Shujaat Khan Envelops the Audience in Starry, Nocturnal Rapture at the Miller Theatre
Sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan is as funny as his music is deep. His work is characterized by vastness, poignancy, and both subtle and explosive dynamics, but is also spiced with great wit. Friday night at the Miller Theatre, his seemingly sold-out show – booked by the World Music Institute in collaboration with Columbia University’s South Asia Institute – was rich with sparring and musical banter. He tantalized the audience with a fleeting series of gorgeously plaintive riffs early on, then engaged them more broadly with peek-a-boo syncopation. His sparring with father-and-son tabla players Samir and Dibyarka Chatterjee was as much a philosophical dialogue as it was it was a joust between old friends, throughout a rapturous two-hour performance of the nocturne Raga Jhinjhoti.
Khan addressed the crowd candidly before the show, explaining that he had just discovered that an audience Q&A had been planned for midway through the performance. “Does anybody have any questions?” he grinned. Quoting a joke by an old buddy, Khan demurred that “Musicians and paintings are a lot alike: they should be kept at a distance. You didn’t come here to hear me talk, did you?” Saluting this New York audience for their passion and support for Indian classical music, he then took his time slowly unfolding the raga with a meticulousness and unselfconscious wonder for the simple resonance of a series of minimalistic phrases – like Morton Feldman without the fussiness.
The opening alap (solo improvisation) took Khan at least a half an hour. A couple of times, he threw a glance at the tablas, but the Chatterjees weren’t about to join the conversation yet: Khan was on a roll and they wanted to witness that as much as the crowd did. Slowly and matter-of-factly, he worked both sides of a dialogue, throwing in the occasional, strikingly energetic short phrase, as well as a few luridly shivery downward glissandos that became the night’s most adrenalizing recurrent tropes.
The tablas entered, first the father, then the son, then together. Khan scouted the perimeter and eventually settled on an enigmatically energetic, hypnotically circling midrange phrase that he used to anchor the percussionists’ cascading beats. The bandleader recalled having played New York with his own dad, the great Vilayat Khan, forty years ago, likening what the younger Chatterjee had to deal with as being “a deer in the headlights.”
From there, the trio were all about suspense and setting a mood. Just when the volume and intensity hinted that they might finally leave the ground, Khan would pull back. The trio peppered the starry warmth with irresistibly fun echo phrases, almost-pregnant pauses and then finally a brief interlude of low-key vocalese from the bandleader. After finally throwing caution to the wind, building a long crescendo that eventually hit doublespeed,and even more, Khan wound down the performance with a thoughtful, counterintuitive return to the conversation that brought the piece full circle.
The next show on the World Music Institute calendar is by another Indian group, trippy tabla/harmonium ensemble Talavya at the atrium at Lincoln Center this Thursday, May 18. The concert is free, but you should plan on getting the space on Broadway at 63rd St. at least an hour before the 7:30 PM start time if you want to get in – and earlier, if you want a seat.