The year was 2003. At Kolkata’s Science City auditorium, the aisles were brimming with people, as those who had gathered waited with bated breath for a duet between shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and sarod exponent Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The two had known each other well. Bismillah Khan addressed Amjad Ali Khan’s father as ‘chacha sahab’, and was friends with Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Amjad Ali Khan’s elder brother. The two had just performed a duet and were basking in its success. But in Kolkata, on stage, the shehnai maestro sat cupping his face and said he couldn’t play because the acoustics weren’t up to the mark. He walked out 20 minutes into the concert. The sarod maestro played on, though, for another hour to save the day. Ali Khan, in interviews later, said Bismillah Khan should be stripped off his Bharat Ratna. He called him “money-minded” and said when on stage, Bismillah Khan had whispered in his ears that “he was being paid only for an hour” and was not happy with the payment.
In his recent book, Master on Masters, in which Ali Khan ties his life with 12 eminent musicians of the 20th century—Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Begum Akhtar, Alla Rakha, Kesarbai Kerkar, Kumar Gandharva, MS Subbulakshmi, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Kishan Maharaj—he chooses to tell the Bismillah Khan story, but omits certain pertinent details from a discordant piece in the history of music, one that’s still talked about in music circles. It’s only second to the famous strife between Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, which also, surprisingly, finds no mention in the chapter Ali Khan writes on Shankar. In a book where Ali Khan writes a short biography of these musicians and lavishly talks about their relationship with him and his father, one wonders why he wouldn’t give out the complete stories.
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When a musician writes about his senior and fellow musicians, those he has seen closely, learnt from and performed with, the vantage point from where he writes changes.
Most fascinating, however, in the book are the backstage stories, the kind that only Ali Khan would know because he was there. What’s also interesting is the fact that the book takes one through the inspiring world of Hindustani classical music and makes us aware of its nitty-gritty, its tehzeeb, the concept of learning at a guru’s feet, and how learning music for these men and women was not just about learning the seven notes, it was a way of life.
The book’s introduction, which stretches to 41 pages, is jumpy and unsteady. There are many important points made here—the sacredness of the guru-shishya parampara; recordings only sound as brilliant as the music in them; methods of presentation of classical music; and that this form of music is not a brand of shampoo that can be promoted, it needs to be nurtured. The points are significant. The connection created in putting them together is not. Because there is none. The writing, however, changes in intonation and style the moment one gets into the chapters on the masters. One wonders if it’s exemplary writing or great editing.
While telling the intimate life stories of the art form’s luminaries, Ali Khan provides some important nuggets from their lives—like tabla exponent Pandit Kishen Maharaj’s exceptional ability to play cross-rhythms and produce complex calculations just like a mathematician, the story of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi running away from home to pursue a career in music, and how the temperamental Kesarbai was a consummate artiste.
A lot of times, though, these nuggets are more about Ali Khan and his father’s relationship with these musicians and less about the artiste and his/her art, and that’s a problem.
Master on Masters is a pleasant read and Ali Khan is in auspicious company. One only wishes that he had not missed certain significant controversies and stories about these artistes and given detailed biographical sketches rather than caricaturing them at best.