Australian Alan Posselt has been a performing sitarist for the last 40 years. He says that he is proud to be a part of the great Indian musical tradition.
The sleepy, dusty village of Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, was not in Alan Posselt's scheme of things when he landed in Delhi sometime in the late 60s. He landed in the Capital with no clear road map to guide him in his mission to learn Hindustani classical music.
Back home in New South Wales Alan was taken in by the rich, mysterious, magical music of the sitar he had chanced to hear. Trained in Western classical music Alan thought that there was so much more intrinsic in the music he had heard for the first time. The sitar took him to India.
“I had a friend in Delhi who told me that to begin with I had to buy a sitar. He then told me to head to Maihar, the birthplace of Maihar Gharana, lorded over by the doyen of Indian classical music, Ustad Allauddin Khan. I followed his instructions and headed to Maihar,” recollects Alan, Australia's finest sitarist known for his virtuoso performances and boundless understanding of Indian classical music.
For more than a year Alan stayed in Maihar. A tiny room in an ancient rest house built by the British became his home. The guru-shishya relationship is one most Westerners were not familiar with. But for Alan it turned out to be a lifelong commitment. “Baba, as everyone affectionately and respectfully called Allauddin Khan Saheb, was pretty old then. I was fortunate that he agreed to teach me the rudiments of vocal technique, the basics of the sitar and sarod. He was frail and spent just a little time everyday with me. He used to be very forgetful. When I played or sang what he had taught me the previous day he often got angry and asked me from where I had learnt that.”
But nothing could keep Alan down, not even the harsh conditions and the spicy, hot Indian food. “I slowly got used to everything, even Baba's inconsistent moods. But he was so good, so caring. I felt that his attendants were fussy never letting me meet him except for the scheduled classes. Baba used to tell me to come in the afternoon when everybody in the house took a siesta, knock at his window, and he used to let me in not noticed by his attendants.”
Alan returned home only to be back in the country of his calling very soon. “By this time Baba was really ill, so I travelled to Bengal to study under Radhika Mohan Maitre, one of the leading lights of the Shahjahanpur Gharana. This was, in a sense, the most fruitful phase of my career.” After Maitre's death, Alan continued his studies under eminent musicians like Kashinath Mukherjee, Bimal Mukherjee, Prabud Chatterjee, V. G. Jog and Pandit Arvind Parikh.
"I have benefited from all these great masters, especially Arvind Parikh. The chairman of Lemur Group, Arvind has successfully juggled business and music. He is a leading sitarist and student of Ustad Vilayat Khan. From him I picked up the Imdadkhani Gharana style. So it has been a long, continuous learning process.”
Using all this musical experience and knowledge Alan has been able to evolve a style of his own. Back home he enjoys great success as composer for documentary films, for Sydney Dance Company, the UK-based Ballet Rambert, opera for companies in the Netherlands and more. For all these compositions Alan has fused elements of Indian classical music.
“What makes Indian music so special is that it provides so much room for improvisation. Western classical is so structured that I was in search of a style of music that would give structured improvisation. Before travelling to India I did try to find it in Persian Dastgah and Takseem that is so popular in the Middle East. But this search ended when I sat before Allauddin Khan.”
Of late Alan has been actively involved in the dissemination of Indian classical music through teaching and occasional performances. For a while he lectured on ethno-musicology in various universities in Australia. He has also written and presented a series on Indian classical music on ABC Radio.
Moving to Adelaide Alan set up The Music Room, a centre for teaching Indian classical music. “I must have taught at least a hundred students by now.” He has also produced two albums: ‘Sitar From India' and ‘Ragas of Dawn and Twilight.'
Alan has performed in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Kochi (Tripunithura), Kerala Kalamandalam, and is preparing for his first performance in Kolkata.
So far this Aussie has been uncompromising in his loyalty to Indian classical music and nothing could persuade him to deviate from tradition. “For the past 40 years I have been a votary of this great tradition. But looking back I often wonder whether it was really worth it. I had thought that by 2010-11 the world and cultures would come together much more closely. But I think I was wrong. In a place like Australia there are still very few takers for this great tradition. Opportunities are rather scarce. And I cannot but continue to play….,” Alan ponders for a while.
Then, even as he gets up to board the waiting car, says, “Every time I land in India I feel that I'm coming home. This is where I belong. The culture shock begins when I reach Australia. Maybe I was born here in my previous birth.”