Ustad Shujaat Khan is one of the best sitar players in India. Last month, on a crisp Sunday morning, we went to see him perform morning ragas at India Habitat Centre. We arrived just in time to miss the formal introduction and presentation of flowers, and took our seats in the third row on the left of the stage.
Ustad was sitting cross-legged, centre stage. He is a big man, going bald with a protuberant abdomen. He was wearing a loose white kurta and looked older than his 56 years. He balanced the belly of the sitar on his left foot, and rested the neck on his right knee. The Burmese teak of the sitar was polished to a high shine. It took him five minutes to get the strings tuned – there are at least 18 on a standard sitar. Only half a dozen strings are plucked, the others just resonate (“sympathetic strings”).
The performance began with a slow solo piece. I thought it was a gentle introduction to the morning, waking up to the day. His accompanying tabla players, Amjad Khan and Arunangshu Chaudhury, listened and bobbed their heads to the rhythm when they heard a phrase which struck a chord with them. They smiled and did that Indian side-to-side head movement which indicates approval. Between pauses, they took out a small hammer and tapped at the stretching strings which govern the timbre of the tabla.
Ustad’s forehead creased with wrinkles as he played passionately. After a climax in the music, he would tilt his head backwards in pleasure, beaming out at the audience who were clapping demurely in appreciation.
The tabla players joined him in the next raga, each having a “drum solo” lasting a few minutes. From our viewpoint, we could see Chauhury’s facial expressions as he played. I have captured these in photographs.
As the concert continued, Ustad started playing faster and more complicated riffs. He would sometimes lift the sitar like a “rock god lead guitarist, wielding his axe”. The staid, middle class Indian audience went wild. It was the equivalent of ageing baby-boomers attending a modern Rolling Stones’ concert.