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An ambassador of Indian music

October 06, 2006|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

The pressures of marketplace multiculturalism weigh heavily on sitar virtuoso Nishat Khan.

In a world in which artists feel the need to reach beyond their own and embrace other forms of music, Khan has become a man in demand.

During the last several years, Khan has collaborated with a virtual Who's Who of modern popular music: John McLaughlin, Philip Glass, and flamenco guitarists Paco Pena and Paco De Lucia, among others.

Bernardo Bertolucci's people tapped him to perform on the soundtrack of "Little Buddha." Two weeks ago, Khan flew to Tokyo to play for Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Khan arrived in Los Angeles in 2003 to teach music at UCLA. But when he sits cross-legged with his sitar at Royce Hall on Sunday, it will mark his first major concert in Los Angeles.

If sitar maestro Ravi Shankar helped bring Indian classical music to the world's attention, Khan remains the best hope yet to transform its austere image and move it closer to the mainstream.

Khan's refrain might be summed up this way: No compromise. That's because Khan is a 21st-century man carrying the mantle of a 500-year tradition. Despite his successes, Khan says he is mindful of his place as the torchbearer of his family's music.

"I feel this big responsibility," he says. "When I play, I enter the world of my forefathers."

Khan comes from a renowned family in Indian music. His ancestors were court musicians for 16th-century Moghul kings and later the maharajas. Over the centuries, the Khans modified the sitar, believed to be about 600 years old, and the surbahar -- a bass version of the sitar -- by adding frets, strings and experimenting with the size of the gourds that resonate and amplify the sound of the strings.

At their peak, Khan's father, Imrat, and uncle, Vilayat, were two of India's most important musicians, touring the U.S. and Europe, playing in the court of Queen Elizabeth II.

Vilayat died two years ago at 80. Imrat, 70, resettled in St. Louis and still plays concerts occasionally.

Like Imrat and Vilayat, Khan was a child prodigy. The eldest of Imrat's five children, he played his first concert in 1967 to a 5,000-strong crowd in Calcutta -- at 7.

When he was 15, he played to a sold-out crowd at his international debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Since then, Khan has been a regular visitor to such facilities as Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and opera houses around the world.

He can leave audiences mesmerized by the sound rippling from his sitar. Concert-goers expecting to close their eyes, meditate and hear the sitar gently percolate over the drone are awakened to Khan's fiery style as he creates music that soars and percusses into a rhapsody of celestial sounds. As the mystic drone intones the beginning of a raga, Khan's soft-footed notes can skim like a dragonfly over the surface of water, steadily buzzing along, shimmering here and flickering there.

Khan wows audiences with his technical prowess, and some critics have suggested that Khan's music sounds like what might have resulted had Jimi Hendrix played the sitar.

Khan, who shares his time among the U.S., Britain and India, says he draws from his family's musical tradition and his experiences in the East and West to compose his music.

In "Spirit & Passion," a collaboration with Paco Pena, Khan riffs to the strumming of Pena's flamenco. Soulful Hindustani and Spanish vocals seem to meld distant places.

It's easy for him, he says, to make music with flamenco guitarists because flamenco, after all, originated in India and was carried by the gypsies as they trekked through Europe.

"In my heart, I'm a gypsy," he says.

Vinay Lal, a history professor at UCLA familiar with Khan's music, says the sitar maestro has unique credentials to collaborate with other musicians.

"Nishat has the ability, the intellectual interest and the cultural interest to engage in a genuine cross-cultural music transaction," Lal says.

Khan says collaboration forces him to be more innovative in his work while honoring his ancestors.

"It's not about changing what you do but about roaming in your colleagues' space without compromising what you do," Khan says. "It's finding a way to walk the journey together."

davan.maharaj@latimes.com

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Nishat Khan

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA campus. Enter campus at Royce Drive off Sunset Boulevard

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 for students, $25-$65

Contact: (310) 825-2101

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