Interviews, Hindustani

Ustad Shahid Parvez interview: 'What you play spontaneously should be perfect'

  • Author: George Howlett

The sitar genius discusses musical purity, hyper-discipline, and following the green light when improvising.

—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music

Musically, Ustad Shahid Parvez is disinclined to compromise. He is totally dedicated to the sitar, honouring the illustrious traditions of his ancestors while pushing to surpass all established technical boundaries. Critics back in India have described him as “Indian music personified”.

But what does this mean? His music has captivated me for years, but the person behind it has remained largely hidden. The Ustad is wary of his music being misrepresented, and rarely gives longform interviews.

So I approached with caution, proving my commitment by sending over an Indo-jazz guitar lesson I’d written on his recording of Raag Bageshri, and reassuring him that I’d try to avoid topics he had spoken about elsewhere. Soon after I found myself face-to-face with one of my musical idols, pondering how to get the measure of the man over a pixelated Skype connection.


It was immediately clear that the maestro was not here to massage my ego, and did not wish to elaborate on topics which did not interest him. As with his music, he wanted to get straight to the point - but when he did then he would dwell on the idea in question, patiently exploring its contours.

I'd done my research, and expected a concise manner. But I didn't anticipate just how sharply focused his approach would be. His mind is oriented squarely towards the musical forms themselves, with little to say about the broader contexts which produced them.

When asked if he drew inspiration from the natural world, he replied: “You can find inspiration from anywhere, but for me it comes from the music itself. My forebears have drawn from nature, and I draw from them. So the influence is already there”.

Most other artists I've interviewed describe ragas in strikingly humanistic terms. Hindustani vocalist Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande talked to me about befriending a raga, hoping it will reciprocate her interest, and perhaps even falling out with it or drifting apart over time. But the Ustad avoids these metaphors: “They have mood and personality, but I definitely don’t relate to them like people”.

So what about the differing contexts of other musicians? India isn’t an easy place to be a woman (to put it mildly) - but many have achieved revered musical status. Khan has several successful female students, so I asked him what particular advice he gives them. Again, his reply was brief: “For everyone, it is about the music. They must seek to be as good as they can”.

I don’t think things are quite that simple. Many aspiring female musicians have felt the door close in their face, and even singers as talented as Begum Parveen Sultana struggled in their youth to find top-level gurus who would take on women (read our interview here). It’s painful to consider what talent has been lost to economic barriers and constricting social expectations.

Shahid enraptures with an alap (rhythmless improvisation). Photo: SPK Academy

Khan probably has plenty more thoughts on inclusivity. He is a famously considerate teacher, instructing Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Jewish, and Buddhist students alike. But I sensed he was eager to move on to more directly musical questions. So I asked him how he felt about the inevitable imperfections in improvised performance:

“I believe that what you play spontaneously should be perfect. Whatever comes into your mind, you should be able to play it on the sitar. It is now a complete instrument - by which I mean you can replicate any aspect of vocal music on it. If this cannot be done then it is the limitation of the artist rather than the instrument”.

Any advanced improviser seeks to overcome all technical boundaries, and integrate their whole person into the sound. But Hindustani music is notoriously demanding on both these counts. Khan’s refusal to compromise is no surprise given his own upbringing.

Born into the legendary Etawah gharana tradition of Uttar Pradesh, he was always expected to carry the family legacy forward. His ancestors gave shape to the modern sitar, redesigning it and formulating the now-distinctive gayaki ang ('singing style').

The Ustads of the Khan family include pioneers such as Vilayat and Imrat (his uncles), Wahid (his grandfather), and Imdad (his great-grandfather, who in 1904 became the first recorded sitarist). But the tale is not as simple as each generation seamlessly passing the torch to the next. Shahid’s own website tells the story:

[His father] never became a performing sitarist, opting instead to compose film music under the stage name Aziz Hindi. This abdication to popular culture greatly displeased Ustadji's grandfather...At the prospect of failing to find an heir to his music, the old patriarch let his displeasure be known, and threatened to never forgive Ustadji's father unless his grandson, Shahid, were properly instructed in the classical tradition.

Haunted by this threat, Ustadji's father abandoned popular music forever and dedicated the rest of his life to training his only son in the musical traditions of the family. Ustad Aziz Khan actually moved to a small village in order to avoid the many distractions of the city while teaching his gifted progeny...often [his] wife would bring in food and he would forget about the food and go on teaching his son, oblivious of the fact that his son would also be hungry.

The great patriarch, Ustad Imdad Khan. Photo: Ustad Irshad Khan

Khan’s early training was famously demanding. He had to practice for the majority of his waking life, rarely playing outside or socialising with his peers. His father did not believe in praise, and avoided smiling at his son’s accomplishments despite others hailing him as a prodigy. I asked him about this time in his life, and how he had responded to such a critical environment. His initial reaction was revealing: “This is the first question which has truly interested me”. He went on to add:

“My father was very critical, and never happy with my playing. Spontaneity was not possible at first - I was only supposed to practice what I had been given. It was hard, but I took it as discipline rather than strictness and learned fast. Other top-grade musicians would hear me as a child too, and discuss my playing in all manner of ways. All this criticism I found very useful”.

This may seem like an unduly positive spin, but the intensity of his early training may not seem so remarkable to him. His uncle Vilayat used to practice until his fingers bled, and his great-grandfather Imdad is said to have taken a twelve year chilla, permitting him to do little except eat, sleep, wash, meditate, and play music - while rarely leaving the house.

Khan always comes across as a sincere individual, who cares deeply about the welfare of his own students. So I take his reluctance to explicitly criticise his family’s disciplinarian traditions at face value. After all, his ancestors brought his instrument into the modern age, and his father’s approach set him up for a life totally immersed into what he loves. For others the pressure may have poisoned the music - or much worse - but he still finds fathomless joy in exploring it. Survivorship bias does not have to be inauthentic.

But it intrigues me that he takes a very different attitude in his own teaching. Far from confining himself to North India, his eponymous SPK Academy is located in Arizona. He is renowned for his patience with beginners and advanced students alike, saying “I do not teach for money - it is my passion”. So how does he approach it?

“My father was not patient. Most importantly, the student must be given time. But time is nothing without discipline. This means committing to riyaz every day, whether that is 30 minutes or many hours. Anybody should feel they can learn this music, but to reach the top level you have to start as early as possible”.

I empathise with each of these points, being a Westerner who studied sitar under a traditional guru (Pandit Shivnath Mishra). Does Khan teach his Western students differently? “I always teach according to the student’s own level of understanding. But they must learn to speak the language of Hindustani music. A jazz musician must come to think of a note as the komal Ga rather than the flat 3rd”.

Shahid Parvez teaching at the 2007 Darbar Shibir in Leicester. Photo: Sandeep Virdee

Teaching methods are evolving fast - Khan gives online lessons now too. Performance traditions are never static either. Many claim that classical concerts are getting shorter in India, and have never been long enough in the West. Has he encountered this? “I don’t compromise with my concerts. The artist must be able to do what they feel is required - this is all that is important. Some ragas are better to play short, but others I have performed for up to three hours”.

Khan sits at the pinnacle of Hindustani music, and can select the concerts that fulfil his requirements. Others may not have it so easy, but few would dispute that the Ustad has earned his freedoms - it is hard to see how anyone could be more dedicated to their craft. The ghosts of his ancestors would surely smile at their progeny.

But does he find all he needs in the ideas of past generations? I put it to him that Hindustani music is a living tradition, always absorbing new ideas and influences. Even the most ardent of today's traditionalists would not call for a full return to ancient Vedic chanting, and you could say that the music was first 'Westernised' by the Turko-Afghan conquests of the 13th century. How does the Ustad balance tradition and innovation?

“New ideas can be added to any art - classical, kathak, or anything else. This does not make them impure. I always explore within certain boundaries, but find that these boundaries are vast. It is like a great ocean - you can spend a lifetime exploring it, and will not run out of space. I do not need to travel outside of my ocean”.

This point is of deep significance - traditionalism does not have to be static, and you can innovate from within. John Coltrane may have strayed far outside the established sonic boundaries of jazz, but Charlie Parker didn’t have to in order to catalyse his own revolution.

Khan demonstrates this commitment to bounded innovation. He has improved the design of his sitar over the years, increasing low-frequency resonance and strengthening the bridge to withstand the relentless force of his rapid taans (improvised melodic lines). His technical innovations also set him apart, with unique picking patterns and a signature command of overtones whispers that bend and spiral upwards into silence.

He states that “I don’t really believe in creating new ragas”, tending to focus on old classics such as Yaman, Darbari, and Bilaskhani Todi. But some situations have called for experimentation: “Once I was playing in an all-night concert with other artists. I did not go to the stage until around 2:30am, and did not feel that it was truly night time or dawn. There is no raga created for this exact time - but there is the night Raag Kaushik Dhwani, and the morning Raag Lalit. So I blended the two on the spot”.

"It is like a great ocean - you can spend a lifetime exploring”. Photo: Rehmat Rayatt

Likewise, he does not gravitate towards new talas (rhythms), but will often explore rare and complex ones, including fractional cycles with 5½ or 7½ beats. He mentions that Carnatic percussionists have influenced his rhythmic feel too. And he does not limit his listening to Indian classical:

“I will draw from any instrument which interests me, including the violin and piano, and I find inspiration in Western musicians - Bach, and in particular Mozart. But I don’t really think about things in the same ways as they do, with notes combining in layers to create chords and harmony”.

Ever the traditionalist, the lack of chordal thinking is no surprise. But Khan’s fondness for Mozart over Bach is unexpected - his playing can certainly capture much of Mozart’s melodic sweetness, but I have always felt it has more of an affinity with Bach’s solo string works.

Like the tight structures of Baroque, Khan likes to establish a theme before carefully running it through all manner of permutations, gradually unfurling its essence in the process. There is something tantalising and introverted going on, as if you are experiencing the cascade of thoughts behind a conversation rather than the words themselves.

As my own conversation with the maestro draws to a close, I realise that I am still a long way from seeing into his own inner workings. Elsewhere he has stated that “my involvement in music is so much that I do not think of anything else...I do not believe I can live a better life”. But surely the human mind is always messier than that - I wanted to uncover the mortal sides of a musical genius, and explore the mundanities, complexities, and rough edges of such a unique individual.

Perhaps I would have made more headway had I been intensively trained in Hindustani music (or interview technique) from infancy. But I was not, and this fact illuminates a vast gulf here - a distractible Western twentysomething like me will never truly understand the precision and relentless focus of a mind like Khan’s, who has devoted decades to removing all boundaries between sitar and self.

But I do not wish to suggest some mystical disconnect either. Khan does not seek to hide himself, and in the end it is simple to see what he strives for. His answer to my final question is perhaps the most illuminating. I asked what continues to drive him:

“I am always moving forward. I always want to proceed, and overcome whatever boundaries I come across. But the direction is never pre-planned. It is about the green light. I don’t have to wait for it to flash - I have reached a level where it is always on. There are no shortcuts to this place, but it must be the goal”.

Which musician wouldn’t live for this?

Ustad Shahid Parvez follows the green light. Photo: SPK Academy

So is the old master really “Indian music personified”? He certainly represents how many still see the tradition - a lineage of preordained heroes, living ascetic lives dedicated to exploring ideas revealed by the divine. But whether this is still an accurate reflection of today’s Indian music is less clear. Few artists I have spoken to fit the mould easily.

Besides, Khan also embodies more modern aspects of the music. He demonstrates Hindustani’s global reach by touring the world and spending much of the year at his academy in Arizona. He shies away from replicating the disciplinarian approaches of his ancestors, and has embraced new technologies, instructing beginners with patience and humour over Skype.

Neither the man nor the music are easily summarised. Maybe he really is the best personification of modern Indian classical - one of the last bridges between the isolated traditionalism of the old greats and the global connectivity of today’s world. Or perhaps his understated persona allows listeners of all persuasions to see what they want to in him.

I get the sense that debates like this would not really interest Khan himself. Above all, he is to be found immersed in his music. Those who wish to pay their respects after witnessing him play may do well to heed his words: “After a concert I wish to be alone...when people approach I am forced to converse, but my world remains within me”.

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music.

Khan ponders his Darbar performance backstage. Photo: Rehmat Rayatt

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