Words by Simon Broughton (Songlines editor-in-chief)
Luckily it was lovely Sunday morning (September 30) – mild and sunny – as I’m not used to getting to the South Bank for 10am. But sitar player Shujaat Khan was giving a morning recital at the Darbar Festival. He’s from a dynastic line of Indian musicians – father was Vilayat Khan – but I have enjoyed most his brilliant Ghazal recordings and concerts with Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor.
“I wouldn’t have been here if I wasn’t playing,” muttered Shujaat, clothed in white, as he settled down in front of Darbar’s temple-like backdrop. He kept dropping self-deprecating comments throughout the performance and genuflecting at the substantial musical talent assembled in the first row to listen – including tabla player Sanju Sahai and singer Shruti Sadolikar who’d finished a sublime concert less than 12 hours before.
Shujaat played (thank goodness) a morning raga called ‘Ahilya Bilawal’. I’m no raga expert, but it sounded appropriately sunny and untroubled like the day outside, largely because it was surprisingly like a major scale. As he started slowly exploring the raga he revealed one of his special tricks, finishing the last three or four notes of a phrase by just plucking once and bending the string to take the melody to its final key note. It was exquisite and brought gasps of admiration from the musicians around me. What I love about Darbar is you feel you are getting the best and experiencing it with cognoscenti. There’s something magic going on that you might never understand, but is a treat to be part of. It is relaxed and never intimidating.
I felt about half an hour into his introductory alap that Shujaat rather lost his way for a few minutes, but then found his stride again. It was over 50 minutes before tabla maestro Swapan Chaudhuri, who’d waited very patiently, was invited to join in. Shujaat certainly gave him his opportunities to take the lead and he was sometimes playful, sometimes dramatic, striking the upper tabla, the dayan, so it rung like a bell. The recital ended after about one hour 45 minutes with a vast number of repeated chords (a bit like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) and it felt like an equivalent journey.
The applause was tumultuous and clearly an encore was required. “Will you sing something?” yelled someone from the back. “Why, haven’t you enjoyed my sitar playing?” was Shujaat’s quick response. His short, song-like encore, which did include some singing, was much more poetic, with subtle twists and shades, than the sunny Ahilya Bilawal. Sublime.