MUSIC Murad Ali, a prolific voice of the sarangi, doesn’t shy away from fusion
Aday after his rousing concert at Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore last week, the interview with Murad Ali takes place not at a typical auditorium green room – but at the glamorous, city-overlooking outdoor balcony at the Windmills Craftworks.
This is a venue which has previously hosted excellent jazz, fusion and even the occasional classical act; yet, it remains, with its microbrewery and restaurant setup, a relatively unusual venue for a concert of Indian classical music. This didn’t go unnoticed by Murad Ali; hesitant to launch into a full-fledged classical concert or the initially announced lecture-demonstration, he decided to play a concert of thumri and dadra instead.
Ali, a sixth-generation sarangi player, was born and raised in Delhi; his ancestors hail from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, home of many famous musicians, and sarangi players in particular. Ali received his training from his grandfather, the virtuoso Ustad Siddique Ahmad Khan, and his father Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan. The Moradabad gharana is known for its focus on teaching sarangi students the entire gamut of vocal music before beginning lessons on the instrument. Ali tells me this is because of the sarangi’s similarity to the voice. “The sarangi has a very special tone; you feel like someone is singing. The same taleem is shared between the vocal and sarangi music, and they have the same forms, such as khayals and thumris.” He started learning vocal music from his father at the age of seven; by 10, he had begun on the sarangi. “My father gave me all the taleem, as well as advice and mannerisms for the world of music,” said Ali.
For an instrument as expressive as the sarangi, it isn’t as prominently seen as you would expect, for a number of reasons. From the difficulty of its technique to possibly declining popularity among students of Hindustani instruments. Khan thinks that while a bit of a fillip is needed in India, the instrument is having a moment. “People were saying it’s a dying instrument, but now it’s been used in Bollywood, in fusion experiments.”
Indeed, he’s contributed to the instrument’s renaissance in popular culture. For instance, in 2005, Ali put together a ‘Saurangi’ festival, consisting of an orchestra of sarangi players, in which musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan also participated. It had never been done before for the sarangi, and Ali counts as a triumph the fact that it gained visibility for the sarangi, a kind of centrestage that was rare to come by.
And the young sarangi maestro isn’t averse to dabbling in film and fusion music, having lent his instrument to films such as Lage Raho Munnabhai or Khamosh Pani , and memorably to the opening notes of Shubha Mudgal’s “Seekho Na”. In fact, he sees the work of composers like Shantanu Moitra, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and AR Rahman as helping to keep the sarangi alive. “Some of the new crop of composers use the sarangi innovatively – even if in one song, they use it. Everyone else is obsessed with electronic music. This is a bit upsetting.”
Fusion and Bollywood are all well, but his love remains classical music. “It is rich. As an experiment, I don’t mind paying fusion or jazz, blues – I like all kinds. But classical music? It can be played all night, we often don’t even rehearse together...it is rich.”
Murad Ali teaches, but not too often because he is busy travelling. “Whoever asks me to teach them, I send them to my father. When there is someone senior to me in the house, it isn’t good for me to teach. I tell prospective students, upar jao .”