The previous afternoon Swapan Chaudhuri, the tabla-player of choice for the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan (1922–2009) in his last years, delivered an exquisite solo tabla concert – with harmonium providing melodic support to rhythm instrument in the accompaniment reversal known as lehara. Shujaat Khan sat in the first row dead centre in front of Swapan Chaudhuri. It was a rapturous and educative recital – and it must have fed Shujaat Khan’s mind with possibilities for their Sunday morning duet. At the finish, Khan self-effacingly asked who would be accompanying who the next day.
Complimenting the audience who had made the early 10am start, he deadpanned: “I wouldn’t have been here if I wasn’t playing.” Even tuning his sitar, one made by the Delhi-based instrument-maker Ajay Sharma about a dozen years ago, had a special moment in a peripheral way with a melodic fragment line that sparkled like an alpine rivulet. He announced Alhaiya Bilaval – a nine to noon rāg – that I cannot consciously recall ever having seen performed live. Pondering this afterwards, it was recordings by the likes of Kishori Amonkar, Kala Ramnath and Shruti Sadolikar-Kalkar that struck me.
His alap – the mood-setting movement that acquaints musician and audience with the ‘note characters’ – moved slowly, easy like Sunday morning, with him getting full value out of the notes, a full measure of the timbral and tonal with an emotional heft. Eyes mainly closed, his left hand would shape the notes while his right hand was often held in repose. Notes came and were allowed to linger and decay. The audience, especially the front rows that the performers can see without straining, acted like weather vanes indicating how things were going with egging-on murmurs and approving hand gestures. He would occasionally ‘surface’ to silently acknowledge these with a hand gesture to the forehead.
As the exposition progressed, the logicality of his resolutions also came mixed with ‘out-of-nowhere’ solutions. That combination of the logical and the unpredictable was impressive – as in really impressive. By the time he finished, he had incorporated two compositions, both without name – the first by him, the second by his father, the sitar maestro Vilayat Khan. He had also played lehara to Swapan Chaudhuri’s tabla, leaning in attentively, watching his hands. In terms of inventiveness, as they say in some Christian circles, his exposition touched the hem of the garment.
To conclude, he sang a folk-flavoured air straight out of the subcontinental lullaby canon, accompanying himself – in a similarly bare style vocally and instrumentally to the sarangi maestro Sultan Khan when he sang the Rajasthani lullaby ‘Soja re’. It was superb. Afterwards, he admitted it had no title and it was a Hindi composition of his own. The opening words will have to do: ‘Aaja re nindiya.’