A thorough cosmopolitan (having spent a large portion of his life abroad), Ustad Nishat Khan is very much rooted in India.
Ustad Nishat Khan, a seventh generation musician belonging to the premier sitar gharana called Imdadkhani (after his great grandfather Ustad Imdad Khan) or Etawah (Etawah was his ancestors’ home) is informal, voluble and charming. A thorough cosmopolitan (having spent a large portion of his life abroad), Nishat is very much rooted in India. Apart from being among the three finest sitar players in the world today, Nishat is also a multi-dimensional person, with varied tastes.
Nishat bhai, tell us about your early life.
I was raised in Calcutta, I practised like a demon, saw many movies, imbibed a lot of music, had a lot of fun with my friends! That sums it up pretty much! Oh yeah, and ate lots of good food! But what I also cherish are memories of my grandmother, Begum Inayat Khan Sahib. She was an incredibly strong lady with vast musical knowledge, a very strict disciplinarian but also very loving. She not only taught me a lot about music (I was the eldest, so she concentrated on me), she had a big part to play in my riyaaz (practice schedule), and even at 3 am would hear me and instruct me if I dithered. I have so many memories, I could write a book about her!
You grew up in a musical environment. Tell us about that.
True. Music was all around, there was no conversation without it, all our entertainment was centred on music, and, of course, we all practised it a lot and heard it all the time, literally 24 hours a day! My father Ustad Imrat Khan sahib was known for his rigorous riyaaz; I have even skipped school to play. The school bus to take us to our school South Point would come to pick up my brothers Irshad, Wajahat and me, and I would frequently hide to avoid going to school! In the evenings, our musician friends would come over and the music dialogues, interspersed with informal playing would start! Icons of music like Ustad Amir Khan, Pt Radhika Mohan Maitra, Ustad Munawar Ali Khan, Ustad Keramatullah Khan were regulars. We also attended a lot of concerts, and when we returned home, an analysis of what we heard and taalim (training) would start; sometimes all through the night. Those were wonderful days.
The West has given you a lot musically too. Your comments.
I went to Europe when I was in my teens, and was pretty open to learn. I have collaborated with the world’s leading musicians, including John Mclaughlin, Paco Peña, Evelyn Glennie. Also with several orchestras. One of my most successful albums was “Meeting of Angels” in which I had the unique opportunity of collaborating with choir singers, in a Church in Italy! That was really spiritually nourishing. I have also taught at the University of California where I enjoyed interacting with fresh, open musical minds!
But honestly, I always have felt that our music, as opposed to Western music, has something very profound and creatively challenging to offer. It would take several lifetimes to play every nuance fully even in one raga! It really opens one’s mind.
Who are your musical idols?
Of course, my father who is also my guru. Undoubtedly my tauji, Ustad Vilayat Khan; as a friend put it, “the Yug Purush of Music” in the 20th century. I love listening to Kesarbaiji, Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Ustad Amir Khan.
How does it feel to be living again in India after having left it so many years ago?
I never really stayed away from India long — I have been spending part of the year here every year! So it’s not like I went away forever! But yes, I find things in India have changed a lot since I was growing up. The differences between the West and India in fashion, perceptions and lifestyles, particularly in the cities is not so perceptible now. The world has become a smaller place.
What I really used to miss when I was away was the warmth of my people! I love driving in the countryside, interacting with people in the interiors of our country, simple dhaba food….
I need to be in touch with nature periodically — savour the hills, admire the sea, soak in the moonlight. There is no place for that like India!