A rare and enchanting interaction with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan gives Riaan Jacob George an insight into the sarod virtuoso’s understanding of classical music, spirituality and philosophy
I have heard him perform several times, sitting mesmerised through powerful concerts. But the thought of meeting sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, speaking to him about his music, fills me with a strange excitement. The Ustad arrives, elegant, charismatic and gracious as ever, and leads me to a quiet tearoom. His aura is overwhelming. But his humble nature and his extremely polite mannerisms, that could be translated into tameez, put me at ease. My conversation with him is intended to be not so much about his achievements as it is to gain an understanding of his perspective on music.
We begin with the increasing popularity and the loose usage of the term fusion music. “I truly regret that the world is losing interest in pure art forms,” the Ustad starts. “Why is everyone so interested in fusion and collaborations? Why are people losing interest in pure classical music from Europe or India? This is not the case only in India but across the globe. There’s no harm in looking for collaborations — I, too, have worked closely with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. They are brilliant and I admire their music. That doesn’t mean we should lose interest in our pure art forms.”
He tells me that one of his most interesting collaborations has been “Samaagam”, a partnership with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which has played to packed houses in several international and Indian cities, including at the NCPA in Mumbai. Drawing a parallel between Indian and Western classical music, Ustadji highlights, “I have grown up listening to great European composers such as Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. I have always wondered why India could not produce such beautiful symphonies. The English might have ruled India for 200 years, but we did not capture the musical discipline of the Europeans. The West’s most important contribution to music is the symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, we have not been able to produce a symphony orchestra of international stature.”“I have always been fascinated by Western orchestras,” he adds. “I love how they can read and play music at the same time, and how there is an element of teamwork in it. There can be no ego problems. The music does not begin or end with one person. There is an inherent sense of humility. And, of course, the conductor is given so much honour, no matter his age. I sometimes wish this sense of teamwork existed in Indian classical music. We started Samaagam by recording in an old church in Edinburgh, and the rest just followed.”
The musician, who, in 2001, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, among countless other awards, honours and degrees, believes classical music is meant to bring people together, and is not the preserve of the upper class. “If I am not able to influence listeners with my sarod, the fault lies in me. Things such as class, caste, race and gender play no role in the appreciation of music. When I am on stage, it is myresponsibility to make my audience happy and to bring them peace, no matter who they are. Every musician, irrespective of the genre, has a different vision of life and a different approach to music. The challenge lies in how he or she presents it to the audience.”
We are ambling through the manicured lawns of the majestic WelcomHeritage Bal Samand Lake Palace in Jodhpur, with its verdant gardens, resident peacocks, massive courtyards and heritage structures. The maestro is to perform that evening at Jodhpur’s annual Sacred Spirit Music Festival (February 26-29), at the historic Mehrangarh Fort. My conversation with the Ustad takes a philosophical and spiritual turn. An indispensable aspect of every musician’s character is how he interprets his music. He says to me in Hindi – with a request not to translate this line – “Swar hi Ishwar hai. Music is the route to God. The purest form of music is when there is no language. Language creates barriers. Various forms of music become popular because of their lyrics and text, and the music gets lost. I am not a godman, but my interpretation is that music connects you to God – a common God. I use my music to reach out to that God, my ultimate goal! And that we are all one common race. Translate this concept into music. There are seven notes – sa, ni, dha, pa, ma, ga, re. These lay the foundation of any music, be it for Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Sufis. In fact, I feel that these notes need to be taught in schools across our country. I would love it if our children were taught to recite these seven notes at their daily assembly. What a difference it would make to their well-being! More than mathematics and geography, we need to ensure that our children are taught to be kind human beings. Values of life must be given utmost importance in the education process, and music should be an intrinsic part of this process.”
In retrospect, over five decades of performing music for the world is no easy task. But the virtuoso looks back at his career with pride. “I had to surrender to God and to my guru. It has been my passion, not just my profession. I can compare it to entering a dark tunnel with the hope of seeing light someday.”