An exclusive, freewheeling interview with sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan.
HE was in Chennai to ring in the New Year at the Madras Music Academy, accompanied by sons Amaan and Ayaan. The recital triggered flashbacks. For sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan's first visit to the city was in 1958, to perform with father and guru Hafiz Ali Khan. The Music Academy was then a thatched pandal. Shambhu Maharaj, the Dagar Brothers and Balasaraswati were among the other participants. Madras was also where he found his wife Subhalakshmi (then Borooah) a student of Kalakshetra. South India always fascinated Amjad Ali Khan. In Carnatic music he saw the union of discipline and mathematics. The respect for rachita (composed) music in the Carnatic system made him reflect. "Compositions were created to preserve the raga. But Hindustani musicians ignored them and focussed only on their own improvisations," he explains. Amjad Ali Khan was the first Hindustani musician to pay tribute to Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru, playing the saint's kriti in Sriranjani. "It was Tyagaraja's fate to be born on the banks of the Cauvery. Neither Tansen nor Swami Haridas get the kind of homage he does," he smiles. The import of "Sogasuga" moved him. "See Tyagaraja's humility and truthfulness in asking, `is it possible to understand the seven notes in a single lifetime?' You can lie through language, but there can be no untruth in music making. You feel God, and feel connected." He found this happening on the previous day at Aruna Sairam's concert. "More than the singing, I was overwhelmed by the involvement of the people in that packed hall. As an artiste this is what makes me proud and happy. To see photographs of musicians everyday in the major daily and serious writing on music... In Delhi all culture is for Page Three," he shrugs. The media plays a frightening role today, he admits. But he knows that hype alone cannot make for lasting fame."I'm not supposed to think, though our country is a democracy," he continues. Nobody talks about music, even to musicians. But everyone expects sound bytes from musicians on politics, modelling, lifestyle. "I feel suffocated in this society," says Khansaheb. "I pretend, I act, I'm trying to adjust, but not beyond a certain point."
Freedom to innovate
After the rain of awards, honours and international fame, what does purity of tradition mean to him? "Music is my passion. I feel embarrassed to say it's my profession. I don't play everywhere and in any situation; only when my terms and conditions are met. That's the biggest difference between an entertainer and a classical musician committed to his tradition." He has turned his family home in Gwalior into a musical centre. He dwells on the difference between tradition and convention. He respects tradition because it offers freedom to innovate. Blind convention breeds sterility.How does he view his children's stepping out beyond the classical idiom into fusion and television shows? "If today's children play classical music, it is the wish of God. So many distractions, bigger challenges. I was happy that every piece in the fusion album `Reincarnation' by Amaan and Ayaan is based on ragas. Anyway, even fusion is based on the seven notes.''As a child, when he tried out a melodic combination of Bhatiyar, Anandbhairav, Bhairav and Gunkali, his traditionalist father encouraged him. This became Raag Sohagbhairav. "There are always bhoot-pret (ghosts and ghouls) around. We have to face them without fear." Tradition can be extended, recharged, reinvented if there is enough commitment to win through. The Ustad is convinced that the ancient guru-sishya parampara is dead. "Not that gurus are perfect," he explains. "But often sishyas come with plans and agendas. When their purpose is over, they claim they are better than their gurus."Nor has academic education made people kinder or taught the world that the power, which ordains birth and death, is the same for all. That is why he did not ask his wife to convert to his religion. Education will have little value unless it promotes oral exchanges on culture and tradition beyond textbooks. Khansaheb himself is not sorry that he has never been able to read books. But he has written his own "Biography of Music" in sound. He is not without hope. Some countries do not understand that despite all the violence and disruptions, "Amjad Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan were created by India". He adds forcefully, "Amjad Ali Khan plays the sarod, but Hemendrachandra Sen makes it." How did he develop this liberal secularism with so conservative a background? "My father was religious but not a fundamentalist." In 1960, after conferring the Padma Bhushan on Hafiz Ali Khan, when Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of India, asked him what more he could do for the maestro, Hafiz Ali Khan replied, "Please take care of Raag Durbari. Mian Tansen created it. Now people are taking liberties with it." Young Amjad was an embarrassed witness to this exchange. "At that time we had nothing. But my father thought we had everything. I was fortunate to have known this." He has often paid tributes to his wife. He has even composed a raag to express his love and gratitude. His voice gleams when he talks about his sons. "My father used to say, be multi-dimensional, but don't spill everything you know in a single concert," Amjad Ali Khan concludes. Presentation is the most challenging skill of an artiste. Books cannot teach it. Only reflection and experience can teach him that a showroom cannot display everything from the storehouse. An entertainer has no commitment, but the representative of a grand tradition bears great responsibilities.As you left with best wishes for the New Year, you wondered if centuries ago, when an Afghan horse trader Mohammed Hashmi Khan Bangash brought a musical instrument to India, could he have dreamt that it would become part of Indian classical music? Or that his descendents would establish the Senia gharana? And six generations later, the sarod was going to become renowned throughout the world?