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Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan — on life, love and legacy of music
December 23, 2013, 2:53 pm

Padma Vibhushan Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, one of world’s foremost exponents in sarod, was recently in Kuwait to perform at a live concert, ‘Magic of the Strings’, organized by Al Mulla International Exchange Company. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan has won admiration of audiences around the globe for his mastery of the sarod, a Hindustani classical music instrument, and the innovative ways in which he can stretch the limits of its strings to evoke hauntingly beautiful melodies. In this exclusive interview with, the sarod maestro speaks about life, love and his musical legacy.
“Yesterday’s concert was an exciting experience for me. I have held concerts in Kuwait before, the first was in 1978, then again I was here in 1998 and now in 2012; the interval between performances is clearly too long. I have been requested to visit this country more often and in fact, the next time, I would like to perform here with my two sons, Amaan and Ayaan, who are the seventh generation of sarod players in our family,” said the maestro beginning the interview.

“Audiences in Kuwait have always been something special for me, their appreciation and empathy for the music being played on stage is inspirational to any musician. When you come to think about it, this is not really surprising given that the Middle-East as a whole has a musical heritage and lingo that harmoniously syncs with Indian music. Musical instruments in this area, like the oud, for instance, have a sound quality and timbre that complements the sounds of the sitar, sarod and other Indian classical instruments.”

“I have always enjoyed creating melodious symphonies by innovating traditional musical instruments and techniques. Three years ago, with the aim of bringing together ancient Arabic and Indian musical instruments, I worked with Iraqi oud musician and composer, Rahim AlHaj, considered by many to be the finest oud player in the world today, to produce an album. We blended the rhythmic styles of the oud and sarod to create a duet recording under the title ‘Ancient Sounds’. The album was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Awards, under the Best Traditional World Music Recording category, vindicating my stand that music overcomes boundaries of borders and languages to truly unify people around the world.”

“I feel saddened at all this violence in the world today, whether in the West, Middle-East, India or anywhere else. The world is decidedly becoming a more violent place and all this talk of prosperity and education bringing about peace and harmony does not seem to be working. Today, people are more educated and prosperous than any previous generation in the history of the world, and yet we have more incidents of violence in the name of religion, sect, politics, borders and languages. Human beings despite all their education and economic progress seem to have lost their sense of compassion and kindness for each other. And this is a very sad thing, not only for our generation but also for the future of our children and their children.”

“It is quite surprising to me that despite our many similarities as human beings, we always tend to fight over our dissimilarities. For instance, we are all born with a first breath and die with the last, in between we live our lives breathing the same air, smiling when happy, crying when sad. And, we all enjoy the juxtaposition of the seven basic musical notes which form music anywhere in the world. Rather than celebrate our similarities, we search out dissimilarities and tend to fight over them. My father and guru, the late Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, always believed and taught me to believe, that people are all of one race, the human race, and they all have one God. This deity may be known by different names in different places, but manifests the same universal values of truth, forgiveness, peace, love and compassion. I believe that the sooner we realize this fundamental truth, the better for us and for coming generations.”
Elaborating on his music, the maestro said, “The sound of music, like color and fragrance is a precious gift of God, ‘Swar hi Ishwar hai…’ sound is a realization of God. Though music across the world is based on seven basic notes, each region or country has its own melody.” Humming a tune, Ustad Khan continued, “This particular tune, that I just hummed, though made up of the seven fundamental notes, is characteristic of music in the Arabian region. Music can generally be divided into two types, one based on lyrics, literature and language, the other based on pure sound. The language and lyrics used to create music can be easily misused to create discord among people, whereas the one based on pure sound is transparent and benign. When I am in tune with my music it is obvious and when I am out of tune it is equally obvious; my relationship with audiences is formed through this sound. I speak to them through the strings of my sarod.”

Looking back on his controversial marriage in 1976 to Assamese Bharata Natyam dancer Subalakshmi Barooah, Ustad Khan said, “My music, my fans and India made me my name — Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the sarod maestro — just as they made other Indian musical luminaries, like the late Ustad Bismillah Khan. But it is my wife who made me who I am — Amjad Ali Khan, proud father, loving husband and life-long devotee of music. It was in Calcutta, while attending a cultural program that I first saw my future wife; she was giving a Bharata Natyam recital on stage. Her beauty and poise while performing the intricate dance moves and sculpture-like poses took my breath away.”

“I immediately knew that this was the woman with whom I would like to spend the rest of my days. I soon set about attempting to woo her by wowing her; but it didn’t seem to work. She was not easily wowed, and moreover, there were too many opposing factors at work — she was a Hindu from Assam, I a Muslim from Gwalior, her family couldn’t accept me and mine couldn’t accept hers. But I never gave up, I kept pursuing and proposing until I probably wearied her, and everyone around us, down. She finally consented to marry me and luckily God too blessed our union; last week, on September 25th, we celebrated our 36th anniversary of married bliss. I believe that life is all about trusting one’s feelings, believing in yourself and in taking chance; it is about losing and finding happiness, about giving, being grateful for memories and about learning from the past.”

Speaking about the musical scene in India, Ustad Khan opined that it was in an unbalanced state. “We grew up listening to film music being broadcast through loudspeakers on streets, moving vehicles, at public events and even private weddings. Now television channels have undertaken the job of propagating film music through their talent shows and other programs. There is very little support, whether on conventional media or new line media for classical music; today, it is only a few dedicated music publishers who promote classical music in the country. In Western countries there is a more balanced approach to the appreciation of art; there is equal promotion and representation of both Hollywood and, Bach and Beethoven. Concert halls and cinema houses co-exist, sometimes on the same street, drawing in large crowds for both symphonies and blockbusters. In India, sadly it is Bollywood that prevails at the expense of all other forms of music.”

Recognizing that not much could be expected from government towards preserving the legacy of classical musicians and their art, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan took it upon himself to set up a classical music museum. “Believing that I have a responsibility to preserve our traditional musical heritage, I have converted our family’s ancestral home at Gawlior into a Museum of Musical Heritage. Named ‘Sarod Ghar’, this museum displays several Indian classical music instruments used by my forefathers. Many other Indian musicians have also donated instruments belonging to their ancestors to the museum, which has now become a repository for Indian classical music, with instruments, books, scores and memorabilia of famous Indian musicians adorning its interiors.
Acknowledging the legacy of his family to popularizing the sarod, Ustad Khan said, “Renowned Indian Publishing House, Roli Books, has a category named, ‘Family Pride Books’. Ten years ago, they published a book on me under this category titled ‘Abba — God’s greatest gift to us’, written by my sons, Amaan and Ayaan. Over a decade after their book was published, it dawned on me that I too should write a book about my father and guru, Ustad Hafiz Ali, as there were no books published on him. I have now finished the book, which is titled ‘My Guru and our Fraternity’, and it is expected to be released in November. In the book, I have attempted to enlighten and inform people about my father’s contributions, and those of his contemporaries, as well as many present day musicians, to the world of Indian classical music.”

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is no stranger to awards and adulations. His first national recognition came when he received the Padma Shri in 1975; this was followed in 1991 with the Padma Bhushan, and in 2001 he was honored with India’s second highest civilian honor Padma Vibhushan. On the international scene, his mastery of the sarod has won him numerous accolades and gained him standing ovations at some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. Most recently he was bestowed with the Delhi Government’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Speaking on the occasion, the state’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit said, “Such personalities are assets of any nation. They help in molding societies in such a way that the society’s future becomes bright and enriched.” We are fortunate to have our lives enriched and brightened, if ever so shortly, by the opportunity of listening to the maestro live in Kuwait. Thank you, Al Mulla Exchange.

-The Times-Kuwait Report

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