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Royalty and Elegance: The Timeless Sparkle of the Sarod! Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan
We always look forward to the beginning of the year with so much verve and eagerness. It becomes so amazingly special when we have legends visiting Michigan. Moments of celebration within the soul begins as we prepare ourselves to be invigorated by musical conversations. When you have a charming musician in all his royalty sitting in front of you taking you on a musical escapade of the plucks and intonations, you are just left mesmerized. Behind a few hours of sheer ecstasy lies years of practice, knowledge and training. Years of just living and breathing music.

Welcome to the world of "SA" - a note to begin with. It also denotes Sarod!

An honest, forthright portrayal of Sarod Maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan along with his very talented and charming sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan. Catch a true glimpse of our musical culture and heritage.

A true Valentine special for Miindia readers. Interviewed and written by Anu Gopalakrishnan.
Coming from a musical family, the language of music has been interpreted in all aspects of your life. With the whole world in a state of flux, how do you interpret music today and what should be its role in today's world.

I cannot remember a particular day that I was initiated into the world of music. It was a part of me from as early as I can remember. Indeed, I cannot think of a moment when music has been separated from my life. My father, the legendary Sarod maestro, Haafiz Ali Khan of Gwalior lived for Music. Today, a wise man does not allow his son to become a classical musician, because of the uncertainty and insecurity of a livelihood. That is why in the past, only sufi saints and faqirs could dedicate their lives to music or to God. For my father, though, there was no question of a life outside music. Life itself was Music. And Music was Life. And so I came to inherit from him the legacy of five generations of musicians as naturally as a bird taking to the air. Musicians and listeners of music have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this 'language' from time immemorial. As we use flowers in worship, welcoming, honoring, departure, and celebration no matter what our race, origin, religion or language, we similarly arrange musical notes into 'bouquets' or compositions which display all our human feelings and emotions.

Your ode to your father Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan through a book conveys a lot of feelings, and talks a lot about the guru-sishya relationship. Being a father yourself to successful sons, what according to you are the strengths and weaknesses of this guru-sishya relationship?

The prospect of writing a book was constantly in my mind in all these years. However, it got a kick start due to my family. I used to maintain a dairy from 1984 to 1986 in which I would write about my daily travels and concerts. Along with that I would go back in time and write detailed anecdotes and incidents about my father and his contemporaries. I had thrown these so called 'useless' dairies away. But, one day little to my knowledge they were not thrown away by my family. They got it all typed and gave me the manuscript and said that this can be a potential book. I was thrilled at the prospect as so many years had gone by and I did want to say many things at this stage of my life. The fact that my sons, Amaan and Ayaan wrote a book on me in 2002 was also a great inspiration, it took me almost three and a half years to complete this book. The fact that it coincided with my father's 40th death anniversary was a great coincidence! There is no logic to success. An outstanding musician can emerge from any school or system of music. I however, value and respect the age old timeless tradition of guru shishya. The multi media or even institutions could not produce any performing artists who really made a mark.

Pt. Ravi Shankarji has been a legend whose intensity and focus will forever remain in our hearts. How was your connection with Panditji and which moments do you fondly remember?

It is indeed surreal for me to believe Pandit Ravi Shankar, whom I called Dada, is no more. His passing away marks the end of an era that was truly magical. What he did for music was outstandingly unique in its nomenclature. My father, Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan, and Raviji’s guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, learnt from the same guru, Ustad Wazir Khan, of the Senia Beenkar Gharana. In fact, Raviji once wrote me a message saying "let’s keep the Senia Beenkar flag flying high". The way he played the sitar had freshness and a different tonal quality. His determination and hard work brought him the status of an international superstar. He is one of the most fortunate and successful Indian classical musicians. I would call him a ‘miracle man’ who changed the face of classical music in the world .I attended many of Raviji’s concerts with great tabla players like Kishan Maharaj, Ustad Allah Rakha, Chatur Lal and Kanai Dutt. I always admired his approach to raga and taal. There was always so much to learn from the way he presented his music. A few times, he attended my concerts in Kolkata, Birmingham (UK), New York and New Delhi. It was always a great honour to have Dada attend my concerts. Our families have been very close and our meetings were always full of laughter and musical discussions. The first time Raviji came to our house was in 1977; Amaan was three months old. He performed for my father’s memorial on two occasions, in Kolkata in 1977 and also in New Delhi in 1979. We attended the reception for his marriage to Sukanyaji in Delhi in 1990. Sukanyaji had been an admirer of my wife Subhalaksmi's Bharatnatyam. It was because of Sukanyaji, who calls my wife 'Akka' (elder sister), that our families came closer. I honored Raviji during his 70th birthday celebrations in Delhi in 1990, and his 75th birthday celebrations in Los Angeles, where I also performed. He attended my younger son Ayaan's wedding reception in 2008 in New Delhi and the last time we met was at my residence in 2010.I will miss him no end and pray that his glorious soul may rest in peace. He will be remembered timelessly through his music.
Sarod has been an instrument that has often been limited to Indian classical notes- thanks to you, it is now spoken and written about all across the globe. How do you perceive the future especially today, as Indian music has broken all boundaries.

Music is essential for mind and body. Pure music like Sarod, violin etc. listened to with concentration restores the subtle mental imbalances that crop in todays modern lifestyle. People today need more than ever to cope with tensions, distress, depression and struggle to find peace and relaxation. Sound pollution is also a daily hazard. Music helps to retune one's system. That is why eminent doctors and psychologists are prescribing certain type of music as a form of therapy and treatment for stress disorders. Noisy music on the other hand can be damaging to human mind and body. Music, like Sarod, needs to be heard at moderate volume and with concentration to avail of its positive effects. In western classical music, a composer scores a composition which is read and sung or played by the vocalists or musicians. In the Indian classical system, there is no written or scored music. It would be extremely difficult to record and subsequently interpret the subtle nuances on paper. We therefore follow an 'oral' tradition. Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers; one that I am constantly sharing with my disciples. Therefore, there isn’t an instant coffee culture that I can follow! Only Practice and sadhanacan work, not any kind of digital correction can!
Tell us about your relationship as a father and a Guru to your sons Amaan and Ayaan. Your musical bonding on stage is so natural.

I am grateful to God that he has given us Amaan and Ayaan. My years in teaching them have been quite an experience. In a family where music is a way of life, and fundamental to it, training in its intricacies starts from the moment a child is born. When I held Amaan for the first time, I sang into his ear. On Ayaan’s arrival two years later, I did the same. In essence, their training started from that moment, soon after their birth. From the day they came into the world, they were both drawn to music. Perhaps, a wise parent would not allow two sons to play the same instrument, but because music is the only wealth I inherited from my forefathers,I wanted to share it equally with both of them.

As a teacher, it was the first time I was able to hold a student on my lap! As time progressed, their training and the musical knowledge that I have tried to pass onto them, continued in our music room. 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. As they matured as musicians, I was relieved to see that both the brothers were developing an approach that was distinctive and rather different from what they were taught. This I feel is only natural, for the music that an individual creates is a reflection of his or her mind and soul.

Over the years Amaan and Ayaan have received immense love and blessings from people in India and all over the world. From the beginning, Amaan has been a protective older brother to Ayaan. And Ayaan has always given him the respect and love due to an older brother. For lot of young people, Amaan and Ayaan have become role models. I feel I too have learnt a lot while teaching them. Today besides playing classical music, Amaan and Ayaan have made albums of experimental music too. I have really enjoyed their collaboration with guitarist Derek Trucks, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and cellist Matthew Barley. Subhalakshmi and I always hope to see them progress, be successful and happy. By the grace of God, they have matured into multi-faceted personalities. I am sure that by the blessings, love and encouragement of music lovers, they will achieve their goals and everything what they deserve and desire. With time, Amaan and Ayaan have become my closest companions in the music industry. Most of our concert tours, especially the ones overseas, are together, and as a result we have been able to spend immense quality time, both as father-son and teacher-disciple. All concerts have been memorable, from numerous ones at the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, among many others.

You were the first Hindustani musician to pay tribute to Saint Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru, playing the saint's kriti in Sriranjani - can you share your moments with us? It is very rare for two streams of music to blend and flow as an ocean.

I went to Thiruvaiyaru from Madras to participate in the Thyagaraja Aradhana. The late Violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan had invited me. Since musicians are required to play only Thyagaraja's compositions at the saint-composer's samadhi, I learned the Sriranjani kirtanai ‘Sogasuga mridanga talamu'. If music is about solidarity of human hearts, for me it is cohesiveness of time, tradition and topography. A wonderful and strange mystery of Indian classical music is the fact that one can spend a lifetime trying to attain knowledge and perfection and still feel that one has only touched a mere drop of an ocean. Along the journey of searching and discovering, the learning never stops. Its understanding changes with every year a musician lives. This is true Sadhana. Some of the greatest sadhaks in Indian classical music were Swami Haridas, Swami Tyagaraja, Swami Muttuswamy Dikshitar, Swami Shyama Shastri, Purandara Dasa, Swati Tirunal, Baiju Bawra and Miyan Tansen (from where my family gets its musical lineage). They are responsible for the solid foundation of the art in both North and South India.
You have always been perceived as a liberalist, though, your up-bringing is more conservative. Do you show that in your music as well?

These seven notes are the 'alphabets' of a universal 'language'. Of the seven notes, the first and the fifth are fixed while the remaining notes have sharps and flats, making a total of 12 notes. Music has been in practice for at least 5000 years, yet we have not been able to discover a 13th note! Musicians and listeners of music have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this 'language' from time immemorial. Musical vibrations can convey moods and emotions and have the ability to mold and shape our consciousness. Different types of music can have different effects on the mind-both positive and negative. Our mind is like any living organism. It must be nurtured and needs stimulation to develop and grow. Music is one of the most important 'food' for the intellect. Each musical note is connected to this most important part of our minds.

Music has many faces. Conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all parts 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.

Some excerpts from conversations with Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan...

According to you, how do you see Ustad Amjad Ali Khanji as a dad and as a guru? Are there any moments where your theories of music(as siblings, as sons-father) were in conflict?

Abba as we call our father is more of a father to us. Of course the change in role for us and for him to guru to father and back to guru is somewhat effortless; however, it is a relationship with two people, like batman and Bruce Wayne! He has been the most patient teacher and the most loving father. Abba’s teaching and philosophy is beyond music. It’s a way of life. The mantra tought by our parents has been to be a good human being first and good music will follow. Music is who we are and our nature reflects in our music. Therefore as siblings we know each others mind on stage. There is no rehearsal!!

Being a part of today's technological advances in the digital world, will your approach be traditional or liberal in experimenting nuances?

Music is our life. From the time we were born the language spoken was music, the air that we were breathing was music. We took shape of the vessel like water. Though our father has been a very strict traditionalist, he’s always believed in adapting to change. In all honesty, Indian classical music has no rules about how it should be presented or executed. That’s very individualistic. Over the years, we have ried our best to make the Sarod reach out to a new audience, to an audience that perhaps would not be at a classical concert!

The future is you in terms of Sarod. Isn't that a great responsibility to shoulder. What's your goal as an artist and as sons of this great musician? Any international collaborations?
We have been very fortunate to have received so much love and adulation from music lovers all over the world. It is such a long journey! Sky is the limit. The main mantra is that we have never taken any concert for granted. You are as old as your last concert and every concert is the first concert of your life. We have done many collaborations in the past with Allman Brothers band guitarist Derek Trucks, American Folk song writer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy nominated Oud player Rahim Alhaj and also with the National Youth Orchestra of UK. We look forward to your tour this month with the Avignon Philharmonic Orchestra.

The classy family bonding of Ustadji, his sons and his beautiful wife is a perfect example of a romance between modern day/contemporary perspectives of music with old-world charm. It is about music, it is about healthy relationships called ragas and taal. It is all about breaking the walls of negativity while embellishing your space with dollops of warmth, laughter and love. The tranquil musical notes of the Sarod brought to life by the Maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan Khan spells pride, accomplishment and celebration of the sheer joy of living life.

Be a part of this musical splendor, brought to you by University Musical Society. Click here for event details.
Interviewed and Written by Anu Gopalakrishnan (RJ Rockin’ Raaga WCXI 1160 AM, Sat 1:00 – 2:00 pm)  |  A exclusive

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