Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan talk about the school of music that they plan to set up in Kochi and the kind of teaching that shapes a great musician.
There’s this sensitive moment in James Beveridge’s The Sarod Player, one of the quartets of films made on Indian music. It shows a young Amjad Ali Khan leaning towards his father Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, repeating a question asked of his father who had become hard of hearing by then. Hafiz Ali Khan is seen nodding his head in understanding. The scene is interpreted as an eloquent treatise on the guru-shishya tradition.
At a time when Amjad Ali Khan, a product of this time-tested tradition, is set to establish an academy in Kochi, a long-cherished dream, has it been the changing times that prompted him to push for institutionalised music? It seemed Amjad Ali Khan was ready for this question.
“You see, historically we have had this method. The student used to serve the guru patiently. That relationship existed and it still exists. Now, after more than 200 years of British rule, we have taken so much from the British, their way of life that we also began to accept the institutionalised system of learning. Along with that came commercialisation of education. So, today we treat students as clients and cement blocks have turned institutions. And when a creative person achieves certain goals of life, he can be regarded as an institution. Cemented buildings are not very essential for education, especially for music.”
The Ustad remembers his father, his guru, during his last days. There were hardly any disciples around. “But we were there for him. Nowadays disciples have their own agenda; to look ahead at their own future. This is not wrong. But who will look after the guru, especially those with no children. I know of so many of them who have suffered a lot during the fag end of their lives.”
Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan, Amjad Ali Khan’s sons, have been fortunate in having their father as their guru. “I think what is happening now is that you have a new breed of musicians who are extremely brilliant; a YouTube generation, who have access to recordings and information on all artistes. They follow this closely, attend online classes. This is convenient, but at the same level the sanctity is lost. More than music, there is so much more we got from our father-guru. Training and tips, such as being respectful, good manners and all that. Develop etiquette and, I think, good music will follow. Ultimately your music is what you are and will be reflected on stage during a performance,” says Ayaan.
The guru has also changed. He is one who is extremely ‘flexible’ either because he has no choice or is happy about being what he is. “I think every guru is responsible for his destiny, like the student. We know of gurus who physically abuse their students. The students, naturally, have nothing good to say about the guru. Personally I believe that the guru-shishya relationship should be like that of parents and children. It depends on how they act and react. You get what you give. If we are so attached to my father and mother it is because they have given us their valuable time,” adds Amaan.
Education, Amjad Ali Khan, thinks is not one that imparts information alone but one that makes life better. “With all respect to the pioneers and greats I feel that education, as we see it today, has not been to create compassion, kindness in a human being. We find people with PhD’s so communal, so many highly-educaed people have moved to terrorism. In this case, I don’t know if education is an essentiality. People who have read a lot of books and cleared examinations are not educated if they are communal, bigoted, selfish, ruthless. These people are a liability to the society.”
Ustad Hafiz Khan had always reminded Amjad Ali Khan about the two parallel worlds of music. One based on lyrics, text, language, the other based on sound. “Words seem to rule the world. In music we have the kriti or the lyrics. They are very popular. We also have meaningless words that somehow turn popular. Ironically those with a message often don’t reach the people. Words are manipulated. But in the case of sound this does not happen. It is transparent. That’s why in Hindu mythology sound is described as ‘Swar he ishwar hai’ (Sound is God). Saint Tyagaraja says the same thing in his kriti ‘Sogasuga mridanga taalamu…’ (Who is the valiant one enchanting you by harmonising so pleasurably the mridangam and the tala) set to Sriranjini raag. This world may not be as popular as those based on text but it is pure music,” explains Amjad Ali Khan.
Unfortunately youngsters fail to realise the divinity of music. “There are those who learn music only to release an album, or to participate in a reality show. What happens after this? I have seen talented youngsters fade away. They are in need for a guru, in need of guidance. Here, I think, the parents need to decide whether they want their children to make money or become true musicians.”
It is in this context that Amjad Ali Khan’s academy becomes relevant. “The institution I propose to start will include all kinds of musicians. I am not coming to teach the sarod. Of course, I will do it if there are students to learn. But I am coming here to listen to the talented young musicians whether they belong to the Western system, South Indian or North Indian music. It is high time we stop calling our systems Carnatic and Hindustani. Music is not of one religion, any one region. We need to merge these two systems. I hope to spend time here and guide the youngsters. Of course, I need my sons to take equal interest in the academy to achieve the goal.”
Amaan revealed that initial discussion with his father had been done but they still had to go to the drawing board and make a detailed project. “We need to decide what the syllabus would be and other details. But obviously it will be in sync, guided by Soorya Krishnamoorthy. We will go about it step-by-step. It will probably take us a year to begin.”