Music That Tugs At Heartstrings


During the long and anxious months of quarantine through the pandemic, music was a reliable companion.

In lieu of attending live concerts, I would close my eyes and allow prerecorded music to transport me across a memory stream of more steady times and away from the walls of uncertainty that enclosed all of us. Like many, what I missed greatly was connecting with others in person, especially through artistic expression. I longed for the exchange of energy and collective knowing that takes place when attentive and engaged listeners share the experience of witnessing superb music.  

This feeling of shared vitality came flooding back to me as I sat in the beautiful and warmly lit auditorium of the Aga Khan Museum to listen to Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan’s sold-out sitar performance of afternoon raagas at Raag-Mala Toronto’s closing concert of the 2022 season.   

Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan is regarded as one of the finest Indian classical musicians of our time. A recipient of the prestigious Padma Shree award from the government of India, he is renowned as a brilliant sitarist of the famed Etawah tradition and belongs to the seventh generation of this musical lineage. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to attend a handful of Ustadji’s live concerts. With each experience, I have been captivated. His stage presence is weighted with his mastery of the art form. His emotive style of playing so poignantly captures the gayaki ang, a major attribute of the sitar tradition to which he belongs. His bodily expressions merge with his sitar in a manner that makes it difficult to ascertain where he ends and the instrument begins. 

Ustadji tuned his sitar to a watchful and silent audience. Uttering not a word, he began with raag Bheem-palasi, playing a stunning and delicate alap and jod, followed by a jhala that created a sound so resonant that it simulated an entire orchestra. This was followed by a gorgeous composition in a madhyalay 9-beat cycle concluding with a composition in drut teentaal (16 beats). Nitin Mitta provided impressive tabla accompaniment throughout, the artistes playing so impressively and leading the audience to break out in applause several times.   

Following the intermission, Ustadji played raag Mishra Pilu. He began with an exquisite alap that melded into a melody reminiscent of Mohe panaghat pe, a treasured and beloved song sung by none other than the late Bharat Ratna Vidushi Lata Mangeshkar from the 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam. The audience’s recollection of this melody and connection to the emotion it prompted elicited numerous exclamations of awe. Two teentaal compositions followed, during which Ustadji made the sound of his sitar “dance” with the tabla by ensuring the melodic sequences he created fell on the sum of the rhythmic cycle in the most innovative of ways.   

Raag-Mala team members with Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, Consul General of India Apoorva Srivastava (in black sari) and Amirali Alibhai, Head of Performing Arts at the Aga Khan Museum (second from right). Tabla player Nitin Mitta is second from left.

Ustadji then folded his hands in namaste, suggesting the recital’s end, only to be met with rousing applause indicating an audience that simply was not ready for the magic to be over! With a gentle smile, he conveyed his agreement to play more. 

He concluded with raag Mishra Khamaj, beginning with a melody that evoked a personal favourite, the thumri Kaun gali gayo Shyam composed by the great Vidushi Dr. Prabha Atre. This was followed by a composition in dadra that evoked memories of beautiful folk tunes characteristic of this universal and relatable melody.      

At no point in the recital did Ustadji utter a single word. He allowed the music that he created to be the explanation and expression for everything that he wished to convey. New listeners may have turned to the person sitting next to them to ask, “Which raag is this?” or “What does this melody remind you of?” Those who understood the details of the melody and rhythm (raag and taal) were allowed to do so within their own minds, while those searching to grasp the music were not excluded but encouraged to further explore. To be admired about Ustadji’s artistry is that he plays in a manner that is simultaneously complex and relatable, that represents a dazzling consolidation of emotion and logical thought that is the hallmark of a true master.     

As I stepped out of the auditorium, the beauty and vigour of the music stayed with me. I joined a conversation between some other attendees. One exclaimed to another, “Ustadji really does make the sitar sing!”, to which another responded, “Not only that, but he also makes our hearts sing”.

I could not agree more, for such is the power of music!

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Samidha Joglekar is a Raag-Mala team member.