Music » Music Stories

Sitar Star

One of the world's pre-eminent sitar players, Imrat Khan once taught the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Now he teaches at Washington University.


Ustad sits, legs crossed, on a blanketed dais in a softly lit basement. With lightness and speed, his left hand moves up and down the sitar's wide neck. His eyes are closed. Across from him sits a student, Anujah, her black hair falling around the sitar cradled in her arms: Her young Indian eyes are lost in the same dream as the Ustad's, the master's. Their two instruments, the single-string melodies resonating through an echoing forest of more strings, harmonize as only times past and times present can reverberate together.

Ustad Imrat Khan was born in Calcutta in 1936; his illustrious lineage leads the listener back over centuries, to the 16th-century court of Emperor Akbar. His music, played on the sitar and the surbahar (a deep-toned sitarlike instrument that his great-grandfather invented), represents the fullest flowering of the mysterious polytonal lyricism of Indian classical music. "My family is considered one of the greatest sitar-playing families in India," Khan explains. "I don't really like saying all these things, but if you read some Indian history books, my forefathers are mentioned. My maternal side, for hundreds of years, are also great singers. So I'm very fortunate my father married my mother." Khan laughs, then turns quiet again. "My father died when I was only 3 years old. My mother really taught me the art of singing. She pursued my career to continue the tradition of our family. She took me to my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle, and I learned from them."

Khan's career began when he was only 12 years old, singing in the burgeoning Indian film industry. His music is featured in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece The Music Room; later he composed and performed music for James Ivory's The Guru. "When I returned from studies and film work to my mother, she said, 'I'm glad you're getting well known in the films, but don't forget that you have to play surbahar.' It's a magnificent instrument, one of the kings of instruments, and requires much practice and learning." Khan began performing live on Indian radio, singing and playing sitar, and his reputation spread like fire. "That was a good time," he recalls. "There were not so many stations, and classical Indian music reached everyone."

But as important as Khan is as a musician, his greatest achievement, perhaps, has been his teaching. He speaks of musical theory -- the embodiment of the Nine Emotions in a raga, the quarter tones and the complex rhythmic cycles -- with clarity, patience and generosity. He does not lecture his students so much as he gets to know them and allows them to know him. "Since I was a child, I was very interested in education," Khan says. "The values of the ancient technique of learning from master to pupil, I wanted to bring that to the platform of education in the West. Just by listening to the masters, devotion to the masters, learning with memory, without notation systems, all these aspects are so beautiful, I wanted to apply that to the Western education system."

Khan met Sir Leonard Elmhurst, a student of the great Indian poet Tagore, and, at the age of 26, brought the classical tradition of teaching and playing to England. "Elmhurst wanted a young man. I spoke English and was a little bit modern," Khan says, smiling. "I used to roller skate and play guitar at the same time -- going backward!"

Indian music is a music of performance, of improvisation; no musical notation can contain it. And though Indian classical music is chiefly a soloist's art, Khan has explored the duet, trio and quartet form in ways that have further extended the traditions he inherited and cherishes. After performances at the Edinburgh Music Festival and the Royal Festival Hall in England, Khan's influence grew wider. "That was in the '60s, and the Beatles were interested in sitar. Beatles started to come to learn from me, and also the Rolling Stones. Their guitar player Brian Jones was my student. He had already come to Calcutta to be my student. But when I came to London, Jones was too much into the drugs. I wasn't happy with the way their direction was going. That was the time of LSD, drugs, the pop mania. I didn't want to get mixed up with that. I used to say, 'I'm grateful that pop stars are getting interested in Indian classical music, but remember that it is not pop music.' Pop music is always popping in and popping out. I didn't want to be a fashion. I kind of kept a little bit of distance. I didn't realize then that the impact of George Harrison's sitar was so great that millions heard the sound of the sitar. That was very beautiful."

Khan has lived in St. Louis since the mid-'80s: he came to perform and to teach and has been doing so ever since. As a fellow in the Washington University music department, Khan combines music appreciation and devotion to ancient practice: "I wanted to bring Western and Indian music together. I wanted to write a book. But over time I realized that St. Louis is a little bit closed. I didn't get the exposure from the university that I hoped for. There's so much interest in Indian music around the world, but I think it's lacking a bit here in the Midwest. Those people from India living here are mostly working-class. They migrated from India at the time that the film industry was dominant, and so that was their education in Indian music. We are all a little isolated here."

Khan's last public performance was more than two years ago, and so his appearance this week at the Ethical Society of St. Louis marks the rarest of chances to hear a true master, a true musical treasure. The event will feature his sons Nishat and Shafaatullah on sitar and tabla, respectively, as well as Shahbaz Hussain on tabla. The event is presented by Khan's own cultural organization, the Surbahar Foundation; proceeds will be given to the Liberty Disaster Relief Fund, administered by the Red Cross. "I started the Surbahar Foundation five years back," Khan says, "but I never had the opportunity to develop it because I've been traveling and have so many other obligations. But finally we planned this concert, and then the terrible events of Sept. 11 happened. All of my friends said, 'Why don't we do it as a benefit?'

"I don't want to give concerts a lot," Khan continues. "I want to present my music as it needs to be presented. I have to give so much time to the sitar and surbahar, and to my students. Those who are called masters, the real ones, they never think of themselves as masters. I have given all my life to learning the tradition. But I am learning every day, even from my students who call me master."

"Ustad doesn't just teach me how to play," says his student Anujah as she gently sets down her sitar, "he teaches me a whole way of life."

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