Hark the Sitar Sings

(Desi News February 2016)

Close your eyes and imagine this: a sitar and tabla concert at St Andrews United Church in Hamilton Ontario for Christmas.

Why not?  “Because it’s 2015,” Prime Minister Trudeau might agree.

Hark Hark2

Neeraj Prem has started a new tradition. For seven Decembers in a row, this prominent sitar player and teacher has presented a program of Christmas carols mixed with Indian classical cheeze (short compositions) to packed houses in a church in Hamilton.

“Sharing shastria sangeet (Indian Classical Music) has been my chief aim since I came to Canada,” says Prem, who emigrated from India in 2001. For many years he performed and gave lecture-demonstrations on Asian Television Network and the Macmaster University Radio CFMU.

Today, Prem has reduced his media commitments. But he stays very busy: last year he gave free weekly lessons at the Centenary United Church, and he currently teaches sitar, tabla, and singing to between ten to twenty students.  He does this while maintaining a busy performance schedule.

When audiences show surprise at Prem’s teaching of both tabla and singing, he explains that he also played the tabla until his late teens, before switching over to the sitar, the instrument favoured by his father and grandfather. Those two played in the Imdadkhani style that included gayakiang (vocal singing). The preeminent exponent of that style was the legendary sitar maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan.

During Prem’s college days, his friend knew Ustad Shujaat Khan, son of Ustad Vilayat Khan, and encouraged Prem to study under the Ustad, whose musical pedigree goes back seven generations.

“I was very skeptical about learning from such a well-known artist, thinking that he would be too busy with travel, performances, and tens of students”, says Prem. “However, when I met him in person, I was won over by his charisma and commitment to the music, and was thrilled when he offered to make me his ganda bandh shagird.”

A week after they met, they formalized the guru- shishya (teacher-student) relationship with a thread-tying ceremony,

Dropping out of college to dedicate himself to music, Prem spent many years learning intensively from his Guru.

“Guruji not only taught me music, he made me to live the music”, says Prem.  “Teaching would happen not only during lessons with his other students, but at all times – for instance, while waiting for a bus or watching cricket on TV. I had to pay attention to the golden nuggets he shared at unexpected moments.”

Prem’s son Sajan, who was born in Hamilton, however does not follow in his father’s footsteps by learning the sitar, choosing instead from a young age to play the tabla.

How does he feel about playing the tabla instead of the sitar?

“I’m cool with it”, says Sajan with the nonchalance of a pre-teen. “I enjoyed beating the drums when I was little, and it came easily to me.”

He claims to practice an hour each day, many times accompanying his father. When pressed, he grins and says, “Most days, then, if not every day.”

That’s still impressive for an eleven-year old.

Today, Sajan is getting to be more proficient at the tabla, having also taken lessons from other eminent tabla players like Mohan Singh.  When tabla maestro Pandit Anindo Chatterjee recently visited Toronto, Sajan took some lessons from him. Impressed by his talent, the maestro offered to take him on as a shagird when he was ready to study under a tabla master.

In February, Father and son will be in India, where Sajan will take intense lessons in tabla. “I expect he will need to practice at least four hours a day,” says Prem. “We went to India two years ago, and there was great improvement in his tabla playing, without a negative impact his other studies.”

Being absent from Canada doesn’t mean that Sajan gets a pass on his schoolwork – he has homework to do even during his travels.

At the Christmas concert for 2015, Sajan also provided accompaniment on a short piece composed by his father for cello, flute and tabla, based on an Indian raag.

“By far, it was the best received piece at the concert,” says Prem. “It was wonderful how all the young performers learned to play completely by ear – a quintessentially Indian way of performing.”

It is only right that Prem should relish the moment, given the important role he plays in their achievement.


Mohamed Khaki