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He is the singing sarod, claim millions of his fans worldwide. His sarod sings of love, devotion, passion, sadness and all the other multitude of emotions. He is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, a living legend, an internationally acclaimed and awarded sarod player who has immortalized his own name in the shining firmament of Indian classical music.
Young Amjad made his debut more than sixty years back at the age of eleven. “In those days playing songs on the sarod was taboo, but from my childhood, I had this great desire to sing through my instrument and my father and guru, the great Hafiz Ali Khan, showed me the way,” recalls the virtuoso whose mastery over the Indo-Persian instrument gained him rock star status in a country which continues to regard classical music as the domain of ‘a niche knowledgeable audience’.
The sixth-generation composer – artist of an unbroken line of musicians from the illustrious Bangash lineage with their roots in the Senia Bangash School of Music, has held on to his cult status with his expressive and spiritual rendition. When the maestro plays, his visage is that of a ‘sadhu’ or a monk in meditation. One of the most recorded Indian classical musicians, he has played a significant role in bringing classical music closer to the common man. His concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Centre, House of Commons, Sydney Opera House, St. James’ Palace and innumerable other venues worldwide are completely sold out. He has received several national and international awards for his remarkable contributions, including the UNESCO Award, Padma Vibhushan (Highest Indian civilian award), UNICEF’s National Ambassadorship and France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and letters.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his two gifted sons Aman Ali Khan Bangash and Ayaan Ali Khan Bangash will play music to a select audience on March 12 at the GUST University auditorium at 6 pm. The concert titled ‘ Sarod Trio Concert’ is presented by the Indian Business and Professionals Council Kuwait, a premier business and professional advocacy organization that has been at the forefront of deepening and strengthening commercial and cultural ties between India, Kuwait and other nations.
“Music is a precious gift of God. In India, we say ‘swar his ishwar hai’,” said Khansaheb while in conversation. According to him there are two types of music. One of them communicates without using words. “That I believe is the most natural sound,” he says. “The sound of sarod, symphony, sitar, violin or the guitar is pure. It is difficult and challenging to connect with the world without any language. I communicate through sound and when sound becomes music, it is beautiful. Known for his majestic demeanour on stage, he exudes a calm and slight smile even while he works the sarod into a frenzy. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s approach to his art is spiritual. Technically brilliant and innovative, the maestro’s devotion to music can be compare,d to that of a devotee towards his God. “For us in India music is not just entertainment. Through music, followers of different faith connect with the Almighty.” The confluence of faith and diverse culture is most evident in Indian classical music. Khansaheb agrees. “Hindustan is like a bouquet of flowers. fragrances a bouquet of flowers of different colours and fragrance. You will find a Muslim student training under a Hindu Guru or vice versa. For instance, Swami Haridas was the guru of the great musician Tansen,” said the maestro whose wife Subhalakshmi is a Hindu. “My father and guru taught us that people of the world belong to a common race and all of us have a common God. There may be ups and downs in India, but it is a fact that what I am today is because of my motherland and because of the love I have received from every region of my country.”
Ustad Amjad Ali believes in the importance of international collaborations to reach out to a larger audience. “Collaborations with the West is a must if you are performing in the USA or Europe.” He recalls an incident many years back when he was asked to stay back in Los Angeles, at the end of a tiring busy tour of the States, to play for Michael Jackson. Despite his admiration for the artist, he refused. He missed his family back home in India. “My sons now tell me that I should have stayed back,” he smiles. “I did what my heart told me to do.” But with age and time, the virtuoso became more responsive to the need of the hour. His international collaborations led to some great work including compositions for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, a sarod concerto with the Taipei Chinese Orchestra and a 4-concert residency at the Wigmore Hall in London. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Khansaheb gave a Peace Concert at the United Nations in New York in the presence of the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon. He was nominated for a Grammy in the best traditional world music album category for his joint venture with the Iraqi oud soloist Rahim Alhaj.
When asked about his collaborative work he said, “Music has united the world. The music of the entire world is based on the seven notes.” The Arabic tradition of maqam, he says, bears close resemblance to Indian classical music. “God has given that kind of power to music that a line of melody can introduce the country or the region. We see this in the folk music of Bengal, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kashmir. Similarly, there is one kind of sound you hear everywhere in the Middle East: the sound of the Azaan. The Azaan is beautiful and appealing when the muezzin is a trained singer,” he said, breaking into an impromptu melodious rendition of the Islamic call to prayer. Notable among his collaborative work is his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Sharing his observations on the difference between western and Indian traditions in music, he noted, “India has an oral tradition in music. We can sing anytime, anywhere. Our music is spontaneous, whereas the notation system is very sophisticated in the western system of music. It is remarkable how they do not only play but read music at the same time. I will never be able to do both together.” A fearless innovator, he recalls fondly his attempts at writing a symphony which was later recorded in a beautiful church in Edinburgh. Some years back, Khansaheb was invited to teach his philosophy of music at Stanford. He performed with the Stanford Philharmonic at the Mozart and More Festival as a finale to the Maestro residency.
The sarod is a versatile instrument made from wood and goat skin, and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is its greatest living exponent. Throughout his career, he spent a lot of time breaking taboos and improving his presentation. “One damaging thing that has happened to our music, is that some musicians, in their blind adherence to convention, stretched their interpretation of the ragas to the extent that they became repetitive without their noticing. A raga loses its beauty if you prolong it and so the audience lose their interest. I do not follow conventions. Convention, I believe, is a very unhealthy word. My father always said that music is food for the soul and that we as musicians, should bring out the beauty of the raga. Although I have given night-long performances in my career, I am now working on making the presentation more interesting.”
It was under his father, the legendary Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan that young Amjad received his talim (training) in music. It was not easy for a boy, the youngest son of a brilliant figure to take up the mantle, but he did so when he gave his first performance in Calcutta at the age of 12. “Tradition is a responsibility,” he said when asked if his legacy was a burden. “At times people ask me when I decided to make music my career, but then I say I had no time to select a career. Music was our most precious inheritance. As a family we have dedicated ourselves to music and left the rest to God.” In recent years the maestro’s two sons Ayaan and Aman Ali Khan have made great strides in taking the ‘Bangash’ lineage forward. “By the grace of God, my sons do not sound alike, they have their own styles, and their approach to music is different.
Ustad Amjad Ali ends with a message for those who harbour apprehensions about Indian classical music being meant for a niche, knowledgeable listenership, “There are many listeners who have a mind block about attending Indian classical music concerts, and they feel they do not understand it. To me, ‘understanding’ is a confusing word. Music can only be understood by those who learn music, the rest of the world is not supposed to understand it, they should just feel the sound and the rhythm and enjoy it. Attend concerts and feel the positive effects of music,” he urges. By Chaitali B. Roy, Special to the Arab Times