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Imrat Khan: Master and Servant

Did you know that one of the greatest living teachers and performers of one of the oldest musical traditions in the world lives in St. Louis, not far from the Clayton Schnucks? Please meet Ustad Imrat Khan, master of the sitar and surbahar, guru to students of those instruments and of the voice, and living history of Indian classical music.

It has been said that India has had time to forget more melody than the West has had time to learn. The history of Indian classical music dates back 4000 years. Music is present in the Hindu creation story, as the beat behind Shiva's cosmic dance, the first vibration which got life going. In pre-Muslim India music was, accordingly, a sacred art, part of the spiritual training of any cultured individual. The Muslims who invaded northern India in the thirteenth century brought with them a different sense of music as a form of entertainment performed by groups from the lower strata of society. "At the Muslim courts," Bonnie C. Wade has written, "these conflicting ideas about music met and a compromise was reached: the practice of the art was to be isolated within families (many of whom converted to Islam) who devoted themselves to performing and teaching, yet maintaining the Hindu respect for music as an act of worship."

Imrat Khan was raised in such a family. Master musicianship in his family reaches back almost 400 years to the 16th century, in the Moghul court of Emperor Akbar. His father, Ustad (an Urdu word which means master) Inayet Khan, was the greatest sitar player of his generation. Inayet Khan was also the master of a large, unusual bass instrument called the surbahar. This instrument, which compares to the sitar roughly as the cello compares to the violin, was invented by Imrat Khan's grandfather and great-grandfather, Ustad Imdad Khan and Ustad Sahabdad Khan, who were the master musicians of their respective periods.

Inayet Khan died when Imrat was only two and a half years old. Imrat and his older brother Vilayet Khan had been learning musical traditions literally from birth -- "as my mother breastfed me, she taught me songs," Imrat says -- but his father's death marked an important change in his musical education. The family left Calcutta, moving north to live with his mother's family, which has a long tradition of singing. His maternal grandfather, Ustad Bandeh Hassan Khan, trained young Imrat to sing in the romantic khyal style. Singing is foundational to Indian classical music; for centuries musicians were considered only accompaniests for court singers. In his own teaching, Imrat Khan has always stressed the primacy of singing for training on any instrument, and as "one of the greatest mediums of friendship and meditation."

It makes sense, given their mixed familial legacies of singing and playing, that Vilayet (who was already achieving fame with the sitar when his father passed away) and Imrat Khan would make one of their greatest marks on Indian classical music by introducing to the sitar the gayeki ang, or "vocal style." Imrat also introduced this style, which is achieved by bending the strings to give the instrument the nuances of the human voice, to their ancestral instrument, the surbahar. When his father died, Imrat Khan's mother, Bashiran Begum, presented him with his father's surbahar, and told him, "You have to play this instrument or this instrument will die." (In fact he remains the instrument's single most significant custodian.) There was noone alive to teach him except his father's brother, Istad Waheed Khan, who was, Imrat says, "a sort of gypsy," so the family moved to Bombay to track him down, and then started following him around.

Here begins Imrat Khan's best story of riaz, a key concept in Indian classical music involving a student's initiation to a guru and submission to diligent, frequently torturous habits of practice. It is said of the great tabla player, Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, that he used to practice "where bugs and insects and scorpions bite," to keep himself awake for his marathon sessions. There are a lot of bizarre strategies for deferring sleep in riaz stories, and a great many mutilated cuticles. In Imrat Khan's case, his long hours as a small boy practicing on the huge surbahar left him with large black scars on his ankles -- riaz trophies he is quite willing to show to a visiting journalist.

The transformation of Imrat Khan from diligent disciple to highly-decorated ustad is a long story which takes him all over the world, where he sets all sorts of precedents. Since he is in St. Louis not to perform but to teach (and to write a book on "how the Indian music survived for so long"), only a few of his performance achievements will be mentioned. He and his brothers were the first to perform the sitar and surbahar in duet (traditionally, Indian stringed instruments support a singer, appear solo, or are supported by the tabla). In 1956 the brothers became the first Indian musicians to tour the neighboring Soviet Union. In 1971 Imrat Khan became the first Indian musician to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in the prestigious Promenade concert season. He also pioneered the performance of Indian music in European cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey. (Khan himself is a Muslim who believes in inter-faith worship: "Priests divide you," he says; "music brings people together.") In 1979 in Berlin he first introduced a Western audience to Indian classical music in its traditional conditions of performance -- an all-night recital. Meanwhile, he has always returned to India every year for the concert season. "This," he says, "is still the most important thing -- to perform for an Indian audience that understands the music like a language." He played sitar and surbahar for the soundtrack of Satyajit Ray's masterpiece, The Music Room. Finally, in 1988, the President of India awarded him the highest honor for a musician, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

Since Indian classical music is an unwritten tradition, performers must teach -- there is no other way to keep the music alive. And since this music is always taught in the family, according to the concept of heriditary musicianship, of course Imrat Khan passed his knowledge on to his four sons (Nishat, Irshad, Vajahat and Shafaatullah), who have become masters of the sitar, surbahar, sarod and tabla in their own rights. This has involved some sacrifices in his career as a performer, but Khan always knew "it would be a crime not to teach my sons." Now, he says, "It has come up very nice and fruitful." His sons frequently accompany him on record, and novel combinations of them perform together from time to time under the name "The Khan Dynasty."

As a world-travelling performer, Imrat Khan has also taught the principles of his tradition as he went along. He likes to combine lectures with his performances, and has taught formally at universities in several countries. Doing so, he glimpsed the possibility of bringing to the modern European and American university the ancient values of his tradition; and, tiring of world travel, he determined to settle down somewhere to teach and write for a time. He spoke of his desires at many places, but received the strongest encouragement from Jeffrey Kurzman, head of the music department at Washington University, who was responsible for his settling here in St. Louis -- though he also teaches at Webster University, and welcomes individual students outside of the university beuracracy.

In fact, individuality is one of the cornerstones of his teaching. In an age of mass education, Imrat Khan believes in the ancient master-pupil, one-on-one method of instruction: "I take all my students and individually tailor my ideas to their thoughts." Some of his ideas basic to the tradition of Indian classical music, besides the primacy of singing, include music as meditation -- as a technique for "spiritual uplift" -- and the all-importance of improvisation, which is at the very heart of Indian classical music.

Sara Hensley, a local singer-songwriter, has been studying classical Indian singing with Ustad Khan. She finds that the tradition requires "a greater degree of control" than other forms with which she is familiar, both "to hear the difference between notes and to acquire the technique to hit the notes." Focusing herself to achieve this control, it turns out, has had the meditative effect so important to her teacher. "When I feel on pitch I can feel it in my body, all the way up into my head," she says. "It resonates more fully. It is very meditative."

Learning the unique musical values of Indian classical music has been a valuable lesson to Hensley as a songwriter too. Indian music is not based on a strict melody and time signature like Western music; it is based on the rag, which does not exclusively define the melody. The rag does order a selection of pitches, often suggests a melodic shape, usually states a pitch hierarchy, and sometimes requires characteristic vocal twists on certain pitches. (Traditionally, each rag also is associated with an hour of the day, a season of the year, and an emotional state of mind, but as conditions for performance have changed some of these values have decayed, so that a rag associated with night may now appear on the radio during the day.) In brief, a rag is a melodic personality rather than a fixed melody -- it is a guide to improvisation which demands of singers an extremely nuanced sense of melodic development. (One is also supposed to cover three full octaves during one rag improvisation!) Working on this art with Imrat Khan, Hensely says, she is learning "the structure of the melodic line: how to get from one note to the next in an individual, creative way that makes sense." This is obviously a skill that translates across all musical traditions.

Mark Deutch, an acoustic bass player studying sitar with Imrat Khan, is learning not so much the melodic line as what to do with each note along the line: how to phrase, how to ornament notes. As one of the fathers of the gayeki ang with all its techniques of note shaping, Imrat Khan must be considered one of the world masters of phrasing. Deutch says of his teacher, "He thinks about intonation so much more precisely than anyone usually thinks about intonation. He looks for absolute perfection." The means to perfection are practice and concentration. "He makes you do an exercise," Deutch says, "one thing for a long time. Which seems to me a good way to develop concentration." Since Deutch came to Imrat Khan as a devotee of his performing -- "I heard one record that scared the shit out of me, it was so fantastic" -- he was gratified to learn that Khan believes in playing for his students to make his points. "To explain is one thing," Deutch says, "but to play is a whole other trip. I like to listen to him play; he gives me good ideas. I have studied with the bassist of the St. Louis symphony and with great jazz players and Imrat kicks their ass!"

So long as Ustad Imrat Khan stays in St. Louis (and indeed he hopes to found his own school here), local musicians like Sara Hensley and Mark Deutch will have this unique opportunity, to learn from the voice and hands of a master in a tradition always passed down by the voice and hands. We are in the invaluable position in which Imrat Khan found himself as a boy growing up in a family of hereditary musicians. "We were taken to see the great masters and explained what they were doing that was so great," he remembers. "That master singing that note that was so fantastic -- and I knew I could acquire that if I worked very hard. Very methodical. With encouragement."

According to Imrat Khan's teaching, and it is an ancient lesson, this hard work, all this concentration -- riaz -- promises a spiritual reward, an ancient blessing desparately needed under modern conditions. "Music survived thousands of years," he says -- then waves disdainfully at his television set. "Not this machine, this TV, this tape recorder. We were born with a tape recorder with a memory that plays music in the mind. I still remember those songs my mother sang me when I was a baby! But we are not giving enough food to our mind, we are not using our god-gifted tape recorder. Slowly we are losing our sensitivity to sound because we are bombarded all the time with music. You get put on hold on the telephone; you hear this awful music. Did you really want to hear that music? There is background music, all the time. So you acquire a resilience, a power to ignore what should be the greatest blessing of God, music. We should listen to music the way we eat food when we really want to eat food. Music should be really carefully constructed beautiful information, because it has the capacity to uplift your mind into heaven."

by Chris King (

Since writing this story years ago (for St Louis' Riverfront Times), I started with some other people a multi-media project called hoobellatoo (which means beautiful people in the West African language spoken by our first subject). We just added Ustad Khan to our roster, as it were; at present I am trying to place with a record label a live recording of him and Zakir Hussain (Symphony Space, NYC, 1993).

If you include some of that information with the post, I would be grateful, and it might help this great music see the light of release. Also, anyone who wants to follow our progress (we post session notes and progress reports, which involves very intimate work with some amazing musicians and poets, not least of all Imrat Khan) can send a message saying as much to From this list, which we just started, we will eventually accumulate text enough for a webpage. In fact my last posting was a link to your wonderful site, which I titled "link for an unborn webpage"!


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