Almost every article written about sitarist Shahid Parvez describes him as one of India’s finest young musicians, so it’s a bit of a shock to read the fine print and discover that he turns 59 next month.
In youth-obsessed North America that’s verging on geezer terrain, but the subcontinent seems more willing to let its talent mature gradually—which is understandable, given that the complex rhythms and expansive melodies of Indian classical music really do take a lifetime to master.
“I don’t know if to call me young is a compliment,” Parvez says with a laugh, reached in Phoenix, Arizona, on his Legends of India tour with tabla master Anindo Chatterjee. “I’ve already crossed my 50s, so I don’t think that I am young, but it takes time to establish yourself, and people think that you’re still up-and-coming. I’ve had to face this problem for years, but now, at least, maybe they’ll stop telling me that.”
The sitarist admits that there’s a problem with the way Indian music has been presented internationally: for far too long, it has been associated with his father and teacher Aziz Khan’s generation, a cohort that included ’60s icons Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. “Music changes,” he says. “It keeps on changing, you know. But people like my father and Ravi Shankar, they are such big names that it is very difficult to get rid of them, unless somebody is that extraordinary. It is but natural.”
The unfailingly modest Parvez would never claim to be their equal, but the recorded evidence suggests that he’s matched their achievements, or perhaps even surpassed them. If his sitar sounds unusually warm and lush, though, he’s quick to credit the training he received from his father, which included sonic secrets handed down through many generations of talented musicians. North Indian music is organized into gharanas, or schools, usually based on family as well as artistic lineage. Parvez belongs to the Etawah gharana, a 400-year-old dynasty of sitar and surbahar players named after the Khan family’s ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh.
“You don’t even have to play the music,” he says of the distinctive Etawah sound. “If you just strike the strings, anybody can tell you that this is from the Etawah gharana—the tuning and the sound of the instrument are that prominent.”
The intent is to achieve an especially vocal sound from the sitar or the deeper-voiced surbahar, an instrument his family developed. “It is a way of playing and technique,” Parvez explains. “With the left hand, we use more of a pulling technique, pulling at the strings. That is called meend, and it produces a vocal sound. There is a difference in the right hand also, but it is very difficult to explain unless you hear it.”
Fortunately, Vancouverites will have a chance to hear Parvez and Chatterjee this week. That should clarify some of these technical matters, while leaving no doubt that when it comes to North Indian music, there is life after Ravi Shankar.
Legends of India plays the York Theatre on Sunday (September 28).