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In Conversation With Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, Sitar Maestro

Purba Debnath

The sublime sounds of the sitar transformed the hallowed walls of LearnQuest Academy of Music, Waltham, MA, from May 7-9. The occasion taking place was a three day shibir conducted by Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, one of the most distinguished sitar players today, organized by the Shahid Parvez Khan Academy of Music in collaboration with LearnQuest Academy of Music. The academy was packed with dedicated students from all over the country striving to reach the standards set by Ustad ji. The vibrant atmosphere of the shibir was prominent in the joyful expression of Ustad ji as he taught raga bhairavi and the look of sheer awe on the faces of the disciples learning from him. Ustad ji’s venue choice to hold the shibir was perfect as its purpose seamlessly matched the goals of LearnQuest Academy of Music, a non-profit music institution, devoted to the promotion of Indian classical music in North America.

Born in 1958, Ustad ji is a seventh generation heir to the sitar's first family, the Etawah Gharana. He received early training from his father, Ustad Aziz Khan and uncle Ustad Hafeez Khan, both grandsons of the gharana fountainhead, Ustad Imdad Khan. Ustad ji occupies the top grade as an empanelled artist on All India Radio and has released over 60 titles in the pre-recorded music market, enjoying a substantial following in the U.S.A., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Arabian Gulf, and East Africa. The recipient of numerous national and international awards including the Sur Shringaar, the Kumar Gandharva Samman and more recently, the Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Ustad ji tours worldwide extensively and leaves the audience spellbound after each performance.


While Ustad ji's global reputation as a performer is awe inspiring, it is enhanced by another rare gift - his ability to spread his music as a dedicated and loving guru. His deep commitment to disseminate his musical heritage in the manner befitting of his own rigorous training saw the creation of the Shahid Parvez Khan Academy of Music early last year. The academy hosts workshops and master classes across North America to scores of young students including musicians of all levels, ages, nationalities and religions. Ustad ji tirelessly endeavors to groom performers in their own right rather than just churning out mere students. He firmly believes that the proof of being an “Ustad” lies in one’s ability to teach and he does not consider himself as one till his students are able play up to his expectations and are performers of a certain standard. Intensive workshops with Ustad ji take place at a regular frequency all over the country in cities including Boston, New York, Albany, Phoenix, San Francisco, Detroit and Ottawa. Most students begin by attending one or more workshops, and then participate in riyaz sessions and shibirs. Besides Ustad ji’s intense training that leaves his disciples with ample material to work on (for a lifetime as one of his students pointed out) till his next visit, senior students are responsible for providing regular guidance to encourage discipline, continuity and progress in his absence.


The first shibir in North America took place in 2000 and has been taking place four times a year. The students spend three days with the Ustad ji and the learning experience is so remarkable and cherished so greatly by his students, that they are drawn from all across the continent as well as the world. Most of Ustad ji’s senior disciples have even travelled all the way to India to attend a shibir. At most shibirs, students are grouped according to different levels and work on one theme raga. Although musicians of all levels are present, each of Ustad ji’s students always comes away with the feeling that the lessons were structured to meet their specific musical needs.

In an interview with Lokvani, I asked Ustad ji and his disciples to elaborate on the purpose and process of the shibir.


(Excerpts of the Interview)


About the Shibir

My observation of the method being used to teach Indian classical music nowadays is that the essential skills that are necessary to imbibe this music and can be achieved only by following the guru shishya parampara (teacher-disciple tradition) is severely lacking. What generally happens is that students typically undergo an hour or so of training and go home. The problem with this approach is that while they learn some basic aspects of the grammar of the music, they do not get a chance to actually experience and feel the music. The student needs to be able to immerse themselves into the music by observing the guru explain, sing and play his music for an extended period of time. This immersion is crucial for the student in order to truly absorb the essence of his or her guru’s music. The main purpose of the shibir is to enable such a training system whereby I can attempt to transmit this music at least to some degree in the way I was trained. This brings me to another important aspect of the shibir, riyaz. Riyaz is a concept seldom talked about in the regular music classes of today. In a guru shishya set up, the student sees his/her guru doing riyaz automatically ensuring that they learn not only the importance of riyaz but also the ways of doing riyaz. Of course, undergoing intense training is not enough! Hard work, dedication and discipline, qualities rarely found in this day and age, are fundamental. One has to be willing to put in the time and energy to do proper riyaz in order to truly understand and perform this music. Also, the student learns to listen and appreciate this music, another aspect sorely ignored in the regular music class system.

Initiative to organize shibirs in North America

I have always held shibirs in India. I felt the need to start conducting shibirs here in North America in order to teach with the same intensity as I do in India. You see, all the students here, are not merely my students, they are my “shagirds.” The shibir would have been an impossible venture had it not been for the dedication of these shagirds. It takes a while for a student to become a shagird. Both, the student as well as the guru need to spend a lot of time to be able to understand each other’s music and musical needs. We become a family. While the best circumstances would have been if we could have spent a lot more time all the year around as a guru needs to be able to hear his students play to determine the best way to teach, we have to adjust according to the lifestyles and practicalities and meet a few times a year for a couple of days. Keeping the time constraints in mind, I try my best to cater these sessions the best possible manner.

Role of music institutions such as LearnQuest Academy of Music

I believe that it is very important to have institutions like LearnQuest Academy of Music because this place provides an avenue for learning Indian Classical music. Guru Shishya parampara follows much later, after a lot more dedication and after the fundamentals are in motion. For example, anyone who comes to LearnQuest Academy of Music will learn sitar from my senior disciple, Jawwad Noor, and by default will be connected to me. At the least, schools like LearnQuest are maintaining the parampara (tradition) ensuring that half the work is done. The rest can be taken forward by us.

On teaching

It is far more difficult to teach than it is to perform. Every student has different needs and it is my challenge to gauge their problems and needs, and guide them accordingly. Due to the busy lifestyles in this country and in the modern world, it becomes very difficult for students, no matter how sincere they are, to adopt riyaz into their daily lives on a regular basis. However, it is not impossible and one has to be particularly dedicated and have the maturity to accept riyaz as a part of daily ritual. My experience with regard to students coming from different backgrounds is that while they are different at the start and it takes them as well as me some time to adjust, eventually all these differences melt away and become insignificant.

This particular question led to various insights provided by Ustad ji and his students present at the shibir. Upon being asked by senior student, Seema Gulati about the assimilation of cultures in an environment such as a shibir, Ustad ji replied that the whole process needs to be step-by-step. One cannot tell a person who comes to learn the sitar for the first time that he/she should learn the culture, the music as well learn to play in the right manner. This will only lead to the person being intimidated and never returning back. One needs to gently lead the student. The assimilation of the culture comes automatically out of the student’s own desire to do so. The other students piped in discussing how the learning experience received here does not end here. When they go back to their so called normal lives with normal jobs, the experience transforms them completely and changes their outlook in every aspect of life. As Nouman Khan stated, “You initially come to learn music, but end up learning a very fulfilling and enriching way of life.”

The conversation was enlightening and full of insights regarding the challenges of Indian classical music education in North America as well in the modern day and the innovative ways that have been adapted by musical genius such as Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan to overcome these challenges.

Lokvani thanks Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, Seema Gulati, Nouman Khan, Curtis Bahn, Jawwad Noor, Kelly Johnson, Sunita Aswani and all his disciples present at the shibir for graciously making time for this interview.

For more information, please see www.spkacademy.org & www.shahidparvezkhan.com

Purba Debnath is a Hindustani vocalist who has received tutelage for many years from Smt. Dipali Debnath, Pt. V.R. Athavale and the late Shri. Bireshwar Gautam. She holds a master’s degree in Hindustani vocal music and Ethnomusicology and is currently a faculty member of LearnQuest Academy of Music, Waltham.

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