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Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, his sons Amaan and Ayaan on the guru-shishya tradition, the pull of instrumental music

It is not every day that an artist, who has been worshipping their art and craft diligently for years together, becomes synonymous to it. It is an unusual scenario when an art form comes to be known by the name of the artist who practises it. But such is the case with the sarod and its most well-known exponent, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. As a matter of fact, if one types the word "sarod" into Google's search engine, most links point to him.

Yet, when asked what it feels like to have tasted such success and glory, the 73-year-old Padma Vibhushan-awardee says, "God has been kind. I feel blessed and thank God with the deepest gratitude for all his blessings." One suddenly realises that the man's greatness, in fact, lies in his humility; this is what he is known for — being humble, soft-spoken and calm — and it reflects in his music, too.

Born in 1945 as 'Masoom' Ali Khan (that was his birth name) to Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan and Rahat Jahan, Amjad was the sixth and youngest child. Hafiz Ali Khan was a royal court musician in the palace of the Maharaja of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. He is the sixth generation of sarod players of the Bangash gharana, that derives its lineage from Afghanistan. It comes as no surprise then that the sarod, and indeed music, has been an integral part of his life right from early childhood.

Khan explains why the instrument is so integral to his identity. "Sarod is a Persian word.  The actual pronunciation is 'Sarood' which means music or melody. Our sarod is made of teak wood, it is hollowed from the inside, the belly is covered with the skin and the fingerboard is made of steel. The bridge on the skin carries nineteen strings. Eleven sympathetic strings are underneath the bridge and ten strings are over the bridge. Our forefathers came from Afghanistan and settled in Madhya Pradesh, Reva and Gwalior. They used to play the Afghani instrument rabab, which looks like the sarod. My forefathers, especially Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash and his son Ghulam Ali Khan, modified and invented the sarod from the rabab."

Amjad Ali Khan. Image via NCPA

Amjad Ali Khan. All photographs courtesy of the NCPA

Right from the age of six, Khan began learning from his father who was also his guru. "Everything I have played in my entire life can only be a result of the legacy that has been bequeathed to me by my father. The guru-shishya parampara is a very appealing and sacred title. Shishya in Hindi and Shagird in Urdu have the same meaning, which is a student. My father taught me not only music but a complete way of life. He gave importance to a code of conduct, especially with regard to the respecting manner in which one should behave with senior musicians and younger musicians. He taught me the value of blessings, compassion, kindness, surrender, generosity and the realisation of a common God," says Khan. This monotheistic approach towards life also helped him channel a more focused vision towards music. "Music has many faces — conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all part of music. Music can be either vocal or instrumental. Vocal music appeals to most of us because of its poetical or lyrical content. Instrumental music on the other hand, such as what I play on the sarod, is pure sound. It needs to be experienced and felt. Since there are no lyrics, there is no language barrier between the performer and the listener, and that is why instrumental music transcends all barriers," he explains.

Khan believes in order to appreciate music, it is not necessary for the audience to understand its technicalities or grammar. It is the intangible aspect of music that affects the listeners on both the physical and mental levels. "There are only two types of music in the world — ‘appealing and non-appealing’. Indian Classical music has indeed had a very spiritual and scientific development and growth. Interestingly, the effect of all the twelve notes on our body, mind and soul are very scientific. If we sing out all the twelve notes with concentration, the human body receives all its positive vibrations. In fact, the positive effect transcends even to plants and animals. Various permutations and combinations give the scales a shape of a raga."

With that level of understanding of music, of what's around and what's within, one tends to go a level higher where one transcends from being just a receptor to a creator. Khan is credited with creating many ragas, namely Kiran Ranjani, Haripriya Kanada, Shivanjali, Shyam Shri, Suhag Bhairav, Lalit Dhwani, Amiri Todi, Jawahar Manjari and Bapukauns. The last three are named after Ustad Amir Khan, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi respectively. Khan has also created ragas dedicated to Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi. Raga Priyadarshini was a homage to Indira after her assassination. Raga Kamal Shree was dedicated to Rajiv after his assassination in 1991.

"I feel embarrassed or rather find it impolite to say that I create ragas. A new raga is like a newborn baby. A raga for me is not just a mere scale. It is much more than that, perhaps like a living identity. When a child is conceived, in this case, a raga is invoked, how can you not accept it? The raga would ask me ‘Do you know me?’ and I say 'I don’t'. And then I have to give it a name; the raga becomes mine, just like my own offspring," he says.

Amjad Ali Khan (M) with his two sons Amaan and Ayaan. Image via NCPA.

Amjad Ali Khan (M) with his two sons Amaan and Ayaan

But what good is an artist of that calibre if one doesn't pass on this creative acumen to the next generation? Like his father and forefathers, Khan also ensured that this heritage would be passed on to future generations. As a guru, he takes great pride in imparting his musical erudition to his students not just in India but also abroad. He's had residencies at Standford University, Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, to name a few. "I love interacting with students from various musical cultures. The major idea is to make students feel and realise music — how it can be a way of life, how to appreciate it, the world outside writing or reading music, to understand the oral tradition of Indian classical music," explains Khan.

Of his many students, his two sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash hold a special place in his heart. "My years of teaching my sons were quite an experience. It was the first time that I was able to hold a student in my lap! In a family where music is a way of life, the training starts from the moment a child is born. I remember when Amaan was born and the first time I held him, I sang into his ear. Similarly, on Ayaan’s arrival two years later, I did the same. In essence, the taleem started from that point on. However, as time progressed, all the training and musical knowledge that I have tried to pass on to them happened in the music room," recounts Khan.

Having such a towering figure as both a father and guru comes with its own perks and pressures. Parents always set the benchmark high for their children, expecting them to be as good, if not better. Khan says, "In the course of Amaan and Ayaan’s training (which is an ongoing process for a classical musician), I never encouraged them to copy my style of playing beyond a point. As they developed and matured as musicians, I was relieved to see both brothers developing a very distinctive and rather different approach to what was taught. This I feel is only natural, as the music is a reflection of an individuals’ mind and soul. Over the years, as a father and as a guru, I have a very unique equation with Amaan and likewise with Ayaan."

Ayaan Ali Bangash (L) and Amaan Ali Bangash (R). Image via NCPA

Ayaan Ali Bangash (L) and Amaan Ali Bangash (R)

Though they have carved out their own niches, both Amaan and Ayaan are proud of being followers of their father's music. "When you select a guru or a teacher or a hero, you want to be like them. You don’t select them because you want to be something different from them, so of course, I am following his path. One day, with his blessings, I will perhaps have something of my own. But till then, I just want people to know/feel that I am following my father very closely," says Amaan. Ayaan seconds his brother's opinion, "I think to start a journey on a rebellious note that I want to be different is a very ridiculous ideology when you’re starting off in life. I think you should keep walking on the path that your guru has shown you with grace, dignity and dedication and organically you will find many new roots that will come your way. You will be able to walk through them effortlessly. But I think the source, the intent and the idea of the destination that you want to reach need to be realistic and grounded."

Ayaan is a father of twin sons, Zuhan and Abir, who have already begun their training under their grandfather. As one generation makes way for another to follow, there is a shift in time and attitudes towards the pursuit of art and the overall perception of it. Ayaan opines, "A lot of young musicians have got really strong opinions on music these days. They feel they have a right to comment on the works of great masters. A lot of them are inspired by the great masters but do not acknowledge them. Inspiration without acknowledgement turns into plagiarism. I just have a strong belief that it is very important to acknowledge everyone you learn from. I think you should never put your beliefs away or else this craft wouldn’t have survived for so many years. I just hope this generation gives due respect to all senior artists because we owe it to them. We owe the craft to all these masters. The guru-shishya parampara today has also undergone a lot of change – it has become very progressive, they are in touch over WhatsApp and FaceTime. But, the main essence of faith, trust and respect for your guru, and belief in your guru’s blessings cannot change and should never change."

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan performed with his two sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash on 2 December at the eighth edition of the Citi- NCPA Aadi Anant Music Festival


Updated Date: Dec 06, 2018 16:22 PM

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