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.
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
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."
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
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,"
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
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!"
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