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Dubai: There’s a deep yearning in Ustad Shujaat Khan’s voice — a yearning for remembrance of things past, for a simple and soulful life.

That’s the kind of yearning that turns strangers into beloved, as sung by Ustad Khan at the opening of his concert in Dubai earlier this summer.

‘Moko kahan dhundhe re bande, Main to tere paas mein,’ he sang, in the immortal words of 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir.

‘Oh follower, where do you search me? I am always with you,’ is what it meant.

That yearning is hardly a wonder, considering that Khan traces his musical lineage back to the time of 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar, through the Imdadkhani-Etawah gharana — one of the oldest and most illustrious of Indian classical schools of music, which has produced some of the biggest musicians through each generation. Khan’s father, the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan, was fondly bestowed the title of ‘Aftaab-E-Sitar’ or the Shining Glory of Sitar.

But more of that later.

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Sitar Maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan Image Credit: PTI

‘Ustad Shujaat Khan Collective’ was a classical blend of Sufi, ghazal and folk songs from across genres of Indian music, as part of the eighth season of Emirates NBD Classics. From the chart-busting ‘Naina lagaaye ke main pachtaayi’ to the deeply meditative strands of ‘Maula, Maula’ and the lilting thumri of ‘Hamari Attriya Pe’, Khan took the audience on a voyage of discovery — setting sail for three blissful hours on a river of melodies, with the shimmering dhow-shaped balconies of Dubai Opera in the foreground and an aquamarine themed choreography of light on the stage.

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Ustad Shujaat Khan in concert in Dubai

With more than 60 albums under his belt, straddling a kaleidoscope of musical genres is second nature for the Grammy-nominated Ustad.

He has worked with Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor for an album of ghazals, and as a soloist with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

He has performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Royce Hall in Los Angeles, Congress Hall in Berlin and at the United Nations Assembly Hall in Geneva.

And he has collaborated with Bollywood legend Asha Bhosle for a top-selling album (Naina Lagaye as mentioned above), and Indian classical vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan in live concerts.

The vast repertoire of Khan’s lyrical universe is thus just a continuation of the musical heritage of his seven previous generations, and his own prodigal mastery of the voice and strings — which started from the tender age of three!

At his Dubai concert, this mastery was on full display, along with Khan’s trademark style of playing the sitar — known as the Gayaki Ang — where the instrument mimics the subtleties of the human voice.

What is Gayaki Ang?

The versatility and flexibility of the human voice is something that classical Indian musicians struggled to recreate on musical instruments for centuries — with limited success. That was until Ustad Imdad Khan — Ustad Shujaat’s great-grandfather — modified the surbahar (bass sitar) by adding strings and then pulling them sideways across the fret to vary the tension while playing. The result: He was able to create the effect of playing up to an octave on each fret. This technique of recreating the Khayal Gayaki (act of singing) on an instrument came to be known as Gayaki Ang. The gliding movement generated while pulling the strings emulates the flexibility of the human voice, and its impact is unique and distinctive.

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Ustad Shujaat Khan at Malhaar

Why is executing Gayaki Ang so difficult?

Following the development of Gayaki Ang on the surbahar by Ustad Imdad Khan, his son Ustad Inayat Khan then perfected the same technique on the sitar, to play up to five notes on each fret. Ustad Vilayat Khan, the illustrious father of Ustad Shujaat, further developed the technique on the sitar. But true Gayaki Ang involves much more than simply pulling and gliding various strings on the sitar — it can only be perfectly mastered if the artist is intimately conversant with vocal compositions and able to translate that in-depth knowledge into reality. That’s when a sitar begins to gently sing — as it happened during Ustad Shujaat’s performance in Dubai.

How is it like to listen to Gayaki Ang?

When a music maestro’s vocal prowess is matched by the intensity of his instrument, it does create an unforgettable experience. In 1995, Ustad Shujaat Khan unveiled a folk/Sufi album called Lajo Lajo, which had him singing along with playing the sitar. The Ustad rekindled those memories with a soulful rendition of Lajo Lajo in Dubai — one which had the audience bursting out in applause.

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Ustad Shujaat Khan and his ensemble in concert in Dubai

With his son Azaan Khan on acoustic guitar and vocals, Anil Chawla on keyboard, Aveleon Giles Vaz on drums, Makrand Sanon, Amit Choubey and Sarthak Pahwa on percussion and Danik Ghosh on bass, Ustad Khan’s performance will surely remain one of the most memorable one in Dubai for years to come. And it was also a small glimpse into the spellbinding magic that musicians from the Imdadkhani-Etawah gharana can weave around the audience.

Why is the Imdadkhani gharana so famous?

Well, simply because it boasts of sitar legends such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Inayat Khan, Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan (who is a cousin of Ustad Shujaat), Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee and Anupama Bhagwat. Actually, the gharana has become a byword for classical music thanks to the constant attempt of its virtuoso practitioners to improvise and refine their craft. A strong culture of documenting the works of generations of musicians has also been crucial in the development of the gharana — showcasing how the structure and technique of playing an instrument or elaborating a raga has evolved.

But this is very confusing — what exactly is a Raga and what’s a Gharana?

A raga is basically a melodic framework for improvisation in Indian classical music, similar to a melodic mode. Although it’s the central feature of Indian classical music, there’s no directly equivalent concept in the European classical music tradition. The word gharana literally means family or lineage. In Hindustani classical music, it signifies a musical family linking musicians by lineage or apprenticeship, and by adherence to a particular musical style.

A gharana also indicates a comprehensive musical ideology that its practitioners are expected to adopt for life. The concept of gharana emerged in the 16th century, when the descendants of Tansen, a musical luminary from Emperor Akbar’s court, decided to call themselves Seniyas — meaning of the Seni gharana. But for most practitioners of a particular school of music, their gharana becomes more of a ghar (home) to them — binding them together in life and music.

To go back to Kabir and his immortal lines:

‘Kahat Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho, Main To Hun Viswas Mein,’ sang Ustad Khan at the concert.

‘Seek earnestly and you will discover me, in but a moment of search/

Listen with care, says Kabir — Where your faith is, I am there.’

That’s what it meant.

Music is the greatest faith and soul of the universe — it gives wings to the mind, flight to imagination, and joy to life.

That’s the kind of yearning Ustad Shujaat Khan leaves you with.

POST-SCRIPT

So I’ve missed this concert — now what? What else is there in Indian classical music to catch up with in Dubai?

Fret not – there’s plenty of music in store, starting this weekend.

On Saturday, September 14, join Indian violin legend Dr L. Subramaniam as he teams up with Grammy winner jazz virtuoso Ernie Watts for a true blend of classical and global fusion as part of the Emirates NBD Classics in Dubai: A fascinating mix of south Indian percussion and scales with western instruments. Fondly referred to as the “Emperor of Sound,” in India, Dr Subramaniam is known for his genre-straddling work in promoting the solo violin — while Watts has collaborated with the likes of Charlie Haden, Frank Zappa, Thelonius Monk and Herbie Hancock among his more than 500 performances.

“Since the inception of Emirates NBD Classics in 2012, the shows have charmed packed audiences. Last seven seasons were marked by more range of performances of maestros from the western, Arab and Indian classical genres,” said Amit Pateria, managing director of event organiser Repertoire Consulting & Production.

It’s a rare evening with two vastly different maestros — so get ready for an unforgettable session of rhythm and raga this weekend!