Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan, recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, describes the traditional technique of practice
“Only when the sweat runs on the floor will it be effective (Asar to tab hi aata hai jab farsh par paseene behte hain),” says tabla maestro Hashmat Ali Khan referring to the kind of practice required to become a successful musician. The khalifa (head) of the Ajrara gharana of tabla playing, the ustad who just received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2013 from the President of India, recalls his childhood in Meerut and in the court of Baroda. It was thanks to the rigorous training of his gurus and forefathers that he became not only a fine tabla player, but also a teacher at the age of 16.
“Music is such a delicate business that you may play a hundred tihais properly, but if you play even one with a slight mistake, people will start looking at each other. Sunne wale ka mood kharaab ho jaata hai (the listener’s mood is spoilt),” he notes.
For good training, gurukulavaas, or living with the guru, is essential feels the ustad. Apart from other advantages, living with the guru contributes to getting rid of the pupil’s ego or ahankar. “In the gurukul you have to sweep the floor, wash the guru’s clothes, wash the guru’s dishes,” he recalls. “We had four houses (for the family). I would fill water from the well for all the four households, and knead atta (chapatti dough) for all the four.”
Sometimes his father felt annoyed to see his young son being made to labour so, admits the maestro. But these were not mere domestic chores. Their twofold purpose was to instil in the student a spirit of service and physical stamina. “Kneading dough makes the hands pliable (mulayam), and drawing water from the well strengthens the hands and arm muscles,” he explains. Because the rope is always wet, the hands avoid getting calloused.
Taken to the court of Baroda as a child of about eight, he trained under his grandfather Ustad Mohammed Shafi Khan, who was among the navaratnas or chosen artists there. After India’s independence, when royal patronage came to an end and the artists dispersed, the young disciple came back to Meerut. He was then placed under the tutelage of the eminent Niaz Ahmed Khan or Niazu Khan.
The ustad speaks of another significant practice which he even now encourages his students to follow, albeit in a limited manner — the chilla, or chille mein baithna. This is a 40-day period during which the disciple stays up all night practising and sleeps during daytime. The intensity of the riyaaz (practice) should be such that “you sweat during winter,” says the ustad. “There would be a ghada (earthenware pot) full of water nearby, so the disciple could dip the hands to cool them off, and start playing again.”
The significance of riyaaz through the night, he says, is that this is a time of complete silence (sannata). “And after 3 a.m., Allah tala listens to you. You are trying so hard and praying, you will surely achieve success.”
The disciple is fed a diet rich in protein and fibre during the observance of chilla. Eating, practice, sleep, then more practice, these were the markers of the day. The young Hashmat would be given a large glass of milk with ground almonds, pistachios, ghee and other ingredients that supply heat to the body. Then he would be sent to sleep. “My grandfather would give me a pinch — I still have the mark — and wake me up at night, at 11 or 12 o’clock.” Did he mind? “Honestly, yes, I would grumble within myself. But the result of it all was that I got success, name and fame.”
Today, says the ustad, he is 80 years old. “But I can still play.”
Another reason perhaps, for his continuing dexterity, is that he has taken to heart his guru’s injunction that knowledge only grows with sharing. “If my grandfather saw a boy is not amounting to much, he would say, chal bhai, start learning the tabla. He told me, ‘Ilm ko chalaane se chalti hai (passing on knowledge brings greater knowledge).’ And only the one who pours his sweat and dedication into the job can move forward. It all depends on how much you practise. There are many who are knowledgeable, but their hands don’t move.”