"Vivacious" is the adjective that best describes her. The joie de vivre in her voice is infectious. Ustad Maa Zila Khan, the daughter of sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, is in her own league as a Sufi singer. Her rich repertoire includes dramatic folk songs, classical ragas, ghazals, Arabic and Persian songs, bhakti soul sangeet and Sufi music in its pure form.
A singer, actor and theatre artist, she combines the melody, expression and articulation of three art forms and blends them into the artistic finesse that defines her. As her play Gauhar is staged in Delhi and Gurgaon, she talks about handling acting and singing on stage, her love for Sufi music and life in all its diversity.
Acting and singing and that too on stage is a tough combination…
Acting "fell into my lap". Sanjay Leela Bhansali asked me to play Ruhani Begum in his film Bajirao Mastani and Lillete Dubey offered me the play Gauhar. Both the roles were tough. But I could handle them only because both the directors had confidence in me. It was their confidence that made me take these roles in the first place. Even when I was a child I would always push my skill set boundaries. And that’s what I do even today. I like to experiment and see where and to what extent I can stretch myself.
I used to learn classical music from my father Ustad Vilayat Khan for 14-16 hours every day. But it was my intense desire to extent my limits and expand my horizon that made me do a lot of other things — poetry, reading, etc. I loved to read the Mahabharat, the Ramayan, Kahlil Gibran, the description of the ras-leela of Radha-Krishna. All these stories fascinated me. I was enthralled by the fact of how Radha felt like the chosen one for Krishna seeking all his attention and admiration. I identified with the feelings and emotions of Radha. Likewise, acting too was part of my varied interest.
How did you think of opting for Sufi music?
I had been singing different types of music but the inner child in me found the rhythmic beat of Sufi music full of masti. The lyrics and the beat were fun-loving. It was about celebrating the Creator in his many facets. There was a sort of passionate mysticism to the whole concept of Sufism. And so the music came as a natural choice to me.
Tell us about your role in Gauhar…
I play both Malka Jaan as well as the elder Gauhar. It was a huge task to handle my one hour of dialogue in a two-hour duration of live stage performance. Lillete Dubey, the director, has done a great job with bringing the story of this forgotten singer to the masses. It is a form of revival and I personally see this role as another way of reviving my art and paying tribute to my artist fraternity. And Lillete brings quality to her production in a very refined way.
Apart from music, what other things interest you?
I am a very simple soul. I believe in doing a lot of things and living in the here and now. At the same time I like to keep myself grounded. I have grown up with the best intellectual minds — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Jean Paul Sartre — writers, poets, film makers from around the world. I have seen the ups and downs of these magnificent personalities. So I believe that one must not miss out on the 'now'. I don’t let the simple loveliness of life pass by. I capture every moment in the best possible way. I love movies, theatre, art, good home furnishings, all kinds of good food. And I revel in the fact that India celebrates me as a Sufi singer.
What are your upcoming projects?
Lots of concerts, plays and films..
Who is Zila Khan — the person?
Humko khud hi nahi pata hum kya hain. What is life without a bit of mystery, mysticism and the unknown? If there is no layering in your personality then what is the fun of life? Every minute that you live, you do not know how you surprise yourself.
Some of Zila Khan's projects:
Khan’s album – Zila The Girl Child – was all about her constant endeavour to push woman empowerment, gender equality and education.
UstādGāh - the institution set up by Khan provides opportunities to the lesser privileged but talented children inclined towards music. Here they are trained and educated in music for 4-5 years.
OneZone Festivals — a commercial musical venture, the festival aims to protect the environment and preserve the rich cultural heritage of India through the medium of music.
The Fez project — the online music albums combine traditional singing with beat-boxing, electronic, rock, jazz, EDM and other new-age music for the youth.