Music is Ustad Irshad Khan’s Mother Tongue

There is a wonderful scene in “The Guru”, the 1969 Merchant-Ivory art film (not the hokey 2002 comedy), in which a sitar maestro invites his student, a British pop star, to a biryani dinner with his family, after a spat between the two. After dinner, the Guru plays for his student to signal a gentle reconciliation between guru and disciple – rumour has it that the film was loosely based on Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, of the Beatles’ fame.

This scene came to mind recently when Zahid Khan, Vice President of Raag-Mala Toronto and I were invited by Ustad Irshad Khan to his home after a recent dinner meeting to discuss his upcoming concert at the Aga Khan Museum.

Zahid and I are no musicians, nor did we have a fight with the ever-courteous Irshad Khan. The scene came to mind because at his home after dinner, Irshad played wonderful melodies from “The Guru” for us. The occasion was particularly delectable because the music for the film was composed and played by his uncle, Ustad Vilayat Khan and his brother (and Irshad’s father and guru) Ustad Imrat Khan.  Listening to Irshad Khan play melodies from “The Guru” that evening, one felt a sense of Life imitating Art!

Organisers of concerts derive much pleasure from meeting different artists and having unmediated conversations with them about their influences, and also about shastria sangeet in general. The pleasure gleaned from these discussions is often the payoff for all the hours of their volunteering efforts.

That evening, we got to ask Irshad Khan what it meant to be born into one of the most celebrated families of sitarists – he is after all the ninth generation of uninterrupted musical lineage of the famous Etawa (also know as Imdadkhani) gharana.

“Beside the fact that my uncle and father were highly celebrated maestros, when I was growing up, we had the likes of Ustad Bade Ghulamali, Ustad Amir Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan drop in and stay for meals”, he said. “The maahaul (environment) was steeped in music.  I can honestly say that music is my mother tongue.”

No wonder then that in addition to studying sitar and surbahar, Irshad Khan learnt to sing.  Recognizing his talent as a singer, his grandmother, an accomplished vocalist in her own right, bequeathed her much-coveted book of self-composed bandishes to him.

Irshad Khan has made his home in Canada for the past 20 years, where he teaches instrumental and vocal music.  He spends a large part of the November to February concert season in India, where he is highly sought-after on the concert circuit.  He is a rare artist who is brilliant on both the sitar and the surbahar.  Irshad is particularly proud of the 150-year old surbahar that he has inherited, and that I was especially fortunate to hear him play on early this year at the Dover Lane Conference in Kolkata, and again at a recital in Mumbai.

Sadly, the heirloom has to be left in India, given the potential for damage during long haul transit. Undaunted, Irshad Khan has a fine alternate instrument, and Toronto audiences will have a great opportunity to hear his performance on this, as well as on sitar at a concert during Nuit Blanche at the Aga Khan Museum on September 30th. Irshad Khan will be accompanied on tabla by the tabla maestro Pandit Samar Saha, a senior guru at the prestigious ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata.

The all-night program at the Museum will also feature a performance of early morning raags (at 4:30 am!) by the very talented vocalist of the Mewati gharana, Pritam Bhattacharjee, with Prithwi Bhattacharjee on tabla, and Sanatan Goswami on harmonium.

Mohamed Khaki
President, Raag-Mala Toronto

When and where

Saturday, September 30th 8:30pm to 10:30pm
Sunday, October 1st 4:30am to 6:30am
Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto
Tickets: agakhanmuseum.org