Strings That Bind – An Interview with Dilshad Khan and Imran Khan


Imran and Dilshad Khan are nephews of the late sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan. Accomplished, acclaimed, the cousins belong to the Sikar Gharana, from which many stalwart Indian classical musicians hail from. Imran who plays the sitar, has been trained by his grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan and his father Ustad Niyaz Ahmed Khan. Dilshad plays the sarangi, following in the footsteps his famous uncle.

Their performance was one of the ‘dawn concerts’—which usher in the morning against the sun rising over the city of Jodhpur—at Jodhpur Riff this year, on October 19. They were accompanied by Praveen Arya on the pakhawaj. After the concert, as the audience dispersed, Imran and Dilshad Khan gave us this interview while still sitting on stage. At some point, Dilshad has to leave and Imran answers the rest of the questions alone.


Have you been to Jodhpur Riff before?

Dilshad: This is my first time.

Imran: I performed here with my uncle, Ustad Sultan Khan ji, in 2009. The collaboration of Ustad Lakha Khan ji on the sarangi and Anwar Khan ji on vocals— I was a part of that. I also performed at the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s literature festival (the Jaipur Literature Festival) in Amer.


What are some key things you keep in mind while collaborating with artists and with each other?

Imran: Our collaboration is unique— we have been together from childhood.

Dilshad: Because what we play is a part of classical music, we put a lot of thought into it. We also try and gauge how the audience is responding.

Imran: Dilshad bhai and I, we are of the same age nearly— we have an age difference of two months. We grew up together. We had talim (lessons in music) together, taught by our grandfather (Ustad Gulab Khan), and my uncle (Ustad Sultan Khan). So, between us, there was blood relation, family relation, music relation… Yet this is not a normal Indian classical collaboration because we included the instrument pakhawaj in this. And the way we played was little hatke from the classical style. We used Dhrupad also in our vocals. Because when Divya ji (Divya Bhatia, Festival Director of Jodhpur Riff) and I were talking about this, he said, “We do have classical music. The same people come to perform, they do the alap, play the vilambit and the drut and then finish it off. You do something new.” So that’s what we did.


What did you do differently?

Imran: Like I said, normally, in Indian classical performances nowadays, everything is accompanied by the tabla— but here we used the pakhawaj. There was no tabla. So that was unique.

Dilshad: Traditionally, the pakhawaj was played with Dhrupad and Dhamar. They didn’t have the tabla then, it was the pakhawaj, gayaki and saaz that were used as accompaniment.

Imran: Chhand banake jodan dikhaya (we created chhand, a rhythmic motif) with 4 counts, 8 counts, 10 counts… This idea already exists but it is not prevalent in present times. It is used by those singing in Dhrupad and Dhamar.

Dilshad: It’s an old shaili (style).

Imran: We were inspired by it. We had an idea of it in our minds and we rehearsed for a night. Baaki toh sab upar wala hi bajwa raha tha (as for the rest, it is the one above, God, who’s making us play like this).


How much do you rehearse when about to present a new collaboration?

Imran: We do riyaaz (practice our music) every day. For this performance, we rehearsed only for, maybe, one hour yesterday. We went through it, went through the ideas we had in mind. Dilshad bhai and I had been talking about it for a few days, how to go about it…


Is there any musical realization that has come about from watching the other artists and performances at Jodhpur Riff, anybody you have learnt something new from? Any performance which struck you in particular?

Imran: The good thing here (at Jodhpur Riff) is that Divya ji is someone who understands music. He has a good understanding of the artist, how they should perform, what kind of music it should be. He tries to deliver something new each time. It’s a good thing that the festival’s popularity is growing. We get to learn from all kinds of music. Whoever it is— an artist bigger than us or smaller than us. If you keep yourself open to learning, you learn. The night Manu Chao was performing, everyone was dancing. He was singing very well in Spanish. I didn’t understand what he was singing, but his style was so different.

Dilshad: The pattern of his song, his style of singing, we liked that a lot.

Imran: I liked his guitar player a lot. Like this bol we have in the sitar dhad-dhid-dhid-dhad-dhid-dhid-dhada-dhid-dhid… He was using the same thing, with the plectrum. He was using his right hand so well. That is there in Indian classical music as well but the way he did it was remarkable. That was very unique and I liked that a lot.

Dilshad: There are so many more. Rizwan Muazzam are singing tonight. And there is Daud Khan (Sadozai) ji  whom I’ve heard a lot about. I’m playing with him tonight.


Do you know what you will be playing?

Dilshad: No I don’t know yet. Divya ji will be telling us what to do.


So you’ll discuss it and rehearse at the sound check?

Dilshad: Yes. At the sound check we will have to decide a little about what to play, when to play, how to go about it.


What are some key pointers that help you when a collaboration is at short notice and you have to play with artists you haven’t met before?

Dilshad: I think there are just a few things to keep in mind. For instance, where to play (in the middle of the performance)— if someone is singing then how much you should play or sing along with their singing. It also depends on what rang (mood) they are singing in. Like Imran bhai said, you never stop learning. If I’m playing with Daud Khan ji, with the robab or with the oud, it’ll be new for me. So when we play we think about what space we can make for ourselves there. Also, to do it in way that you have fun and so does the audience…


Have you listened to the music of Daud Khan Sadozai and Joseph Tawadros, with whom you will be performing tonight?

Dilshad: No, I haven’t. We’ll see if a rehearsal happens. If not then, we’ll just meet at the sound check.


You have performed at several festivals. Is there anything about this performance at Jodhpur Riff that has stood out for you?

Imran: We are performing at a heritage property, where we get to spend time and perform at the Mehrangarh Fort. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. Most festivals happen on some ground or in an auditorium.

Dilshad: Also, it’s a dawn concert (that they’ve just performed in). This was Divya ji and Imran bhai’s idea, performing when the moon is setting and the sun is beginning to rise. There was a time when, our guru, our father, used to wake us up in the morning for riyaaz, from four in the morning till 10 o’clock. That time also used to be called a time of ibaadat (worship). There are raags of the morning—ibadat bhare raag (raags full of the idea of worship). So it felt good to get an opportunity perform at this time of the day. It doesn’t happen at other festivals, where you perform mostly either in the evening or in the night. I have performed at Jazz festivals, and with Nitin Sawhney at the Royal Albert Hall.

Imran: Even if there are morning concerts, they are usually at eight or nine in the morning. So performing here was different for us.


At this point in the interview Dilshad has to leave.


In your opinion, what has been the legacy of your uncle, Ustad Sultan Khan?

Imran: The legacy is his music. Our family has been in music for generations. Our great great grandfather Azim Khan sahab was a musician at the court of the Maharaja of Sikar. Our grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan sahab was a vocalist and sarangi player. What we have we have learnt from them is also their legacy that has continued through all of us.


But in music, what would you describe as your uncle’s most important contributions?

Imran: All that he did with music was important. Apart from us, the whole world was inspired by him. The style in which he played the sarangi, the gayaki, few others have played the way he has played. And then he did that east-west fusion with George Harrison, toured with Pandit Ravi Shankar. He played on an album for Madonna, with Duran Duran. He was in the progressive electronic band with Bill Laswell and Ustad Zakir Hussain—Tabla Beat Science. He was so open hearted. He played the sarangi In Umrao Jaan and kept playing… even playing in Jab We Met. He would also sing— his voice had a different texture. He even composed a raag. He was very creative. His confidence and the kind of output he had was incredible.


Can you tell us about the raag  that he composed?

Imran: He believed that the existing raags had been there for a long time and they sounded fresh event today. But he did create a raag called Ras Mohini.


What was it about his style of playing the sarangi that was so unique?

Imran: It is difficult to explain. It’s apparent when you listen to his music and compare it with other sarangi players. His sarangi was influenced a lot by the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan. Our grandfather Ustad Gulab Khan sahab took Sultan Khan Sahab to him to make him his shagird (pupil). But he (Ustad Amir Khan) said: “He is like my own kid.” Because his nanihaal (maternal home) and my grandmother’s nanihaal were from the same village. “Why should I gandabandh (a traditional ceremony where the guru ties a string on the wrist of the student agreeing to teach him or her) him? You teach him. I will also do so once in a while.” So officially there wasn’t a gandabandh, but he was very inspired by Ustad Amir Khan, the way he played and his gayaki.

He went on to experiment later. He never thought about what people would say if he experimented or didn’t stay on one path. He wasn’t scared by this. That is how he left behind such a variety of music. Not many Indian classical artists have been able to do that. Classical, film music, electronic, fusion… He didn’t discriminate between any form of music. He saw all music as equal and taught us the same talim.


You had played with him as well?

Imran: Yes, several times. There was a time when we did 22 concerts in 13 days for SPIC-MACAY in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. I was very fortunate to be able to play with him then. There were also several other times where I played with him.


What did you learn from playing with him?

Imran: Whatever I am today has been because of him. He taught me how to present music, what note should come after which to bring about a rachaav (create a piece of music ) and what is the importance of that. If I was finding something difficult he knew what kind of practice I needed to ease that. So in a short time he would teach a person a lot. From Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur and Ustad Amir Khan Sahab to the music director Pritam to musicians like me— he had played with all kind of musicians. He had a long and fulfilling journey in music. He learnt from observing himself as well. We would have discussions on music all night. He didn’t sleep much. In the house, we both shared the same room. So we would talk all night, sometimes even doing riyaaz in the night. I was lucky to be born in this family, to be able to learn and play with such great musicians.


What did you learn from your father and grandfather?

Imran: I learnt the intricacies of the sitar from my father. I was very young, six or seven years old then. I couldn’t even hold up the sitar. My grandfather trained me in vocals. So early morning he would start with the sargam and teach me (Raag ) Bhairav.


Do you think that the place that the sarangi and sitar hold in Indian classical music will remain intact in the years to come?

Imran: Yes, definitely. It has been so for thousands of years and will continue to remain the same for years to come. The sitar and sarangi continue to be played and there are many great sitar and sarangi players amongst us today. Sultan Khan sahab played a great role in the sarangi being played solo. And that was a big contribution. If you see today, there are various bands that use the sarangi. It is being used with electronic music. It is being played alongside western artists. And this is all because of Sultan Khan sahab, because I don’t think there was any other sarangi player before him who played so much in the west. He opened doors for other people. They realized that the sarangi would go along with a variety of music and musical instruments. What Pandit Ravishankar did for the sitar, making it popular, that is what Khan sahab did for the sarangi. So I feel that the future of the sarangi is secure. There is no need to worry about it.


Dilshad ji and you started training in music together.

Imran: Yes, we are of the same age. We started learning music together. His father, Ustad Nasir Khan sahab played the sitar. He would come to the house and learn from our grandfather and my father. And when (Sultan Khan) sahab came to Jodhpur, we would learn from him as well. He lived in Mumbai then. We also later shifted to Mumbai.


How did he choose to play the sarangi and you the sitar?

Imran: Well in the gharana (a school of music), it is usually your elders, your father or grandfather who tells you what to play. “Why don’t you try this?” they say. My father wanted me to learn the sitar, so I started training in it. We were very young and you respect your elders and listen to them, especially in classical music. It was a privilege that we had them guiding us.


What are your dreams for yourself as a musician? Is there anything in particular that you seek to achieve in your music?

Imran: Apart from playing the sitar, I compose music as well. I have also released an album called Khwaja Sahib which has Rekha Bhardwaj, Parthiv (Gohil) ji, Krishna Beura and others. I arrange for my own programmes as well. My dream is that I follow in the footsteps of Khan sahab and other elders in my family. I hope that I make name for myself. Or at least hear people say: “Oh he is from this family, and he is doing as well as his father or grandfather.” Any artist wants to do well and earn respect and have their music appreciated by people. That is my dream as well.


Is the next generation in your family also continuing to learn music?

Imran: Yes, they are. My younger brother Irfan plays the sitar. Dilshad’s elder brother, Salamat Ali bhai and his children—Salman plays the sitar and Shahrukh plays the sarangi. Shahrukh was featured recently on Coke Studio. So the next generation is also coming up.


Is it difficult to keep the tradition of music going forward in the family?

Imran: There is, of course, a lot of hardwork involved. It’s not like it was a diamond that was passed on from my grandfather to my father to (Sultan) Khan sahab to us. It’s music, karthav vidya : a knowledge that comes to you from doing. So a lot of hardwork goes into it. And there is also an expectation because we are from this family. People do pay attention to what we sing and how we play. So it is definitely not easy to meet the expectations. It will take time for us to play at the level that our elders did. So we try and work towards that. All the male members of our family are working in music.


Will you teach your children as well?

Imran: Yes. Though they will go to school as well. Education is important in today’s times. But I would want them to continue in the tradition that has been kept going for nine generations in our family. The rest is in the hands of God.


What is unique to the Sikar gharana?

Imran: The Sikar gharana came from Indore. We are from Sikar and there were a lot of musicians from Sikar who became well known such as Munir Khan sahab who played the sarangi, Sultan Khan sahab, my grandfather Gulab Khan sahab. There were a lot of a well known sarangi players from this gharana because of Rajasthan’s connection with the instrument. Classical music is the same anywhere. The raag, taal, sapaat, dhamak is there in every gharana. But the differences are in the intricacies. You will hear it in how we play music, the little difference in style.


Is there anything you play differently when you play the sitar?

Imran: Because I learnt from sarangi players, my grandfather and Khan sahab, I don’t play just in the style of the sitar. There are things from the sarangi also that I play on the sitar. I try to do different things and keep my style a little different. The raag and raagini  in classical music is the same. You can’t change that but in the style of playing you can bring in your own andaaz.


You have collaborated and played with a variety of musicians, especially Western musicians. What were important things that you learnt from them?

Imran: I learnt that our approach to music and their (the Western musicians’) approach to music is different. The swar is the same, but the language is different. Their thought and process is different and you learn from that. You try bring in your flavour into it and give something to them and also take something from them. It’s very helpful. It opens up your mind. You look at notes in a certain standard way, until you get there and learn to look at it differently.


When the approaches are different, how do you collaborate?

Imran: You have to listen to each other. They don’t have raag, so if I try to talk to them in terms of raag they won’t understand. But if I play one, they will recognise the notes. Because sa-re-ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa is the same everywhere. They look at the chord progression, say going from A minor to D and then to E. So there you have to forget about your raags a little. Sometimes you see that in a chord it is going from one raag  to another, so you go with the raag  while they remain on the chords. And then you see that it is fitting well, the raag and the chords. So that happens. In raags, the notes are fixed, the particular notes you use, and they come and go in a particular way. The order is fixed. And they (western musicians) don’t have that. So, if you have say, “Oh, why has it started from B plus and come to shuddh nishaad ?”— how do I do that? So you have to forget the raags a little and concentrate on the notes more.


Apart from the musicians in your family, who else has influenced your music?

Imran: I like the sitar playing of Ustad Vilayat Khan sahab, the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan sahab, the singing of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. I have listened to them a lot. In today’s times, there is Ustad Shahid Parvez sahab who plays the sitar very well. I listen to him a lot. My idols have been Ustad Sultan Khan sahab and Ustad Vilayat Khan sahab. I listen to anyone who plays good music whether it is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan sahab or Hariprasad Chaurasia.


Is there any musician who you would like to play with?

Imran: There isn’t anybody specific right now. I have been playing with everyone I can. I recently played with Pandit Birju Maharaj who danced the kathak and that was a good experience for me.


(Image: Imran (centre) and Dilshad Khan (left) perform at dawn. By Shantenu Tilwankar for JodhpurRiff / Oijo.)