For him, music is a way of life

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 8 September 2017

Prior to his session at the fifth edition of Pune International Literary Festival, sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan gives us a peek into his book Master on Masters, the legacy of Indian classical music and how he appreciates the guru-shishya tradition

The fifth edition of Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) took off with sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and chief guest of the occasion inaugurating the three-day festival (September 8-10) in the city. Later, the ustad was in conversation with Milee Ashwarya, editor-in-chief Penguin Random House India, in a session titled ‘Yours Truly, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’.  

Prior to PILF, we caught up with the maestro to know more about his book Master on Masters, Indian classical music being carried forward by dedicated young musicians and why he thinks classical music can nurture compassion and kindness in humans, making the world a better place. Excerpts:   

Tell us about your book Master on Masters. How do you remember each of the maestros?
I was approached by Penguin Random House to write on my contemporaries. I was writing a column for Malayala Manorama for 10 years and the inspiration to focus just on contemporary artists and colleagues with whom I had an equation inspired me to go ahead with this subject. As written in the book, the time spent, the moments shared and the musical ideas exchanged with all the 12 masters will stay with me forever.

We are all humans so friction, or rather grey zones in life are natural. Some chapters do cover those areas too.

You have been a visiting professor at Stanford University, University of New Mexico and Jacob’s School of Music. Can you tell us about your students in the West who are doing good work in the field of Hindustani classical music?
The nature of my course is open even to students and instrumentalists, and vocalists of Western classical music as well. The name of the course is usually ‘Indian Classical Music: A way of life’. The aspects covered are: To make students feel and realise music, How music can be a way of life, How to appreciate music, The world outside writing or reading music, How important is oral tradition of Indian classical music, Vocal music is most essential even for an instrumentalist, etc. While teaching there are many more subjects that are discussed and taught spontaneously that is important and essential for the growth of a musician.

Different types of music can have different effects on the mind — both positive and negative. Music also has  many faces. Conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all part of it.

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. Through music I would like to connect the world. I have had very memorable residences at Stanford, Indiana, Washington and Stony Brook University.

Can you share a few examples where India’s plurality has been shaped by arts and vice-versa?
A great deal of importance is given to tradition in Indian classical music. In fact, tradition and spirituality are the backbone of classical music, whether in the form of the teaching system or the structure of ragas and talas. Great musicians or gurus have been likened to pujaris or priests who perform upasana. That is why we touch their feet. It is not an act of subservience but an elevating and liberating action. It is a unique custom that truly belongs only to our culture. It is understandable to adopt or adapt to a modern way of life and merely seek to achieve technical virtuosity but this does not mean that we forget the most essential values of our tradition and culture.

Amaan and Ayaan today do strike a correct balance between the two worlds of traditionalism and contemporariness, but it’s not something easy to do in today’s time. That said, I do see a great journey of Indian classical music being carried forward by brilliant musicians of the younger generation. These people are getting a readymade remedy to work on the research and time spent by me and my contemporaries in all these years. Thanks to the net, iPods, DVDs and CDs, we are at every home in the world. I am also very satisfied with the response of the whole world to our country and its tradition.

Is the identity of an Indian musician always linked with his/ her lineage? What, in your opinion, should be the values that a musician should bear humbly?
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.
For my father Haafiz Ali Khan, 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. In my life and journey from the age of six, I experienced the ecstasy, peace, tranquility, harmony, satisfaction and joy though various melodies, rhythms and ragas.    

There is a whole lot of new talent nowadays and I am happy to see the progress of young artists. They are very fortunate to get access to so much content today through YouTube, etc. However, to be a professional, you must learn from a teacher. My guru often told me that he did what he felt was right and I should do what I felt was right.

Generally, a guru of classical music imposes all the dos and don’ts on the shishya. That’s one reason why there are so many copy masters who sing and play identical like their gurus.

I still remember the love and warmth I received from revered Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great philosopher and guide. I was very happy to see the guru-shishya parampara being upheld in these schools as well as others that I have visited across the  country. It is this legacy that will facilitate the growth of knowledge and wisdom in harmony with well-
deserved Indian traditions, in the current times.

I am really proud of the achievements of mankind but technology must be cultivated in harmony with peace and tradition. What worries me is that the future children of this world should not behave or look like robots. To ensure this, it is vital that modernisation must be accompanied by a reverence for India’s academic traditions which have been valued through time. Today, especially after 9/11, as a musician and an artist, I often think what is the contribution of education to this world? We are still struggling on account of religion and power. We need kind and compassionate people in the world and I see classical music as a means to nurture such feelings.

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