Kolkata-born sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan is well known for his collaborations; he has worked with Bollywood pop singer Asha Bhosle, Indian American techno-tabla player Karsh Kale and (in the Grammy-nominated band Ghazal) Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor. But his Saturday concert was more of a solo turn, and on an apt evening for Khan to take the spotlight: The performance, at Rockville’s Jewish Community Center, fell on the sitarist’s 52nd birthday.
Khan was joined by tabla player Samir Chatterjee, who proved an ideal match during the concert’s most exuberant passages. But the sitarist dueted with himself for much of the show, whether using his instrument to converse with his gentle yet sonorous vocals or picking fretboard melodies with one hand while strumming with the other. Like all the very best sitarists, Khan was a one-man string section, providing enough counterpoint for a half-dozen players.
The concert’s principal piece was “Yamani,” an evening raga considered to be of Persian origin. Khan began, as is customary, with the alap: a slow exposition of the melody and structure. He alternated musical flurries, which often ended with an eloquently bent note, and pauses, during which the phrase was allowed to linger and decay. The playing was ecstatic and spontaneous, and retained its fluidity even when the tempo accelerated dramatically.
Khan played for a half-hour before stopping to change a broken string. He then introduced the latter part of the raga by singing a composition based on its underlying form. He was soon joined by Chatterjee, and the two improvised together for nearly 25 minutes, sometimes dueling but at other times locking together in a hypnotic modal groove. Both musicians come from traditions that emphasize the vocal qualities of their instruments, and Chatterjee’s playing also had a conversational quality, with high, metallic notes prattling above a rubber-toned bass pulse. Khan and Chatterjee sometimes played faster than seemed humanly possible, yet always with precision.
The concert ended with two short pieces, both plaintive and lyrical. The concluding number was a Hindustani lullaby, much simpler than the “Yamani” alap, yet with a kindred serenity.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.