Sitar-ry night: Ustad Nishat Khan speaks ahead of concert at Girgaum
A legendary musician born into an illustrious family talks about his childhood ahead of a concert in the city
When Ustad Nishat Khan describes his early childhood in Kolkata, he paints the picture of a home with an open door. His family residence was in the city's Park Circus area, on a road that's now called Ustad Enayat Khan Avenue after his grandfather. Some of the greatest sitar players to have ever graced the country have lived under that roof.
They include Khan's father, Imrat Khan, and his uncle, Vilayat. Music would be played within those walls all day long, he tells us, with the notes wafting out of the windows, sometimes attracting mesmerised passers-by who would invite themselves in to sit and listen. That's the setting in which Khan was raised. He was, in other words, born with a musical spoon in his mouth.
Sitting on the extreme right, seven-year-old Khan plays the sitar at a public concert in Kolkata
"Basically, even before I had learnt how to sit, I was playing the sitar. My childhood friends would drop by every evening and I would play ragas and filmy songs, and we would have a lot of fun. And then the elders would come and say [in Bengali], 'Shetar shonao taratari, Nishat (we want to hear the sitar on the double, Nishat).
Ektu imon shonao (play raag yaman).' So the sort of affection we received meant that neighbours would send us maachher jhol because they knew I loved it, and someone else would send mishti doi. The whole environment in Calcutta was really warm and informal," he reminisces ahead of a concert in Mumbai, adding that people would constantly walk in through their open door for chai and "shingara", the Bengali term for samosas.
And all these recollections that Khan shares highlight what an important hotbed for Indian classical music Kolkata once was, and remains to an extent. This invaluable history dates back to the latter years of the Bengali renaissance, to the turn of the last millennium. It's an era when affluent aristocrats doubled up as generous patrons of the arts. "The local nobility in the British era were connoisseurs of culture, and they gave a lot of eminence to the great ustads. And that sort of built up into the All Bengal Music Conference in the 1930s. All the great maestros would play there and some of them even started living in Calcutta, including my father and uncle. The place became a big gulf of music," Khan explains.
But he also says that despite being from such an illustrious family, he wasn't forced into the world of music. Instead, he gravitated towards it as naturally as a Bengali with a sweet tooth would towards a sandesh shop. He tells us, "You know, a fish doesn't teach its child to swim. My father was a great teacher, and he psychologically built up music in my head. It was obviously already in my genes. But then, at home, there was my father who was teaching other people, my grandmother who was singing, and my mother who enhanced my playing after a little sitar was made for me to practise on. So, I was only seven when I played my first concert."
Fifty-three years old now, Khan has come a long way in these intervening years. He is, today, a legend in his own right. What else would you call a path-breaker who is regarded as one of the fastest sitar players in the world, having performed with the likes of Eric Clapton, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana? And that's the level of virtuosity in store for the Mumbai audience this weekend, when the maestro plays a concert in the city where he lived for a while in his school days. The performance is titled Moon on the Water. Why? "It's because my most reminiscent memories of Bombay are those of driving past Haji Ali and Worli Sea Face, and seeing the moonlight shimmer on the Arabian sea. So I thought I would play a few thematic ragas and take people into a certain sphere," says the man who - far from being burdened by an overwhelming legacy - is reaping the fruits that were planted all those years ago at Park Circus in Kolkata.
ON: January 11, 7 pm to 8.30 pm
AT: Royal Opera House, Mama Parmanand Marg, Girgaum.
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