t think less people are listening to music today than they were in the yesteryears. Just in my generation of musicians, there are so many more amazing artists and there are way more sitar players today than in the generation previous to ours. Music is growing but what is also happening is that the peace in classical music is lacking because of the fusion happening today. Classical is a very spiritual art form that needs a certain kind of mindfulness. That’s where I have some disagreement; I feel classical music should be presented in its purest form. One has to wear different hats at different times as a musician. My advice would be: Wear the right hat for the right occasion.

Q) Your father was awarded the Padma Shri,Padma Bhushan and subsequently the Padma Vibhushan for his seminal contribution to the art of eastern classical music.He,however,refused to accept these honours.Why do you think he did that?

I think it was amazing. When he got the Padma Shri, he was a struggling artist and he was trying to make a career for himself. To have the guts at that point in his life to refuse such a big thing required some amazing principles. His reasoning was that the people giving awards are not necessarily qualified to judge artists and I agree with him. Today, a lot of these awards are presented to the right people and also presented to politically correct people; so if you lobby for an award, you can get it. On a personal level, they all don’t have any level of appreciation or regard for it because it has been politicised so much over the years. Not to say it has not been given to the right people, but it has been given to too many undeserving people. This has diluted the value of it.

Q) You have been invited to perform all over the world,from the Royal Albert Hall in London to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.However, what is it that pulls you back to India?

Our motherland! There is no other place like India for me. From a personal perspective, the warmth that I get in India, I feel home. It is home for me. I have grown up here and I belong to this place. I love the air, I love the hustle, I love the people, the food; there’s just nothing about India that I don’t love. From the musical perspective, especially when it comes to classical music, the subtle nuances that people understand of classical music over here are ingrained in the Indian audiences. The audiences around the world have definitely grown to appreciate classical music but the love it gets in India is incomparable. For me, there is a thrill to perform for Indian audiences and I look forward to it every time.