In Conversation with Ustad Usman Khan | 17 May on Facebook Live
In Conversation with Ustad Usman Khan (Guruji)
Gayatri Prakash: The temple of fine arts Singapore presents, Sadhana an exploration in conversation with Ustad Usman Khan – dean of the temple of fine arts international. Guruji, as he is lovingly known to all of us, is a sitar maestro and is well known all over the world for his passion, commitment and his special style of playing. Guruji has trained so many students that every corner of the world that some of them as teachers and performers. We, at TFA are truly blessed because he is a gift given to us by Swamiji. His gentle hands have guided so many down the path of music. Today, in discussion with guruji about the importance of sadhana which is much beyond mere practice is also included importance of music as the language of the soul. In discussion with guruji will be Shweta Baskaran, his disciple, blessed to have this discussion with him today. She’s the sitar teacher of TFA JB and SG. She’s a young upcoming artist who is a teacher, a performer and explores many parts and genres of music. We now present the discussion, Sadhana, an exploration with Ustad Usman Khan.
Shweta: Guru – someone we look up to for their knowledge and insight. A counsellor, who helps mould values, shares experiential knowledge as much as literal knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source who helps in the progress and evolution of a student. But have you ever wondered what inspires a Guru?
Hari Om and good evening dear friends, rasikas & sadhakas,
We hope that you have had a restful weekend. Welcome to this digital space, where we will be in conversation with the Gurus of our institution. Today we will be in conversation with Guru Ustad Usman Khan, who will be joining us shortly.
Guru Ustad Usman Khan or Guruji, as we fondly address him, is the grandson of ‘Sitar Ratna’ Ustad Rehmat Khan. Guruji was born into a family of musicians whose lineage traces back to the revered court musicians of the Maharajas of Mysore. He was initiated into Sitar playing at the age of 6 by his father, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan.
Guruji has since, performed and toured widely not only throughout India but also internationally in countries such as Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea to name a few. He has received many national and state awards within India, in recognition of his contributions and efforts towards preserving the tradition of classical music and propagating the Gurukul system of teaching the arts.
He has been instrumental in setting up a non-profit organization called Naad in Pune, India. He is also the Dean of Hindustani Classical Music at The Temple of Fine Arts International where he is responsible for design and conduct of all syllabi for the department. Over the years, his close affiliation with The Temple of Fine Arts has only enhanced the performance and activities of the institution.
We are incredibly grateful to have Guruji with us live from his home in Pune.
Namaskar Guruji, thank you so much for taking time away from your busy schedule to be with us today.
Guruji: Hari Om. Please ask me the question
Shweta: My first question is, like I mentioned before, what are your fondest memories as a young child learning from your father Guruji? Was he very strict Guruji?
Guruji: Okay, Hari Om everyone. All my friends, disciples and swamiji’s followers. I’m really happy to do all this conversation with Shweta, my very good disciple and sitar player. And now she is asking about my learning. So, actually, yes. I learnt music from my father. He started teaching me when I was 7 years old. He started music either with singing or harmonium or just giving general knowledge about music when I was 5 years old. After that, at 7, I got a small sitar and he started teaching me. One is my guru and also, he was my father. As a father he was like any father in the world. Scolding for every small mistake, but as my guru he was very great. Very soft, explained everything nicely to me, no scolding no shouting, nothing. And that’s why I started performing. My first performance actually was at the age of 9, for the rotary club, I played my first concert and then the All India radio at the same time. This is how I began my career. Next question.
Shweta: Growing up, did you have any timetable guruji? Like practice these many hours or wake up and practice?
Guruji: See, the difference between my father and grandfather, my grandfather didn’t want me to go to school but my father wanted me to go to school. That’s why, my school timing was in the day. So, all the other free time was to practice. They used to wake me up and 4 am, and I will pick up the sitar and just practice. This practice was just to perfect the technique, to make yourself a perfect sitar player. Morning time those days, he used to ask me to practice. In the evening, when I came back from school, I would sit with him and he was teaching his students and I used to watch and learn by the by and sometimes he asked me to play table with his students. All my childhood was like that. Ya, next question.
Helloooo next question.
Shweta: As a young boy Guruji, you have performed with artist who were senior to you then Guruji, are there any experiences that you can share with us Guruji? Experiences that has maybe taught you something valuable as a young artist at that point of time.
Guruji: Well, he was having all his favourite ragas, beehag, I also learnt from my grandfather. It’s the only one I learnt from my grandfather. He was giving all importance to the practice; how much we are practicing and how we are self-analysing or watching your own things and whether you are reaching the sadhana or Riyaaz. Riyaaz is not practice. Practice is something different. Okay, keep on asking questions.
See I was staying in a place called Awadh? Many musicians came from here, but there were not concerts those days, there. So, there were very few artists who came there. It all started by going and visiting different musicians and going for concerts. It all started when I came to Poona when I was 17 years old. So, there I heard many musicians. Ya Shweta, keep on asking.
Shweta: Have you ever felt nervous as a young boy performing Guruji?
Guruji: See I can say that I am those lucky ones that my father, my guru was taking care of this actually. Many times what happened, he gave me.. you know when his concerts were there, of course he took me. And he was asking one of his disciples to take me and my sitar without telling me. So, I was not knowing that my sitar is also going there. And then before he starts and begins his concert. He used to announce saying before he beings, you will listen to my son who will be playing for 10 minutes. And he will tell he will be playing khamaaj or something like that. So, I was to play as a musician there was nothing but just as a 9 or 10 year old boy to play the sitar so fast, the whole audience was clapping so much, I started to enjoy. So, no nervousness, no stage scares ever in my life. But actually, as you start growing as a musician, you start getting also. As such a young boy, if somebody wants you to play, you play.
Shweta: Being born into a family with rich musical history Guruji, was there any kind of pressure on you to continue with the tradition and parampara of the family Guruji?
Guruji: I want to tell you something very interesting. Yes, I am lucky that I am born into a musician’s family. Yes, I was quite lucky for that. But then, my father he was thinking it was his responsibility for taking his gharana, gharana is a tradition. That was his responsibility that he has to take forward his gharana.
Second very important thing, I was born in Bombay in 1940. But only I know that I was born two times. My second time was May 19 1989 when I came first to Singapore and I met Swamiji. That time I was born again and it’s something that no words can explain. How happy I am after meeting Swamiji. And for many many years I was with him and that has changed my previous life. Yes, next question.
Shweta: When you moved to Pune after your schooling when you were 16 or 17, were there any struggles or challenges that you faced initially guruji?
Guruji: Actually, no. Poona was not decided. Actually, it was decided we should go to Bombay. Because there’s a lot of scope of music in Bombay than in Poona. Although I was born in Bombay, somehow, I was 20 years old it was very difficult to stay in Bombay. So, I was to come to Poona just for a day or two and I was liking it so much because it was very similar to my hometown. It was very cool and nice, and lot of music was there, and very good audience was also there. So, I’m really very happy about Poona.
So, my friend suggested that if you like Poona so much, why don’t you stay here? It’s so close to Bombay in case you want to go back to Bombay. So that’s why I made the decision to move. So, since 57, I’m in Poona. I’m 100% from Poona and speak Marathi.
Shweta: you have travelled all over India and internationally, any memories you would like to share with us while touring and performing?
Guruji: so, yes Shweta. Because I’m travelling all over the world, I started travelling when I was 15 years old. I went to Sri Lanka and France and maximum times I must have gone to France. And in Europe, all the countries I’ve gone. So everywhere there is a different audience. And I’m really happy to tell you, they all like sitar and the sound of sitar very much. Understanding music is different from feeling music. To understand music, one has to learn it. But in Europe and all other countries, people are listening to you quietly and slowly slowly they start getting deeply involved in your music. And I’ve seen many different kinds of people who have become so quiet after listening to your music, I once saw tears in their eyes. But what I like is they listen to you. Music is to listen. And music if you see that they are listening to you quietly right from the tuning. In India when I’m tuning, nobody wants to listen. They think it has not started. But in Europe they understand the meaning of pin drop silence. And right from the beginning they sit so quietly. As a musician, playing for the audience, it gives you so much satisfaction and feel so happy about the fact that you have created some effect and there is a purpose of playing. Of course, in India also, some places are good, in Poona for example.
Shweta: Beautiful Guruji. This question is a bit personal guruji. What does the Sitar as an instrument mean to you Guruji?
Guruji: Sitar actually, in a way is a musical instrument. But then one very important thing about the sitar is, it is a complete instrument. If you see vocal music, they have to have more people sitting there. One with tanpura, one with tabla player, one harmonium player. Only when these people come together, vocal music becomes complete. Sitar doesn’t need anything, it is complete. There is an inbuilt tanpura, the left hand is for the notes and for right hand is for timing and everything to the taal, feeling the taal. Only sound of tabla may not be there. But we use all these things to perform to make the performance more exact, this is not needed. Another very special thing about sitar is that it is a very versatile instrument, you know it can create a different kind of mood. Very happy mood or sad, very romantic mood or devotional mood and this is possible through sitar. But only musician has to be of that calibre. Okay?
Shweta: Okay Guruji. How do you balance music with your daily obligations Guruji?
Oh okay. I give the first importance to my practice, my riaz. After practicing, second thing that comes into my life is teaching, I enjoy teaching, if my disciples are doing well, I really enjoy teaching them more and more and keep on doing more workshops. After that with whatever remaining time is there, I like sports very much, so I watch. I myself played cricket and badminton in college. So, I have this interest in sports even today I watch badminton, cricket and tennis. So, it’s there. But music, sitar, my practice, my teaching are my first preferences.
Shweta: Okay Guruji. Interesting that you mentioned that because my next question Guruji would be if you didn’t become a musician Guruji what would you be doing now Guruji?
Guruji: You’re asking about myself? I can’t think like that. If I was not a musician I would not have been born because music has been there right from the start. I was born in a musician family and thinking in music and music and music and music.
Shweta: The next question Guruji is a question that many people have asked you and you have repeatedly reminded us of it whenever we come to learn from you. So, the question Guruji is, what is the difference between practice and riaz?
Guruji: See the thing is, I have got many students but very little disciples. Disciples means to do with full heart, they have faith and they follow each word that their Guru asks them to do. So, when you teach them and ask them to practice so actually what you get from your guru is in the knowledge form. Your guru gives you knowledge, can teach again and again till you understand but once you understand, the knowledge is with you and then he asks you to practice so, whatever knowledge is there that you got from your guru that knowledge has to transfer into the slate and that’s why you need very regular practice . This is what we call 3 steps of learning:
1st is technique of music where your whole body gets involved your sitting posture, how to hold the Sitar, what your right hand does what your left hand does, right from your breathing exercise is important, that is what it begins with. So that’s the first step.
The 2nd step is theory of music – knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, where your mind gets involved. Knowledge about the swara, knowledge about that laya, knowledge about the raga, knowledge about that taal. All this is shastra we call it, shastriya sangeet (classical music). So, this is where you’re learning all of this and you are becoming a very knowledgeable person. Now you have made the perfect sitar player and the knowledge is there, what raga what taal, all this is there. Now you have to start creating something from your sensitivity, where you see music as an art.
When you get into 3rd step, music as an art that also requires sensitivity, so when your sensitive mind starts thinking and understanding the raga it is different from feeling the raga. Unless you feel the raga, you can’t justify what the raga means, that is very difficult. When you teach a raga, you teach the theoretical part of it, these are the ragas, this is the ascending order, this is the descending order, this is the pictorial, these are the characteristics of the raga all these things you learn. With that you understand, but you never feel. But once you start listening to the raga and if you like it that’s when you get deeply involved in the raga and this comes out of the emotions. You know we call it ‘bhavnatmak mulya’, emotional value, that cannot be taught, there are so many things in music that cannot be taught but learnt in the learning procedure. You learn from your guru only and you have to have love for music, respect and faith in your music and towards your guru you should practice in a way that you justify it. So, everything works. Okay?
Shweta: Nice guruji. It’s always nice to be reminded of how to practice and why we should practice. It’s always nice to hear from you Guruji, the reminders that you give us all the time. So, my next question Guruji, every month in Naad they have this gathering of students, where you choose a few students to sit on stage and perform so this concept was initiated by you and brought to TFA and we have developed it for a while and we are calling it “Swaralaya”, Guruji. So, could you please share with us what is the importance of this student performance Guruji and how does it help in the growth of the students and teachers of the institution?
Guruji: Few mins ago I told you that to take out my stage fright what my father did, he used to just announce without telling me that my son is going to play for 10 minutes, so that has given me the idea. I could not do all this with my students, so I started this thing, now maybe about 35 to 40 years before I started doing it, we called it get together every month we did it few of the students would play I would tell them that they aren’t musicians and they aren’t performing and this is not a musical. This is a learning process for both, the students who are performing and the students who are listening because the audience was also students and turn by turn, they all would play. You have also played there so many times, if you remember. So, that helps a lot for the stage fright, when you go anywhere in the world to perform you don’t feel nervous because that stage fright is already gone because of all these kinds of activities. Which is why I keep insisting to all of my students that are learning the Sitar not only in Malaysia and Singapore but also in France and wherever my students are, and they have given it different names but are doing the same thing and it makes me really happy that they are doing it.
Shweta: Thank you Guruji. Guruji one last question before we let you go. If you had a message to give all music sadhakas, what would it be?
Guruji: My message you know, as we call it sadhana or riyaaz it’s like a meditation and the main thing what my message is, I call it and many times I talk about it, this is a Nirpeksha Sadhana, Nirpeksha means there is no expectation. You go on doing your sadhana without any expectation, if you’re expecting something it should be about the Siddhi. Siddhi and Sadhana, Siddhi is the perfection, you understand, what you’re trying, if you can make yourself perfect you will enjoy it like anything. So, my message is if you’re learning any one of dance, music, instrumental or vocal do it with 100% sincerity and take out the time for practice, don’t say you don’t have time, everybody can find time, be organised and say this is the time, this half an hour or one hour or two hours I’m keeping myself for my practice, the practice for sitar playing, dance or vocal anything and that is my message. What else can I tell you, if you’re practicing and seeing the result you will remember your Guru forever.
Shweta: That was truly inspiring and motivating Guruji I’m sure many of them out there feel the same. I personally feel that it is never enough to hear these experiences and memories from Guruji, and these are the values that we can take back and attempt to live by as he did. Thank you so much again Guruji for spending some time with us this evening and sharing so many beautiful memories and experiences Guruji.
Guruji: Once all these problems of COVID-19 go and when regular life starts again, definitely I’ll come back to Singapore and Malaysia and meet all my students and I plan to hold a workshop to share all these memories in more detail because I’m already 80 years old. And thank you for all of this, thank you Anand and everyone. Hari Om.
Shweta: Hari Om. That’s all for today dear friends, thank you for joining us this evening watch this space for more upcoming programmes. Till we see each other again