The Story of Haaﬁz Ali Khan and My World: Amjad Ali Khan;
Lotus Collection, M-75, Greater Kailash 2 Market, New Delhi-110048. Rs. 595
After the Padma Bhushan awards ceremony in 1960, the awardees and guests were having tea at the Mughal Gardens. Then President Rajendra Prasad walked up to him and asked if he was comfortable and well, and whether he could be of any help. “By the grace of God, I am well,” he said. His petition, however, came as an after thought. “Please protect and preserve the sanctity of Raga Darbari Kanhara”, he told the President.
Haafiz Ali Khan, acclaimed Sarod exponent of the 20th century, and father of the celebrated Amjad Ali Khan felt that as Badshah, President Rajendra Prasad could help preserve the raga in its original form at a time when he thought people were taking too many liberties with it. Khan Saheb’s priorities were clear. He did not care for much else than music. That, says son Amjad Ali Khan, defines his ‘Abba’, in My Father, Our Fraternity.
This work is essentially a father’s story told by a loving son. When the father also happens to be the guru — the sentiments switch from love to respect, and adoration to awe from time to time. With sepia-tinted vintage photographs — many that reflect the charm of Gwalior in the early 20th century — on glace paper, the book is a classy compilation, standing out in its production quality. Once every few pages, a majestic-looking, well-built Haafiz Ali Khan sporting a trimmed beard, stands with shoulders upright, flanked by his family or disciples, without a hint of a smile, or you see him bending over his instrument to fine-tune the strings with evident focus.
Facts and anecdotes
Like that fine balance of melody and rhythm in music, Khan’s narrative strives for a good mix of facts and anecdotes, with the photographs introducing another charming dimension to the past. It is a memoir that not only gives readers a sense of Haafiz Ali Khan’s life and times, but also the circumstances that nurtured the musician in Amjad Ali Khan. Many art forms in India — including most classical and folk traditions — were handed down by one generation to another primarily within the family.
The masters had disciples or ‘shishyas’ but often, they too conformed to the familial traditions and practices, at times drawing criticism for promoting the feudal nature of the set up. In a chapter where he talks about his household, Amjad Ali Khan touches upon this aspect well.
He reflects on how restrictive the environment was for his mother Rahat Jahan Begum who, like most mothers of that generation, knew no world outside home, and few people outside family. Khan looks at the family structure in some depth, pointing to equations between his half-brother (his father’s first wife’s son) and his mother, and the untold oppression of women in many families of that time. These are the portions that make a difference to the book. Even as you read the story of Haafiz Ali Khan, the author periodically shines the spotlight on the society at that time and some of the prevalent practices.
Khan makes some interesting points while talking about his ancestors and their links to royalty — his great grandfather Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash was a court musician in Lucknow. Referring to times when the world of arts allowed for “religious syncretism”, Khan recalls his father’s view that often, Hindu maharajas gave more respect to classical musicians irrespective of their religion. Khan treads this part cautiously and is careful not to glorify the tradition. While royal patronage can be good for an artiste’s purse and ego, it often denied the common subject access to the classical arts.
His commentary on contemporary institutions such as the All India Radio is particularly relevant today. He says while the AIR has, for long, been a major source of support to the classical arts, its inherent bureaucratic nature, at times, results in deserving musicians not getting recognition in time. Also, he suggests that there is a certain indifference to understanding depth or nuance in art, promoting a culture of patronage that is not necessarily informed by sincere art appreciation.
There is considerable material in the book to illustrate Haafiz Ali Khan’s calibre as an artiste. Scholar Subroto Roy Chowdhury notes that by the time he [Haafiz Ali Khan] was sixteen the little Ustad could make his Sarod sing. The fine musician, who seems to have been overshadowed by his more successful son, was also a thinking musician.
Khan Saheb’s said concerns about preserving raga music which, he believed, could be achieved only through precision and a good sense of proportion are shared by many contemporary musicians. As he saw the world around him change fast, he seems to have invested a lot of thought on keeping the art form relevant.
The prose is easy and highly readable, but somewhere along the way, the book — with chapters named sa, re, ga ma... after the musical notes — is more about Amjad Ali Khan, and less about the father. There are also frequent references to his sons Amaan and Ayaan, who are now musicians in their own right. The shift appears conscious, as if to say Khan Saheb’s music is alive in his son, and his sons.
All the same, the attempt is commendable, for it dusts a near-forgotten chapter in the music history of India back to life. Also, when a musician like Amjad Ali Khan is telling this story, people tend to listen.
(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Sri Lanka correspondent)