by ASJAD NAZIR VIRAM JASANI LOOKS BACK ON AN AMAZING CAREER AND AHEAD TO EXCITING SERIES OF EVENTS HAVING arrived in the UK as a child with his family in 1949, the first connection Viram Jasani had with music was listening to his father’s collection of old 78rpm records, which he brought with him from East Africa. Another important inspiration during his childhood was acclaimed singer Shamshad Bai, who was the mother of legendary star Naseem Banu and grandmother of Bollywood actress Saira Banu. She enchanted those living in London with her magical voice and would become Viram’s first teacher. He would encounter many other famous artists at his house growing up. Being surrounded by music at a young age led him to learn the sitar and embark on an extraordinary journey built around a love for Indian classical tradition. Viram balanced a hugely successful career in business with becoming a leading exponent of the sitar, promoting new talent, breaking new ground and becoming a driving force for Asian Music Circuit, which has kept the Indian classical music tradition alive with unforgettable concerts across decades. His many landmark achievements include performing alongside iconic rock group led Zeppelin, playing at major festivals, composing for films and being the first person to introduce live sitar to Prince Charles in the early seventies. He is highly respected by all the major artists in India and has had a material impact on perceptions about Asian music for over 40 years. Despite being retired now, he is continuing to be a driving force and looking forward to the upcoming Music Of The Three Worlds concerts and exhibition in London. Eastern Eye caught up with the great British music hero to talk about his amazing journey, classical tradition, forthcoming concerts and more… What drew you towards the sitar and how do you look back on your journey with that instrument? My elder brother got me into the sitar. He was learning from a PhD student from India and took me with him once. I got hooked, then Shamshad Bai gave me her old sitar when she returned to India around 1957/8. It was badly damaged, but I kept it together with sellotape! Eventually my brother, who was later living in Mumbai and become a student of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, gave me my most beautiful sitar in 1964/5. Zia Mohiuddin Dagar had it especially made for me by the great sitar maker Hiren Roy from Kolkata. What is your most memorable live performance? This is a difficult one! I gave my first public recital at the Southbank Centre in 1971/2 with Ustad Faiyaz Khan accompanying me on tabla. In the same year I was invited to play for HRH Prince Charles just before his first visit to India. I gave my first recital in New Delhi in 1984 with my friend and teacher Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan on tabla. To have an audience who really understood the music with many famous names just a few feet away was daunting but successful. Ravi Shankar invited me to play for him when I was producing one of his UK tours. So there were many memorable moments. What was your most memorable collaboration as a sitar player? Playing in duets with the famous jazz pianist Stan Tracy and on a recording with John Williams and Beatles producer George Martin for the group SKY. Composing and playing for some film scenes with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and with Mikis Theodarakis for a film called Trojan Women. Also, playing with Indo-Jazz fusions in the 1970s, and on tabla with Jimmy Page and Led Zepellin. You became a driving force in getting funding for South Asian and Afro-Caribbean arts organisations in the 1980s from the Arts Council of Great Britain, which led to the formation of Asian Music Circuit (AMC) and you becoming its first chair. How do you look at the amazing journey AMC has taken? I set out in 1991 to show to the authorities here that there could be a successful well-run Asian arts company with total propriety, open, accountable, creative and contributing hugely to bringing communities together. One that also makes an impact, changes perceptions, and provides opportunities for young people to engage with and learn from the masters of Asia. The AMC did achieve all these things and made the UK a destination for the best of Indian music and also worked across Europe at many festivals. The AMC was the principal producer of Asian music for the BBC Proms. The most important achievement was to give Asian people a sense of identity and belonging. What have been your personal highlights from that journey? Creating Europe’s first museum of Asian music, which was opened by Prince Charles in 2007. Also staging the first Indian rock concert at the Royal Albert Hall with Shankar Ehsaan Loy, touring Ravi Shankar for a few years, and taking BBC3 to India to make documentaries on aspects of Indian music. Using concerts to raise funds for the earthquake victims in Gujarat and later in Pakistan! How has AMC been able to keep the classical tradition alive in an era where commercial genres like Bollywood dominate? Don’t forget that Bollywood music is still largely based in traditional Indian music. But it is a very Indian characteristic for Indians not to know about their own heritage and realise just how fantastic it is. They still try to do what the West does at the cost of losing Indian heritage. To me, this is madness. So for that reason AMC always focused on the best of traditional Indian music, including folk, devotional and classical, making it available at affordable prices to the public and helping other promoters around the UK. Tell us about AMC’s upcoming Music Of The Three Worlds festival? This takes us to the heart of the art traditions in India from the Vedic period. Our ancestors tried to understand the creator of everything, and from this desire an entire system of ethics, morality, aesthetics and philosophy evolved. The arts became a vital platform to express this yearning. Music was a fundamental way for such expression. Existence, consciousness and bliss/union with the divine became the three objects of understanding and knowledge. A huge variety of music genres evolved towards this end. Music Of The Three Worlds offers a glimpse of this with an exhibition of high academic standard, a symposium and wonderful concerts. Who do you hope connects with the performances? I have never tried to target any particular sector of society, and that’s why most of AMC’s audiences have not been just Indian and always been very mixed. Tell us about the exhibition… The arts became a vital platform for expressing a longing to be one with the divine. Artisans carved beautiful sculptures in temples, artists painted superb miniatures, poets said so much through words, and composers touched the deepest parts of the human mind and heart with music. Their work brought them closer to the divine. The important and unusual exhibition featuring works of well-known experts in the field of Indian history takes today’s generation into the past. What are you personally looking forward to most at the Music Of Three Worlds events? I would love people to feel they have been connected with Indian heritage, moved by the experience and had intuitive insights that could change their lives. What makes for a great live performance? A musician is a poet using music instead of words, so this medium becomes immediately more abstract. Just as a poet is a master of language able to express the deepest and subtlest of human emotions, a musician has to become master of their language, the ragas. They should have practiced to such an extent that they become free of physical efforts to sing or play and use the knowledge to spontaneously express experiences of the world without limitations. The whole performance should be a joint and mutual experience with the audience, who should show their approval. What advice would you give to aspiring musicians? Understand the values of practice and purpose of traditional Indian music, which is the most sophisticat-ed and highly-evolved system of music in the world. What are your hopes for Indian classical music? I hope the young realise that our traditional music since Vedic times will always be there and is permanent. Yes, people wish to explore fusion and collaborations with other music cultures, but all these are transitory and don’t have a long shelf life. However understanding our traditions equips us to far better perform music from anywhere. Who has been the most interesting and inspiring person you have met? Dr S Radhakrishnan, our former president of India and one of the world’s greatest philosophers. I met him when I was just eight, nine years old. My father gave me his copy of the Bhagvadgita, a literal translation and commentary by Radhakrishnan when I we-nt to university. I still read the same copy every day. What inspires and motivates you? I am motivated by the strong desire to learn more and get closer to understanding the vast depths of Indian philosophy. Music was and still remains for me the way to intuitively gain knowledge of our world. You are a sitar maestro, but if you could learn another instrument which would it be? I wish I could sing. In India the voice is the fundamental and most vital instrument, and you will find that all other instruments have evolved to try and emulate the voice. Even percussion instruments can modulate their pitch and tonal quality to emulate the spoken word. My style of playing the sitar is entirely based on emulating the voice. Why should we come to the Music Of Three Worlds concerts? The concerts are very high quality and the best of Indian music. They provide a context and insight into our music culture and hence have high educational value. Why do you love music? It is divine, it is Brahman itself! Indian music is who I am, it is my identity, and without that I am nothing. It is the way to peace and reconciliation. Music Of The Three Worlds exhibition runs from July 3-8 at Asia House in London, including an academic symposium. There are a series of concerts taking place from June 29-July 5. Visit www.amc.org.uk for more.