Renuka George's documentary on Ustad Asad Ali Khan is informative and artistic.

Ustad Asad Ali Khan is the most distinguished Rudra veena player of our country today, belonging to an extraordinary lineage of Rudra vainikas for seven generations. Khan Saheb's forefathers were illustrious representatives of the Beenkar gharana of Jaipur founded by the 18th Century beenkar Shahaji Saheb. Ustad Asad Ali Khan and his ancestors played the Khandar bani mentioned in music treatises as one of the four banis of Dhrupad. The razor sharp tonal quality of this gharana is further enhanced by Asad Ali Khan's individual style and his intense sensitivity for melody and rhythm.

His father Ustad Sadiq Ali served in the Alwar court before he moved to the Rampur court. It was at Rampur that Asad Ali was born and initiated into the instrument by his father, when he was just six. Fourteen hours of practice every day for 15 years was the painstaking discipline he was put through until the Rudra veena itself became a part of his existence.

His father studied the same way under his grandfather Ustad Musharraf Ali Khan, who in turn was groomed by Khan Saheb's great grandfather the legendary Ustad Rajab Ali Khan. All this and much more about the ustad, his instrument and his musical journey is sensitively portrayed in a film, “Ustad Asad Ali Khan — A Portrait” (Suroor Productions), directed and produced by Renuka George.

The film, screened not long back in New Delhi, opens with Khan Saheb playing raga Darbari at the royal palace of Rampur, as a tribute to his ancestors who played the Rudra veena in similar royal courts. He talks about his intimate association with this historical place where he was groomed by his father. The deep resonance of the meditative alap in the mandra saptak (the lower octave) serves as the most appropriate background music when he says “all those melodious sounds are still alive in my memory.”

The grandeur of the regal raga Darbari and the darbar, the royal palace, are both minutely captured by the sensitive camera of Avijit Mukul Kishore, establishing at once the extraordinary quality of Khan Saheb's music and his illustrious lineage.

Authentic voice

The film sounds so authentic because it is presented as the ustad's story being narrated by the artiste himself. There is the description of Khas Bagh built in 1930, where Nawab Raza Ali enjoyed his musical mehfils. Then there are shots of the house where Khan Saheb spent his younger days till 1962 when his father was requested by Pandit V.N. Bhatkhande to join Marris Music College Lucknow, presently known as Bhatkhande Music College, where he taught till he passed away in 1964. Khan Saheb is also captured passing on this precious musical heritage to the next generation, while giving taalim to his adopted son and disciple Zaki Haider.

He narrates the mythological story of the creation of the Rudra veena by Lord Shiva himself, before he describes in detail different parts of the instrument, the mizrab (plectrum) and its application, the discipline required for practising this instrument sitting in Vajraasan and the paakeezagi (purity of character) expected from its practitioner; besides the role of the pakhawaj as its accompanying percussion instrument, and about talas like Sool-Fakhta which according to him is “Ussol-e-Fakhta” based on the rhythmic chirping of the bird faakhta.

The film also has delightful renditions of ragas like Pilu, which one never hears Khan Saheb play in formal concerts, demonstrating how delicately his father Sadiq Ali treated ragas like Pilu and Kafi. Then there are seasonal monsoon ragas like Miyan Malhar, and Shuddha Sarang which he plays when talking of the discipline of time theory in Hindustani music. Pandit L.K. Pandit, Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar and Ghulam Sadiq Khan share their impressions of his music and his musical lineage. The film concludes with a melodious Gaud Sarang bandish “Piyu pal na laagi” sung by Khan Saheb where the Pancham is redolent with the unique fragrance of a hidden Madhyam.