Zila Khan, a leading exponent of Sufi music not just in India, but in the world, needs no introduction. To the millions of Sufi music lovers, Khan remains an enigmatic and revered figure, whose glorious voice makes a direct connection with their hearts.
Not only can Khan literally uplift your spirits and transport you to another, more peaceful world, she can just as easily captivate you with her acting skills, a sample of which she showed in “Bajirao Mastani” as Deepika Padukone’s mother, Ruhani Begum.
Her impact and her contribution to the music industry can be gauged by the fact that she was one of the few artists to be featured in India’s tourism ministry’s advertisement campaign, ‘Incredible India.’ She has been awarded the “Roll of Honor” by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the chief justice of India.
“You connected all of us to Almighty through the medium of your music; your singing has and can play a definitive and key role in spreading peace and harmony around the world,” is what former President APJ Kalam wrote to Khan, when she sang at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
India-West spoke to the powerful singer who was recently in the San Francisco Bay Area to play the titular role of Gauhar in Lillette Dubey’s critically-acclaimed play, “Gauhar,” which is inspired by Vikram Sampat’s novel, “My Name is Gauhar Jaan,” and which traces the story of India’s first recording star.
“I do the work that I respect and that I love,” Khan told India-West. “Digital music is making music accessible to all, so in a way I feel happy to be born now because with all this kind of technology, being able to listen to so many artists, and reach whatever audience I want to reach whenever I want to reach, like that FeZ project. So, it feels really good to use new technology when need arises.”
Khan, who employs technology as and when required, spends most of her time working on “a new project, a play or new creative, or hone a different skill that I don’t know so much but it’s in the periphery of music like in this play and the film.”
Coming from an illustrious musical lineage – Khan is the daughter of renowned legendary sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan – music runs in her blood. She is particularly known for her wide repertoire and versatility. Khan, who has also recorded with Coke Studio, has perfect command over various styles of performance – be it dramatic folk songs, classical ragas, ghazals, Arabic and Persian songs, bhakti soul sangeet and authentic Sufi music.
Her music, according to Khan, is “a unique style of melody enriched with literature, seeped in heritage while being dramatically spunky and contemporary, showcasing her Sufiyana style in the world of international music or world music as it is called today.”
Khan, who keeps fans glued to their seats with her captivating, organic music, is also credited with leading the way for contemporary, vibrant mixes. She teaches “the new kind of performance to the students” because “they have to earn their livelihood and that can’t be possible with classical music anymore,” she told India-West.
The cause of revival of traditional Indian art forms is very close to her heart, and she goes to great lengths to scour folk musicians from the interior parts of the country.
Curating festivals, like the Ranthambore Music Festival in Rajasthan, where she brought in new, unknown artists as well as known ones, like Bollywood actor/singer Farhan Akhtar, really excites her, she said.
“I love to share great music with the audiences, and these festivals serve as a great platform to showcase the talent of new musicians,” she told India-West,” adding that she is not only curating but also producing a new festival in Mumbai, March 10-11, called “The Siren.”
The two-day festival will feature only women performers. “My son Faizan and I and a company called Arre have partnered and invested in this festival, where we will present amazing young talents,” said the Mumbai-based artist.
The primary reason for working towards making these festivals a reality, Khan told India-West, is to not only make the incredible voices of these artists heard, but also give music fans a chance to enjoy a range of scintillating music.
Bringing these singers out of the shadows is important but more crucial, she explained, is to sustain these artists.
“It’s a different thing to have them perform for festivals, but all year through we give them a platform for their earnings, so that they keep doing what they are doing and yet get name, fame and money from it. This is a big responsibility,” she emphasized.
Her son, Faizan, she said, is utilizing his MBA in entertainment to help her realize these projects.
And it’s not just now that Khan has begun to promote and nurture new talent. She is the founder of the UstadGah Foundation, a Hindustani music school in New Delhi, which helps talented students from underprivileged backgrounds to hone their singing skills.
Together with her son, she has created ventures to revive the arts, like the FeZ project, which was formed on the premise of re-connecting the youth with classical music, and which released online music albums merging classical music with popular genres like beat-boxing, electronic, flamenco, etc.
When India-West asked the singer about her plans to perform for the San Francisco Bay Area fans, Khan, who has hypnotized music connoisseurs and lovers from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to the Symphony Space, and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, said she would “love to” bring a “Sufiana/ghazal” concert here. And with that, she also made a thought-provoking observation that music like this needs to be enjoyed and also passed on to the next generation.
“I would love to do these concerts which I hope will help in music revival. It’s about spreading the right kind of music,” Khan told India-West. “There are very few, or maybe none in India, who can sing ghazal and Sufiana music the way Zila Khan can, and I know it and so does everyone else. But it’s not something to be proud of, it’s something to be embarrassed about.”
“By now, we should’ve had 25-50 people singing like me or better in my genre. When I say that, I say it with a lot of hurt that we or the Sangeet Research Academy or other Pandits and Ustads who have thousands of disciples, why haven’t we worked towards creating this kind of musicality… In tabla, why is there just one Zakir Hussain?” she asked, referring to the world famous Indian American percussionist and music producer. “Why couldn’t we make 50 Zakir-bhais? I know he is a brilliant man and we have those genes, etc., but it’s sad that we haven’t been able to make so many of us.”
“This music will end very soon,” she remarked.