For Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan, being a good musician entails knowing the fine arts of cooking, conversation and interpersonal relations too

Neither time nor place can bind a true artist. Days and nights are merely bookmarks in a long story of hard work and unshakeable dedication. So it makes sense that when we decide to meet Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan, the tabla maestro who has recently been named in the list of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipients for 2013 (to be given out in April 2014), it is at the 24-hour Café Uno in Shangri-La hotel.

Viewed through the restaurant’s picture windows, the freezing grey day turns into an appealing tableau. Blooming flowers nod against the panes, goldfish swim in the tanks below. The lawn and fountains ripple in the chill breeze, but we are assailed with the warm fragrance of baked confections and samplings of world cuisine.

In case this sets people thinking that musical success is all about the good life, any musician will tell you that is not the case. On the whole it is a path paved with the labour of each traveller — and bathed with sweat, as the ustad points out — but it is a labour that brings its own rewards. So there is contentment on the face of the maestro as he states that he accepts the honour from the Akademi with gratitude, no matter that it has come when he is hovering near the age of 80. “I don’t consider whether it is late or early. I know that recognition and awards will come only when the Almighty is ready to bestow them on us,” he says over coffee and cookies.

Talking of his early days, growing up in a family steeped in classical music for over seven generations, the ustad, who is currently the doyen (khalifa) of the Ajrara gharana of tabla, says, “My childhood was spent in Meerut. My grandfather, Ustad Mohammed Shafi Khan, was one of the navaratnas (‘nine gems’, a category that signified the best artists at a royal court) of the Maharaja of Baroda. When I was about eight or nine, he took me with him to Baroda, and that is where I received my taleem.”

Once India gained independence, the princely states dissolved. The young Hashmat returned to Meerut. “My father put me under the tutelage of Ustad Niazu Khan whom I addressed as Tayaji,” he relates.

“Then I came to Delhi. In 1957, I was made a teacher at Bharatiya Kala Kendra.” The now famous institution in Mandi House was then located in 5-B Pusa Road. “I remember it well,” he smiles. “I was hardly 16 or 17.” Living alone, he learnt to cook for himself. Asked to name his special recipes, he laughs shyly, “I can cook all the basic dishes.”

Down the generations, we have heard of great classical musicians also being great cooks and gourmets. “It’s true. One who likes to eat also knows how to cook,” he notes.

There must be something in the profession that leads to this: On the one hand, classical music is the pursuit of spirituality, where material comforts are not important, but on the other hand, art contains the distilled essence of the entire gamut of human experience — all the rasas. The ustad agrees. “Yes, when you learn to be a good musician, you also learn about the niceties of food and drink, of dressing and of culture in general, how to interact with others.”

As chicken sandwiches arrive we go on to other phases of Hashmat Ali Khan’s life. When he got a national scholarship (“250 rupees,” he recalls with precision), he returned to Meerut. He had been continuing his musical education with his uncle and grandfather while at Bharatiya Kala Kendra (BKK), but when the scholarship came, Sumitra Charatram, the well known art patron and founder of the institution, advised him to go back and concentrate solely on developing his art rather than remain bogged down in teaching to earn a living.

In 1972, he was sent by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to British Guyana in South America for a three-year teaching stint at the Indian Cultural Centre there. This was not his first trip abroad, since he had travelled to London with BKK earlier, but did adapting to a new place also require training the palate to foreign tastes? “There were many Indians in Guyana, and you could buy all the Indian ingredients,” he remarks. “At first I went with my sons (Akram Khan, now a well known tabla exponent, and Aslam Khan, sarodist), and I used to cook myself. Later my wife joined me.”

This was the first of three such postings abroad. In later years he went to Fiji and to Moscow. During his trips abroad he was on deputation from All India Radio, which also posted him in different parts of the country, including Srinagar and New Delhi.

“I am the only artist to have been sent three times to the Indian Cultural Centres,” he says proudly. What has helped him through his career, says the ustad, is his principle of sharing the gift of knowledge he got from his gurus with all students, regardless of whether they are from his own family or not, from musical gharanas or not. “People don’t teach properly. It is not just now, it’s always been so. Most want to teach only their own children. My grandfather always told me knowledge grows when you share it.”