October 1, 2002 NEWSLINKS

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The Rediff Special/Shyam Bhatia

For those who know him and love him, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is a living exponent of a composite culture in India that is under threat from extremists of all persuasions.

Arguably the greatest living sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan has always maintained that no one religion or cultural tradition has a monopoly on truth or artistic perfection. His own experience and affection for the Sufi tradition has taught him, he explains, that a synthesis of ideas is what creates living greatness.

The ustad, who celebrated 50 years as a musician with a sell-out concert at London's Royal Festival Hall on September 27, admires Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. He describes Akbar as a man who ruled the country with kindness, compassion, and love.

Appropriately, Amjad Ali Khan is part of the illustrious Bangash lineage that traces its ancestry back to the times of the immortal Mian Tansen, one of the Nine Jewels of Akbar's court. Like Tansen, he was born and brought up in Gwalior, which has produced some of India's greatest classical musicians.

"I cannot remember a particular day when I was initiated into the world of music," he says. "It was a part of my life from as early as I can remember. Indeed, I can't think of a moment when music has been separated from my life. Today, a wise man doesn't 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 fakirs could dedicate their lives to music or to God. For my father though, there was no question of a life outside music because life was music and music was life. So I came to inherit from him the legacy of five generations of musicians as naturally as a bird taking to air."

The sarod with which Khan is associated has its origins in Afghanistan where it is known as the rabab. Migrating Afghans brought it to India and history records that it was popularised by Guru Nanak, among others.

Of Pathan origin, Khan first visited the land of his forefathers in 1966 when King Zahir Shah invited him to participate in Afghanistan's annual August Festival of Music. "Afghanistan was then renowned for its beauty, freedom, culture," recalls Khan. "I went with a government delegation that included playback singer Hemant Kumar, Bharat Natyam dancer Yamini Krishnamurthi, and tabla player Pandit Kishen Maharaj.

"The king attended the official concert and sent a note for me to visit the palace. His son Nadir used to play the sitar. I taught him and he played with me although I haven't seen him after 1966.

"He had another son who was the crown prince. His daughter Maryam always used to attend my concerts in London. Zahir Shah and his entire family were very fond of Indian classical music. I'm so sad to see the demolition and destruction of Afghan culture. Let us hope something will be retained and maintained now that the king is back."

Although he is proud of his Afghan-Pathan ancestry, Khan is in no sense an exclusivist when it comes to personal, family matters. His wife, the famous dancer Subhalaxmi, is a Hindu from Assam and Khan says he never thought of asking her to convert to Islam. "I never felt like asking her," he explains. "It's a humiliation of humanity to ask anybody to convert. I don't believe in these kinds of things and thank God in our family we have freedom of religion, freedom of music, freedom of expression. Seeing the role of flowers, water, air, I feel connected with every religion and every soul."

The religious mix in his personal life may seem worthy of comment to outsiders, but Khan insists this mix is typical of day-to-day life in India. "I play the sarod, but who makes the sarod?" he says. "It's a man called Hemendra Sen in Kolkata [a Hindu]. I wear a sherwani, but who makes the sherwani? It is all interlinked. Women like wearing the sari, but who makes the saris? Muslim weavers in Varanasi."

Khan believes this composite culture that produces the sherwani, the sari, and great classical musicians is under threat. He says it would be wrong to blame any particular religion for the growing violence in India and other parts of the world; rather it is extremists who have hijacked religion for their own purposes.

"Seeing what happened on September 11 and the carnage that took place over two months in Gujarat, the burning of the train in Godhra, anything that causes destruction makes me ashamed as a human being also.

"September 11 is also an expression of hatred. I don't want to blame any religion for that because in every religion there are terrorists and in every religion there are peace-loving people. It is the same in India where the Babri Masjid was also demolished. But I believe those who destroyed the Babri Masjid were militants, I wouldn't say they were Hindus."

India has received a bad press in recent months because of the sectarian tensions and communal riots in Gujarat. They prompted one admirer of Khan to ask why he didn't leave the country for good.

Says Khan, "I replied that there were so many ups and downs of communal disharmony, but it is the same India that made Amjad Ali Khan. Somebody must have felt sorry for me that I was a Muslim and living in India. Perhaps they don't know the character of India. Our heritage is so deep-rooted and we depend on each other.

"But I heard the question and it pained me that the outside world has an image of India where the Muslim is being tortured always. It is not always like that. It is India that made me and the encouragement and love I have received from my childhood at every stage and every level I owe to India."

Khan says it is all very well to talk about the importance of education in promoting awareness and tolerance, but the real issue is law and order. "After 50 years and much education and achievement we elected Phoolan Devi [a former dacoit who later became a Member of Parliament]. Which means education has nothing to do with elections or politics. What we all want is for law and order to improve. "Like in Europe or America everybody is afraid of the law, everybody respects the law, whether they are driving the car or anywhere. The law is so powerful and strong that you may be the son of the prime minister or attorney general, but the law prevails.

"The trouble is that in India today, nobody is afraid of anything. Smash up a temple or a mosque, murder someone, anything goes... It is like somebody is monitoring the courts, every room, every ministry."

Fortunately for Khan, his life as a musician has not been touched by the forces of destruction. "I thank God our culture of classical music has flourished despite all the problems. Take for example Bengal, Maharashtra, the four states of the South. I always look forward to visiting them because there is always an appreciative audience there. They have very talented young musicians, they worship musicians, touch their feet. The reverence for classical musicians is similar to the way they treat holy people.

Khan has played all over the world with personal compositions and collaborations, including a piece for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico and launched the prestigious Hafiz Ali Khan Awards for outstanding musicianship.

Moreover, he has passed on his art form and his family's cultural tradition with all its manifestations to his two sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. "The sarod is now becoming more popular because of them. They have travelled and played with me all over the world. They have a fresh approach that has generated an interest among the young. It gives me great satisfaction that my sons are taking my music forward. They have their own unique styles and bring their own human expression to the instrument."

Khan adds that music has many faces. "Conversation, recitation, chanting, and singing are all part of music," he says. "Music can be either vocal or instrumental. Vocal music appeals to most of us because of its poetical or lyrical content. But instrumental music, such as what I play on the sarod, is pure sound. It needs to be experienced and felt. Since there are no lyrics, there are no language barriers between the performer and the listener and that is why instrumental music transcends all barriers."

Amjad Ali Khan

Design: Uday Kuckian

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