At the recently concluded 26th edition of the Parampara Series: The National Festival of Music and Dance held at Natya Tarangini in the national capital, sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan mesmerised the audience with his soulful music. We spoke with him about the state of Indian classical music. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You’re among the few prominent sarod artistes in India, also the pioneers of classical Indian music. Do you see your legacy being carried forward by upcoming sarod players in India? Do your grandchildren, too, show an interest towards the musical instrument?
Covid has done lot of damage to the entertainment world but during the time the schools were closed, (my son) Ayaan (Ali Khan) started teaching Abeer and Zohaan, my grandchildren, and by the grace of God, both of them have shown a lot of interest. They are ready to practise for 2-3 hours a day. With great humility, I would like to mention that anybody playing sarod today, directly or indirectly, belongs to our gharana, which is known as Senia Beenkar gharana.
How do you define the present state of Indian music? Indian classical music and instruments seem to have lost their popularity in times of fast music, and remixes. Your thoughts on the same?
Classical music was never popular. Certain musicians became popular and trendsetters. We are proud of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his contribution all over the world in introducing our music to the western world. So, there’s no fear of classical music becoming unpopular because it was never popular. There are thousands of classical musicians—vocalists and instrumentalists, but if you look back historically, very few musicians became popular and now through YouTube you can hear them and, thanks to Google, you can find out about their background. Besides my father Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan saab, there were few more ancestors like Ustad Murrad Ali Khan saab and Ustad Ashgar Ali Khan saab who were court musicians in Raj Darbhanga (part of the Mithila region, now between India and Nepal) and they produced a lot of disciples including Ahmad Ali Khan of Rampur and Pandit Radhika Mohan Mitra. So, it all depends on the musicians —how and what they present. If people find their music appealing, they become famous.
There are very few sarod artistes in India today. Do you think the government is doing enough to promote it? What measures can be taken to preserve and promote Indian classical music and instrument playing? What financial aid/ measures must be given to musical schools in India to promote the same?
We don’t expect it from the government. They are doing enough in whatever ways they have decided to contribute. The government never created the musicians; so, we never waited for government encouragement. In my younger days, I had to practise every musician who became popular and successful. That’s entirely because of their parishram, saadhna, riyaz and determination. Earlier, All India Radio (AIR) was the guru for so many young musicians. Youngsters today are in a very advantageous situation. They could earlier listen to great masters on long playing records, CDs, and now on videos. I am very happy to realise that there are about 500 sarod players all over the world. There’s a sarod player in every country. The young generation is interested in classical music, and I have witnessed how Amaan and Ayaan have been receiving blessings. Indian classical music is the identity of our country. It cannot be promoted. Classical music grows on you.
You like it, or you dislike it, my advice to youngsters is to listen to all kinds of music. I don’t only endorse Indian classical but listen to folk, western classical as well. Every human being is born with sound and rhythm— the heartbeat is an indication of rhythm, conversation, recitation, chanting, singing is all part of music.
Do you see an interest in the present generation in classical music or is it limited to a certain section of fans and certain cultural events?
Whoever likes music, be it western, Indian or south Indian classical music, they go and learn from their guru or some institution. Yes, there’s a lot of interest in the present generation. I have been doing residencies in Stanford University, Indiana University and The University of Chicago and have observed a great interest among students to learn music.
Live concerts and music festivals have helped in preserving and popularising Indian classical music. Do you think such fests play an important role and must be held more frequently?
Music festivals have been a very important feature in our culture. I still remember in the late 1950s and 60s, there used to be at least 25 music festivals in Kolkata. It does give a chance to a common person to attend and listen to great masters but lately it is becoming difficult for organisers to organise fests because the prices of auditoriums have become very high. To organise a fest with famous musicians is a very expensive exercise.
Digital instruments are being increasingly used to produce sounds of classical instruments; will it lead to a decline in instrument playing?
Every instrument is limited. For instance, veena is a very ancient instrument but south Indian veena or rudra veena has a very limited sound, they are very sensitive, so I have seen a lot of veena players in the south have electric connections to make the sound louder, they have used all kinds of digital electronic gadgets. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Many sitar players or sarod players have used digital electronic gadgets but whether it is digital or a normal instrument, the music has to be appealing, only then will people listen to it.
Are you working on any new renditions in the coming year?
Rock and roll star Joe Walsh and I have come together with a three-song EP named Prayers as a tribute to doctors, frontline workers and for everyone who is going through these trying times. It’s a wonderful project where the east meets west with an idea to bring the spirit of sharing the great unique treasures of their own artistic traditions, as well as finding common ground at both the cellular and cosmic levels of two musical traditions, which are often held to be radically different. I am also currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. My latest release last month was Music for Hope with the Chinese pipa star Wu Man.