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The Rediff Special/Sharmila Taliculam/ Suparn Verma

'It is not the traditions that have changed, but rather ourselves'

Sharmila Taliculam and Suparn Verma meet the celebrated sarod maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Akbar Ali

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan -- who along with Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt can lay claim to having given Indian classical music an international profile -- comes across as a revelation.

Chronically shy of publicity, the Ustad is, however, very forthcoming about the state of the art of classical music today. We met him during the Ustad's visit to Bombay in connection with the release of his Grammy-nominated album, Legacy, a compilation of the works of Mian Tansen and the Seni Gharana, sung by Asha Bhosle.

Khansaheb was, in fact, in the middle of an interview when we walked in. "People keep coming for interviews, from eight in the morning eleven at night," he says. And typically, finds something positive even in these demands on his time. "I guess it is because people are more aware of music today. In those days, when we were kids, we talked less and listened more. Today, I suppose it is the opposite."

Akbar Ali with Asha Bhosale And why, we wonder, settling down to a free-wheeling ramble through the mind of one of India's greatest living musicians, is that? "Well, for one thing, the new generation is very talented. And that could be because they have more freedom to think, to ask questions. In our time, parents asked us to shut up whenever we asked anything -- we were meant to do as we were told. I remember my father used to tell me to nod yes or no whenever I was asked anything -- and most of the time I nodded yes, because a 'no' meant I might get hit," he adds, laughing.

Khansaheb's father, the legendary Ustad Allaudin Khan was strict, both as father and as teacher, and not above chastising his son if he went wrong on a raga.

However, the father had a very real problem in teaching his son music -- simply because the notes that he wanted to teach Khan Junior, the latter would learn even beforehand. "My trouble," smiles Khansaheb, "was that though I learned whatever was what taught to me, I would forget it after four or five days. And that's when my father would hit me -- he would do that even on-stage, if he thought I had made a mistake."

Such strictness, Khansaheb agrees, was instrumental in helping him acquire the ability, and the fame, he has garnered today. Strictness, and discipline -- for Ustad Allaudin Khan used to train his son for 18 hours every day. "And he kept that up till he was one hundred years old. For my part, I think I really began to understand music when I was fifty -- that's when my actual training started, and I am still learning," Khansaheb says. "And the day I get the real swar, I will be free of this learning process," he adds.

Though the prevailing impression is that the younger generation in the West cannot see beyond the popular forms of music, Khansaheb believes that classical music is catching on. And he should know -- after all, he was the first Indian musician of repute to begin teaching music in the United States, under the aegis of the Alam Madina Music Productions which he founded, and which is based in Marin County, California.

"Here, in India, it is possible that interest in classical music has waned, but in America it's the opposite. Not only do they listen to Western classical music, but also to Indian music," Khansaheb says. "I have had lots of Americans and Europeans coming to me, wanting to learn. And funnily enough, I have very few Indians among my students -- probably because the Indians who are there have gone to earn money, not to learn music."

Khansaheb freely admits that Americans, these days, appear to know more about Indian classical music than the Indians do. "India is lacking, somewhere," he nods. "But it's always been like this -- there will be ups and downs, a gap -- but it won't be for long. It is a cycle, and it will be complete in time."

The biggest requirement, says Khansaheb, is for someone to show the way, to give people a reason to take to the art form. "For my part, music gives me peace of mind, and I believe that is true for everybody. There are not many places where people find the peace that they crave for, so they wander. But the moment they get it, they will go to where it is," he says.

Khansaheb, who has been based in California for the past three decades and more, recalls how he first went to the States at the invitation of that other great musician, Yehudi Menuhin. "I wanted to be in India, I was reluctant to go abroad, but my friends forced me because Yehudi Menuhin had invited me," he recalls.

Akbar Ali Wandering through memory lane, the Ustad recalls the early days when he wanted to teach, but couldn't find either the land or the funds to build a school. "However, I found that the students there were stronger in their desire to learn music, more honest. So I gave concerts, raised money, taught music."

While on those early days, the impish humour that characterises him peeps through. "When I landed in America, people asked me what kind of music we had, since we only had snakes and elephants in our country," he grins, adding that he is thankful that these days, Indians are increasingly getting the credit for their achievements.

When it comes to music, Khansaheb is philosophical to an extreme. "No matter how rich you are, you can feed only so many people, you can give only so much of your money away. Music is the one thing that you can give, and give, to everybody who wants it, and never feel the loss. And you don't even have to learn it -- just listening to good music lifts a person's soul, he hungers for peace and tranquility," the Ustad says, his passion for his art shining through in his words.

For now, he is involved in helping to preserve the traditions of Hindustani classical music. "I have founded a music company where there is a lot of archiving taking place. Plus, I run a school in Calcutta, which teaches music. I am recording a few cassettes, one of which is Legacy. So in spite of living there, in the States, my involvement is still with helping India preserve its musical culture," he avers.

Khansaheb has in his time helped score music for some films, such as Tapan Sinha's The Hungry Stones and Ketan Anand's Aandhiyan. Says he, with his typical throwaway humour, "My student Jaidev Burman, whose goal was to become a music director, asked me to score for a film and make him my assistant. Well, I did what he asked me to, he was happy, he became a music director in time and I went away!"

His father Ustad Allaudin Khan, he recalls, was not too pleased at his son's foray into the field of film music. "I once invited my father to the studio to listen to the music I gave for The Hungry Stones. And all the time he was there, I was nervous that he might hit me with the cane he had in his hand. He was sitting on the edge of his chair, and I kept thinking he just might walk out any moment out of sheer disgust. Then the music began, and after a while, he slid back into his seat, completely relaxed. He liked the music, and told me that if this is the kind of music I gave for films, then I should continue. I stopped giving music for films after that," says Khansaheb, laughing.

However, he admits to a more deep-rooted reason for having scored for films. "People of the lower strata listen predominantly to film music, and for the most part such music is bad. So I thought this was a chance to give them a chance to hear some good music, for them to hear, and appreciate, classical music," he argues.

On the subject of learning, and teaching, music, Khansaheb can be quite outspoken. "You know," he says, "the people who don't know anything are safe, the people who know everything are safe. But the people who know little, and think they know a lot, are dangerous -- because they are the ones who ask a lot of questions and confuse everybody. As somebody said, ardh vidya bhayankari (a little knowledge is dangerous)."

One departure in Khansaheb's teaching style, from that of his father, is that the former is not strict with his students. "If I am angry with a particular student, I tend to wait for a while, see if he improves. And only if there is no improvement do I give him a talking to. And I never hit my students," he says, adding with a smile, "Then again, sometimes when I scold a student, he won't eat for days. My students are so used to my scolding that sometimes, if I haven't scolded someone for some time, he will come and ask me why!"

Khansaheb recalls how, for a long time, he never dared look at his father's face, out of fear. "I only knew what he looked like by seeing his photograph. My students don't face these kind of problems -- they get everything they want, these days. And maybe as a result, I have a better rapport with them."

Though Khansaheb's teaching style remains modelled on the 'Guru-Shishya' tradition, he admits that it is becoming increasingly irrelevant in this materialistic age. "It is not the traditions that have changed, but rather ourselves," he argues. "There's corruption everywhere, we are corrupting our country."

Despite it all, he avers, Indian classical music will survive. "And that is because there are people who know and understand music, and these are the people who will keep the traditions alive."

Khansaheb's album, Legacy, did not eventually win a Grammy. How much store, we asked, does he set by awards? "I don't work towards awards," he smiles, as he prepares to usher us out. "If I get it, it's okay -- you are happy, and I am happy that you are. But if I don't get an award, I would still be working the same way -- because that is what makes me really happy!"


Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
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