New Life for Indian Music at UCLA

New Life for Indian Music at UCLA

Shujaat Khan performs.

Visiting artists celebrate endowment of the Sambhi Chair in Indian music, bring more than music to courses.

"The good thing is that we will always have something with Indian music here."

Finding the Near East India room in the Schoenberg Music Building at UCLA is not too difficult on most mornings. All you have to do is listen for the echoes of sitars tuning.

Inside, Shujaat Khan sits on a bright rug, surrounded by six barefoot students and seven sitars.

"You have to look as if you know it," he says, helping a student adjust her seated position. "That's half the battle."

Khan, a UCLA sitar instructor, takes on between 12 and 15 students at a time, but sometimes, he says, as many as 100 students apply for his courses. He laughs as he remembers two students who walked into his class with lollipops in their mouths, asking to learn to play the sitar.

"They're interested because they think it's really cool, that they'll get good grades," he says. He convinced them that his was not the course for them. "There has to be some seriousness."

Serious study of Indian music at UCLA is growing. Khan and UCLA tabla instructor Abhiman Kaushal performed to a nearly full Schoenberg Hall auditorium Oct. 2 to inaugurate the Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair in Indian Music. Dr. Mohinder Sambhi, a professor emeritus of the UCLA School of Medicine, donated $1 million to establish the chair named in honor of his late wife, a child psychologist who believed in the healing powers of music.

For now, Sambhi's donation will support visiting teacher-artists like Khan and Kaushal. Sambhi has given $500,000 up front; the rest of the endowment will be given with his estate. At that time, the search for a professor to hold the academic chair will begin.

Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, historian and director of the UCLA Center for India and South Asia, says that the chair in Indian music is important because it shows the breadth of South Asian studies on campus, that study of the region is not limited to the social sciences and humanities.

"What we're signaling here," he says, "is that we have a broad conception of South Asian studies."

Indian music at UCLA is a 50-year-old tradition. The Indian Studies Group began in the 1960s and was directed by Harihar Rao, a student of sitar legend Ravi Shankar. Under the leadership of the late Mantle Hood, the music department's Institute of Ethnomusicology continued to teach the folk and classical music of India. Nazir Jairazbhoy was appointed as a full professor in 1975; he taught Indian music and directed the Music of India performance ensemble until his retirement in 1994. The Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology was formed in 1989.

Khan comes from a long line of musicians. He is the son of the late Vilayat Khan, thought by many to be one of the greatest sitarists of the north Indian tradition. He has been teaching at UCLA since 1996 and, with Kaushal, directs the Music of India ensemble. For him the new chair brings a sense of continuity. "The good thing is that we will always have something with Indian music here," he says.

In Khan's practice room, students learn not only musical skills but also Indian culture. Khan puts senior and junior musicians together, never creating beginner and advanced courses. "That is not how it works in my country." Personal space, he laughs, is not an option. "In India, everyone is together all the time."

Khan's student, Alejandro Leda, learns to play the sitar. (Photos by Angilee Shah)

As the class continues, an advanced student helps the newest one, softly clapping his hands and nodding his head to the "da" upbeats and "ra" downbeats of her strumming. Another student searches around in his backpack for his mezrab, a plucker worn on the thumb.

"The plucker is like your car keys," Khan says to his student. "You can't go without it. You should keep it on your keychain."

One of his students wants to play faster -- "It's not magic," he tells her. "Nothing we do here is magic." She methodically moves into doubletime.

Khan began his Oct. 2 performance solo, taking time between each riff to allow the sound to settle and move about the hall. As the piece progressed, the sitar began to take over his hands; the music moved with bewildering speed and precision. As the tabla was introduced, Khan and Kaushal moved into and out of fast and slow beats, responding to each other with great sensitivity. Even when the music was fast and the beat improvisational, the performance maintained an easiness that made it therapeutic to hear.

Khan's improvisational program, dedicated to Mohindar Sambhi, began with a rendition of "Aheer Bhairavi" and finished with a hymn, one of Mohandas Gandhi's favorites, about empathy and goodness called "Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye."

Khan says that when he plays he thinks about all sorts of things. Tonal quality, the pain in his fingers and back, whether the audience is enjoying the music, and what he will do for his next performance. His mind drifts, though, to different people, into and out of memories. "It's like a story."

Published: Thursday, October 06, 2005