Friday Review

The making of the Ustad

Ustad Aashish Khan in performance.  

Visits to India by California-based Ustad Aashish Khan are limited; his concerts even more so. As the khalifa of the Senia Maihar gharana, even if today it’s a notional title, Ustad Aashish Khan is an imposing figure, with otherworldliness, reminiscent of a fakir. As we talk on the sidelines of Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, his lack of guile comes across instantly; perhaps a result of the ashram-like atmosphere he lived in, and clearly imbibed, while living with his saintly grandfather Baba Allaudin Khan. His music is a rare blend of tradition and innovation, combining purity of raga with traditional sarod virtuosity.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about memories of your early life in Maihar and how the place shaped you as a musician.

From my early childhood I lived with my grandparents, as my parents were in Lucknow. I was raised by them, and my bua (aunt) Annapurnaji who also lived there at the time. I got taalim from Baba, along with my brothers and sisters and cousin Shubho (Annapurnaji and Ravi Shankarji’s son). Pranesh, my brother used to accompany us; his hands would barely reach the dholak ends! (he laughs)

We had a private tutor. We were taught vocal music too. I don’t have any specific anecdotes of my grandfather but I do remember he told us a lot about his struggle to learn music, as his Gurus would only teach him up to a point. Even with Ustad Wazir Khan in Rampur he had to wait for five years before he was finally given taalim. His Guru was testing him.

I was scared of my grandfather as I was so young, but he loved me very much and tried to give me all he had; I received what I could as I was so small. He was definitely my main Guru, though, of course, my father (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) and Annapurnaji are also my Gurus.

I went to live with my parents in Calcutta later. My father used to teach me, along with Pandit Nikhil Bannerji and others. I used to also play with him sometimes. I, of course, visited my grandparents periodically for taalim.

You have lived in the West for years. When did you first move out?

I went with my father to Japan in 1962, on a tour called the East-West Encounter. Then in 1967 he took me to America for the first time, to assist him in teaching music at a summer school in Berkeley. In 1968 Pandit Ravi Shankar also took me to the US, to his Kinara School of Music in Los Angeles. After that I decided to settle there permanently.

In the 1970s I formed a band Shakti which was very popular – this was pre-Chicago and pre-Santana.

I am teaching music full time at the California Institute of the Arts at Valencia Los Angeles since the last 10 years now. It’s a full time job for me, so I don’t get time to practice much or perform in concerts.

What did you learn from Vidushi Annapurna Devi?

She taught me the technique of aalap for the first time when I was about 10, when my grandfather was away – as a surprise gift to him. After that he started teaching me aalap. Also, she was the first one to teach me how to play the “Da ra” bol on different strings – the ekhara taan. This was a new technique on the sarod for us. Other gharanas cheat and play da da – it’s very difficult to change from da to ra when you are playing on four strings.

What is your take on the younger Maihar gharana exponents?

Times are different from when I was learning. Now one has to struggle for survival so I suppose they play the way they have to. But my suggestion is, don’t try to copy others, I don’t like that. Our gharana has so much to offer – Pandit Ravi Shankar, my father, Pandit Nikhil Bannerji….

Amongst my good students in Calcutta are Aatish, Debanjan, Amit, Dishari Chakravarty on santoor…and, of course, my own nephew Shiraz Ali whom I am teaching very seriously.

Tell us about your Bangladeshi roots and the massive Bengal Foundation Festival held annually in Dhaka.

I have never been invited there; maybe it’s some kind of politics. I have had no contact from them.

(At this point Ustad Pranesh Khan. his brother, interjected with a laugh, and said, “Maybe you have not yet reached that stature as a musician to be invited”!)

Will you ever consider returning to India permanently?

Yes I am considering this, maybe after some time.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 11:17:31 PM |

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