She is gregarious, audacious and an ardent protector of her culture. Sufi legend Zila Khan is the first and only female singer from her Gharana. The leading Sufi singer of the new millenium hails from a lineage of 7 generations of legendary musicians and 4 generations of recorded music. Khan has successfully established herself in a mould of her gharana and yet is independent from that of her celebrated father the legendary Sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan.
In an exclusive candid interview Zila Khan spills beans on the other side of the Indian classical music and her undying zeal to protect it for future generations
How has been the journey as a Sufi singer?
I had a very good head start with my father. I have got it in my DNA. Classical music has been running in my family since decades. I chose genre of Sufi music because my soul resides in it. I have lakhs of classical ragas and melodies on my fingertips, which very few singers can remember by heart. I do 16 hours of riyaaz to be flawless when I perform or teach. I chose what I liked. There was no restriction on me. I tried different things when I was practicing with my father. I wrote some ghazals also. But, as many times I have heard any bhajan or been at a cosmic level musical environment, my soul connected with it. In Sufi, I like the playfulness and the hold of universe in it. These are all natural things. I always had these things within me. It’s like to know good fashion you don’t have to be a designer. You don’t have to live that life to know it. I know it sometimes better than the people who know it. My soul feels connected with Sufi. I also enjoy it and the audiences also enjoy it. Likewise my son is free to pick whatever genre of music he finds his soul in. I believe he has a terrific music sense. His aesthetics is amazing. He is an ace composer. I am not saying that because he is my son, but he has it in him.
You recently performed at Ranthambore Festival with a saxophonist and flautist. What makes you warmly accept world music?
Yes, I performed with western instruments alongside with my Sufi traditional lyrics resulting in world music. When we say we have to conserve and preserve classical music we have to sugarcoat it for the younger generation. And I am all for doing that, as long as the weaving is perfect and it merges well. And it doesn’t lose the classicism either. I teach classical music to the children and also teach them to sugarcoat so that they can earn money.
Why is it essential to sugarcoat?
If we have had the upkeep of classical music since 60 years, then there would have been no need of sugar coating. There was a time when every paanwala used to sing classical melodies while making their paan. Like, they sing item songs today. If we would have kept the upkeep of that with the masses, we wouldn’t have to do the changes. Because, now that the disservice has been done by the authorities so much, now we have to be do it any which way possible. If we won’t do this also, it’s a sure death of classical music. This is the only way to conserve classical music. Sitar maestro Pt. Ravi Shankar’s name to fame was that he played with Beatles guitarist George Harrison. Even today when his daughter Anushka Shankar sings, if she needs publicity she uses the name of George Harrison. They have sugarcoated nicely, than only they got the fame. But, at least through this way Indian Classical music entered the west. There is no harm in it. It’s good. The best part is when you make your classical music versatile.
Where is India lacking in making classical music as a mass consumption?
Now, why don’t we treat our classical music as an industry? Consider classical music as basmati rice. It should be elite as well as mass friendly. We dint think this way earlier, but this is the only way out. For example, in Pakistan there are no classical musicians. There is only one Sufi classical singer Abida Parveen. They have to sell their music, with whatever musicians they have. They bring a mediocre musician and make him/her sing in films and concerts. They have made their classical music industry. We have are still stuck with classical music as part of niche audiences. Whatever little money the government is putting in it, it goes to event managers. The event management companies are earning money, but the artist is still where he was.
Why isn’t authentic classical music reaching the masses?
It’s our duty if something is happening wrong, we should change it. The good thing is I can see the problem areas. In 60 years, the corporate have ruined the classical music industry. There are 15 companies under one corporate, among them one is a music label company. To save taxes and to show losses, they bring bad singers and charge money from them for recording. They bring bathroom singers to sing for their albums. Today’s classical musician and folk artist are dying for bread and butter. The recording companies never asked them. We at Ustadgah have been bringing the truth out and supporting the genuine classical and folk musicians since many years. At Ustadgah, we tell students about copyrights and their contracts as musicians. We tell them the realities of the industry.
How can classical music be part of the modern India?
Our classical music is ancient. It has mathematics. It is as important as the discovery of zero. It is as important as oxygen. I am trying to hone it now. I am not telling you to sing or appreciate it. I am telling you to conserve and preserve it. We need to take care of it. This is inherent. Like, you need grammar in constructing a sentence. It’s very important in today’s modern time to understand the grammar of your sabhyata. A part of your identity will be dead. Are you willing to let a part of your identity die? Think about it, be sad about it, it’s your own identity. Tomorrow we won’t know the meeting of Sabhyata, we will have to translate it and call it ‘Culture’. At least today some of us understand what sabhyata is. Are we ready to give it up completely? Obviously not! How to keep it alive, we are not aware of that. It’s by teaching it to our children and have art and music appreciation sessions. We have one of the greatest classical singers in the world Kishori Amonkar. I hero worship her. There is no classical singer in the world like her. Are we doing enough for her? Half of the music audience in this sphere of world, don’t even know who she is. Government also needs to spend enough money on classical music for people to know about it. Like the film industry does. I love the film industry. They do it very well. They have a grid. They invest around 70 lakhs on a mediocre song, they play it thousand times on radio, tv and web and that is bound to get hit.
You have been involved as music therapist, please share your experience.
We analyse, research and archive music for various diseases. We create music therapy in accordance to the patient’s temperament and their taste of music. It’s for all kinds of ailments from neurological, physical, mental etc. Right now, it’s a one-to-one kind of thing, but slowly and slowly it will become a mass produced prescribed medicinal music.
Photo credit – Ankush Dewesar