A Close Encounter of the Exhilarating Kind


 My annual visits to Kolkata, the “City of Joy”, are always pleasurable as I immerse myself in the city’s culture, cuisine, and music.

I last visited in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit. This time, my new-found friend Jayanta Mukherjee and I decided to visit the resting grounds of Ustad Enayat Khan and his son, Ustad Vilayat Khan, two outstanding and legendary sitarists of the Imdadkhani Etawah gharana.

After paying our respects to these maestros, a thought came to me. I had always wanted to visit the famous House of Sitar and Surbhahar where this legendary gharana resided in the Park Circus area of Kolkata.

I have a very intimate connection with this gharana. During my university years, I had started developing a passion for Indian classical music, especially the sitar and wanted to learn it. A family friend recommended that I reach out to a well-known sitar teacher who had recently moved from India to our very own Toronto.

Little did I know I would start my Indian classical music journey under the guidance of Ustad Irshad Khan, the grandson of Ustad Enayat Khan and son of Ustad Imrat Khan.

It was Ustad Irshad Khan’s father who told him to settle in Canada – how fortunate we are for this advice!

I developed a close friendship with him as he opened my eyes to the magic and splendor of this music and his gharana. 

Unfortunately, I could not continue my musical studies due to work and family life and thus ages had passed since I last saw him.

I thought, why not take a chance and see if he happens to be in the House of Sitar and Surbhahar?

What a surprise it would be for us both if he was.

After navigating the chaotic streets of Kolkata using Google maps and asking for directions several times, we managed to find the house.

Right away you felt the energy of the greats who have graced this place.

As we were taking numerous pictures, someone from the house approached us and asked what we were doing. I told him I had been a student of Ustadji and always wanted to see the Park Circus house. 

The gentleman went inside and returned to ask us to come in.

Upon entering, I was surprised to see my Ustadji in a riyaz session!

But I think he was more surprised to see an old student of his come all the way from Canada. The expression on his face was priceless!

We sat down in the room where many great Ustadjis and Panditjis had spent time doing riyaz or critically discussing music.

A large photo of the Imdad Khan gharana lineage was prominently displayed which added to the aura of the afternoon and reminded me of the maestros who had been in the room physically.

Ustad Irshad Khan, currently based in Mississauga, is one of the finest sitar and leading surbahar players today. He is no doubt the torchbearer of the leading school of sitar, and the Imdadkhani Etawah gharana.

He started learning at a very early age and emerged as a child prodigy.

Ustadji gave his first public performance at the age of seven. At the age of 13, he had his international debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, England. He made history at the age of 18 by becoming the youngest soloist to perform at one of the most prestigious international music festivals held in London, UK, the India All Night Concert at the Proms. He has performed in over 40 nations at music festivals and conferences. As a music scholar, he is well-known for his lecture demonstrations and workshops, and has taught at many educational institutions. 

That afternoon in Kolkata, we spent two hours catching up and talking about Ustadji’s main passion in life – Indian classical music and his love of the sitar and surbahar. We discussed at length his contribution to and intricate control of gayaki-ang (vocal) and tantra-ang (instrumental) styles that made him one of the most dynamic musicians in this genre. 

It was an added bonus when he demonstrated some examples on his sitar.

Before we knew it, evening approached and it was time for us to go, even though both Jayanta and I were reluctant to leave. We were blessed to meet my wonderful guruji, enjoy an enlightening conversation, and, most of all, sit close and be mesmerized by his playing.

With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, we are very fortunate that Ustad Irshad Khan will perform this May in Toronto at the Aga Khan Museum. This is a joint collaboration between the Museum and Raag-Mala Toronto. I am very much looking forward to this. It will be wonderful to finally attend a live concert, and to reconnect with my guruji since we last met in Kolkata.

Ustad Irshad Khan live in Toronto! Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 pm at the Aga Khan Museum Auditorium. Tickets available at www.agakhanmuseum.org or Manoshi at 416-276-5616.

Sujit Sen is a Raag-Mala Toronto team member.