The Hindu November Fest

I am conscious that unlike language, I cannot manipulate sound: Amjad Ali Khan

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Amjad Ali Khan talks about the appeal of Indian classical music, the futility of categorising it as Carnatic and Hindustani, and using music to unite people

Amjad Ali Khan belongs to the sixth generation of the Senia Bangash Gharana. The artiste, who was trained by his father Hafiz Ali Khan, is much-loved as one of the tallest masters to grace the music world.

The Long of It!

Where do you think the appeal of Indian classical music lies? And how have you been connecting with audiences worldwide?

Every musician whether from the North or South has to think about how to present and what to present in the chosen composition. Presentation, to my mind is very important. Unfortunately, some of us get carried away and present a composition as if we are at home and practising. It becomes an exercise in self-indulgence. It is perhaps a sign of our weakness that when we find a good audience, we feel we can show everything we have in our arsenal. But the time has come when we have to understand the time of the audience and respect them.

Do recall, that all the great masters became famous with their three-minute rendering on 78 rpm. When I was invited to play at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2014, the time given to me was five minutes. My first reaction was to refuse but we took it as a challenge. Here is my suggestion: Be precise and give importance to composition. In Carnatic, practitioners pay importance to kriti. In the North, you will find artists playing alaap, jodh jhala constantly; following a convention without questioning. Much the same way people blindly follow religion. I pray to God that we never become the cause for the humiliation of Indian classical music. The appeal lies in staying faithful to the presentation.

I am conscious that unlike language, I cannot manipulate sound: Amjad Ali Khan

Are we getting there?

Yes. I recall an incident with Ustad Amir Khan who is regarded as a musician’s musician. Following an invitation from the then Governor, back in the 50s, Khan Saheb kept singing as the audience got restless for dinner. The Governor in sign language enquired how long? I signalled, he cannot stop. Khan sahib lost track of time. I requested the Governor to proceed to the dining room. Khan Saheb kept singing. We were the only ones left in the audience. That is not possible now. To be representative of classical music is a big responsibility. I feel I am a humble representative of Indian music and my audience should be interested in listening.

I am conscious that unlike language, I cannot manipulate sound: Amjad Ali Khan

You mentioned in the course of an interview about how concerned your father was at the liberties being taken in Raag Darbari. Could you care to share some details?

My father was taught by the descendents of Tansen who created Raag Darbari. And my father was invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He took me along. This was my first chance to see all the great leaders. At the traditional tea party, the President asked my father, “Khan sahib, koi taqleef to nahin hai aapko (Are you fine with everything)?” In response, my father said, “You must save the purity of Raag Darbari.” The President said, I don’t understand. My father said as the President, he should save Raag Darbari. He was hoping that the President would pass a resolution and save Raag Darbari!

You just talked about blindly following conventions. Would you take liberties with Raga Darbari itself?

Anything in moderation and within the time limit, to my mind, is all right. My father, a fakir, taught me that way of life. We have a common God.

So, how troubled are you about religious identity in politics?

I am sad and disappointed. Education has to create compassion for a human being. Who makes my sarod? Hemendra Chandra Sen. Hiren Roy used to make Ustad Vilayat Khan’s sitar. We are really dependent on each other. I am concerned at the direction our country is going. Our politics is based on religion. But it’s not just India’s problem. When we travel, we are subject to unnecessary security checks in airports.

Will you share with us the choice of composition you are likely to play at the November Fest in Chennai?

I let my mood and the environment decide the composition. Music should be appealing. There are only seven notes whether in Indian or Western music. It is language that creates barriers. Music connects the world. Thank God, I live in the world of sound. I am conscious that unlike language, I cannot manipulate sound.

Amjad Ali Khan’s performance will open the fest on November 15, 7.30 pm at The Music Academy.

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Corrections & Clarifications: The article erroneously mentioned that Hiren Roy used to make Ali Akbar Khan’s sitar. Mr. Roy actually used to make Ustad Vilayat Khan’s sitar. The error is regretted

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