Kabir Mela: Ustad Shujaat Hussain Khan


Shujaat Hussain Khan is Indian classical music royalty. It’s hard to imagine a more illustrious lineage than the scion of the Imdadkhani gharana. His father is one of the greatest sitarists India has ever produced Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan and his uncle, Ustad Imrat Khan the surbahar master and innovator. His grandfather, the sitarist, Enayat Khan, was the son of the famous Imdad Khan, founder of the Imdadkhani gharana (also sometimes referred to as Etawah gharana, for the family’s ancestral town in central Uttar Pradesh).

Shujaat has established himself as one of India’s premier personalities in the classical music world and enjoys a keen fan base internationally for his many collaborations with western and other non-Indian musicians.  Most famous for his work with the Iranian  kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor as part of the ‘fusion’ group Ghazal, Khan is Grammy nominated and a regular performer on international festival stages, alone and with others.

images-6This collection is one part of a double CD set issued about 10 years ago by Mystic Music, called Unforgettable Sufis. The first CD (shared below) is dedicated to several songs of Kabir; the second to the works of Amir Khusrau.  Khan’s father, Vilayat Ali Khan, is credited with creating a style of sitar playing known as gayaki ang which seeks to imitate the nuances of the human singing voice. The style developed naturally as part of the maestro’s playing as he felt an urge, similar to many jazz musicians, to vocalise the melody.

Shujaat has  not only followed his father’s innovation but turned it into a distinctive feature of his artistry. Many of his albums and performances feature his unique whispery, moaning singing voice which adds another level of complexity to his already sophisticated music. Though at times it is hard to make out exactly what he is singing, the overall effect is mesmerising; perfectly suited to the spiritual tenor of the material.  “I don’t consider myself a singer but this urge to sing was natural and instinctive. My effort now is to reach a wider audience,” he said in a recent interview. Certainly, once you hear him you’ll never fail to recognise his voice

For this selection he has chosen a refreshing mix of Kabir vani some of which are not so frequently performed.  The centerpiece of the set is the twenty five minute Patta Bola Vriksh Se (The Leaf Spoke to the Tree).

A leaf says to a tree: ‘Listen O tree of the forest, when your leaves wither away you will be done in and forgotten.’ The tree says to the leaf: ‘heed my words, dear brother o’ mine, It is forever the way of this world – one comes while another goes. In every breath remember the Divine Name, lest any breath escape wasted, who knows whether another breath will arrive or not! Always say such words,
 that will sanctify your heart, tranquil your entire being and emanate peace and joy to others.

But my favorite and the one that resonates most with my own battered philosophy is Moko Kahan Dhundhe re Bande (Where Will You Search for Me, Oh Follower)

Moko Kahan Dhundhere Bande
Mein To Tere Paas Mein
Na Teerath Mein, Na Moorat Mein
Na Ekant Niwas Mein
Na Mandir Mein, Na Masjid Mein
Na Kabe Kailas Mein
Main To Tere Paas Mein

Oh Follower, Where do you search me?
I am always with you
Not in pilgrimage, nor in statues
Neither in solitude
Not in temples, nor in the mosque
Neither in the Kabha nor in Kailash
I am with you, oh follower

This collection has zoomed to the top of my personal favorites for its choice of material, elegant, contemporary (but never inappropriate) production and arrangements and of course the great man’s elegaic singing.


Track Listing:

01 Humka Udhave

02 Man Laago

03 Chunri Mein Pad Gayo

04 Moko Kahan Dhunde Re Bande

05 Patta Bole Vriksh Se

06 Rehna Nahi Is Desh Mein


Death of a father: Amir Khan


Ustad Amir Khan

There is a story told of the origins of a raga called Bilaskhani Todi.

Tansen, the musician credited with being the founder of what we now consider to be the classical music system of northern India, was one of 9 favoured elite courtiers of Emperor Akbar‘s Mughal court.  He had several sons, one of whom was named Bilas Khan.


Mian Tansen

Tansen apparently didn’t think too much of Bilas Khan’s musical abilities, something that obviously hurt the younger man. When Tansen died, Akbar organised a competition to see who was the rightful khalifa (heir) to the beloved Tansen‘s musical legacy.  The person who could sing raga Todi while using the vocal characteristics of raga Bhairavi would be the one, stipulated Tansen.

Bilas Khan gave such a powerful performance legend claims that his father was momentarily resurrected; he looked toward his son and gave him a blessing that indicated he was the khalifa and winner of the competition.  Other versions of the tale speak of the earth catching fire, so powerful was Bilas Khan‘s grief-stricken singing.  Whatever version (and there are several others) you choose to believe, the raga sung that day and now referred to as Bilaskhani Todi is forever associated with grief and mourning.   It is also one of the most difficult ragas to master which is why only the greatest singers such as Ustad Amir Khan of Indore dare to do it justice.

My own father passed away last night.  Among his many attributes and contributions to my life, is introducing me to khyal singing. He preferred the voice of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, probably because the maestro was a native of Gadag, the small provincial town where my parents first lived when they moved to India in 1952.

Ustad Amir Khan’s rendition of Bilaskhani Todi has been on repeat all day.  When he hasn’t been singing I’ve been listening to Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan‘s sitar version.  Both are, from what I’ve learned, among the greatest interpretations of this powerful and moving raga.

I profess no expertise in Hindustani music but certainly can feel this music’s power, today especially.


Track Listing:

  1. Bilaskhani Todi
  2. Abhogi



Evening Melody: Ustad Vilayat Khan



Ustad Vilayat Khan was not a man to randomly or on a whim create new ragas. The thing (and the word classical musicians use to refer to the raga is the Hindi word for ‘thing’, cheez) was to be given the deepest respect. Interpretation could only come from understanding, and understanding came hard and slow.  There are ragas that it takes half a lifetime to master. Or, put it another way, one could spend half a lifetime interpreting just a handful of the great ragas.


This was Khan sahib’s preference. Better to make a smaller number of cheez sing beautifully then try to hastily introduce more ragas into the world.  So I was surprised to discover that there are a number of ragas in fact, that Ustadji did create.  And tonight we focus on one of these, the beautifully named Saanjh Saravali (Evening Melody).


The story of how this raga came to be is told by Deepak Raja, convenor of a very informative blog on north Indian classical music.


I hope you enjoy this sparkling unique gem.

The Genius of Ustad Vilayat Khan

Track Listing:

Raga Saanjh Saravali

Raga Nand Kalyan