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Understanding the Ustad and the secrets of his sarod

July 10 -16, 2019

Gulf Weekly Naman Arora
By Naman Arora

Gulf Weekly Understanding the Ustad  and  the secrets of his sarod

Indian classical music legend Padmavibhushan Ustad Amjad Ali Khan serenaded members of the Indian expat community with an evening of virtuoso sarod music in a crescendo event held at the Bahrain Keraleeya Samajam (BKS)’s Golden Jubilee Hall.

BKS’s Award Night 2019 started off with a dance performance dedicated to Ram and Sita, which was followed by the Business Icon of the Year award given to Abdul Rahman Mohamed Juma, the chairman and managing director of UNEECO Group of Companies.

The award, which was presented by Abdul Hussain bin Ali Mirza, the minister of Electricity and Water Affairs, has previously been granted to Farouk Almoayyed, chairman of YK Almoayyed group and Jihad Bukamal, chairman of Bukamal group.

BKS president P V Radhakrishnan Pillai said: “The highly successful event, organised by the Keraleeya Samajam’s executive committee, featured Ustad’s sarod concert as well as local talent from the BKS and was in honour of the contributions Mohamed made to the Keralite expat community in Bahrain.”

After the awards and a speech by the minister highlighting the historical close economic and cultural ties between Bahrain and India, music lovers settled in for the sweet sarod symphonies of Ustad.

The sarod, which means beautiful melody in Farsi, is a challenging 17-25 string instrument made of teakwood, goat skin and chrome-plated steel. With Afghani, Persian and Indian roots, the sarod, played in the same register as the oud, is known for its introspective sound and finger nails and tips are used to stop the string against the fingerboard.

“I have to constantly keep filing my nails on stage to keep the sound weighty yet playful,” said Ustad Amjad towards the end of the concert as he took a small break, adding intimacy to the night as he demonstrated the difference in sound between playing with finger tips versus the nail.

While this may seem like excessive nitty-gritty, the sarod, which only has 500 players worldwide, is an instrument only for those with particular attention to detail and can take a lifetime of commitment to master and play.

Ustad Amjad, who has performed at countless international events including the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, has dedicated his life to the instrument and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2001, the second-highest civilian award in India for his exceptional and distinguished service to his country.

GulfWeekly sat down for an interview with the Ustad himself at his hotel suite to talk about what the music the legend has witnessed and shaped since his prodigy years.

Born Masoom Ali Khan Bangash to a renowned music family in 1945, Ustad Amjad has always been a student of the creative oral tradition at the feet of his father, Gwalior court musician Hafiz Ali Khan. Ustad Amjad also passed on the mantle to his sons, Amaan and Ayaan who are both accomplished musicians in their own right and have performed numerous times in Bahrain.

Renamed to Amjad, which means greater glory in Urdu, with the blessing of a Hindu saint, the talented instrumentalist then earned the title of Ustad, as he worked closely with his many teachers and started to perform publicly. Ustad means genius in Urdu and is a title bestowed by connoisseurs on the virtuosos of the Indian music world.

“Many of my colleagues in Indian music talk about the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) oral tradition but that relationship is diluting because everyone wants to be a guru but no one wants to be a disciple,” said Ustad Amjad.

“My sons, however, have taken it on and will carry the Bangash family tradition forward, especially in the art of the sarod.”

While born and raised in and by India, the Ustad, who now splits his time between New Delhi and New York, has experienced the gamut of global music.

He regaled: “Music is something that has connected the world. There are only seven musical notes. Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni or Do Re Me Pha So La Ti. So any music in the world is based on these notes. Systems may be different but the essence is the same.”

He worked with legendary British composer David Murphy, who has worked with other legends like Ravi Shankar and Seiji Ozawa, to immortalise his own body of work into Samaagam. A confluence of cultures, Samaagam was first premiered in 2008 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

 “The good thing with Western music is that, once written down, compositions can be replicated across generations,” said Ustad Amjad. “Thus, we get to listen to the works of Beethoven even today. However, with Indian music, no two performances are exactly the same. Since there is no music to read, an art form I have yet to master, musicians feel the room and can add more creativity to their performance.”

It reflects the vision that Ustad Amjad has had for his work since he started: Unity. He has worked with orchestras and musicians from a plethora of backgrounds. His marriage to Assamese Hindu Bharatanatyam dancer, Subhalakshmi, transcends cultural and religious divides across India.

He even chose to play the sarod and his voice as instruments, instead of singing, because “instruments unite while language divides.” This undying commitment to unity doesn’t intend to halt anytime soon.

“Next time I am in Bahrain, I want to work with a full Bahraini orchestra” he added. “I met a prominent musician and the cultural minister. We are going to do something together.”

Ustad Amjad’s sarod has tangoed previously with the oud, in Ancient Sounds, collaboration with noted Iraqi musician Rahim Alhaj. However, with a full orchestra, GulfWeekly is excited to live stream this concerto of consciousness.

Naman’s Notes

Full disclosure: I had barely heard the name of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan before last week. However, the mere mention that I may be listening to him instantly turned my middle-aged mother and uncle, who are 5,000 kilometres apart, into squealing school children.

This cross-border unity intrigued me and as I listened to his music while researching his many performances, I was transported to a royal court in Mughal times, or at least my idea of them based on my limited Bollywood experience.

His sarod live was an experience unto itself and I encourage all interested readers to check out his Nobel Peace Prize performance, at the award ceremony for noted Indian children’s rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi, as a gateway to his body of work.

I have come to expect people of such stature to be paragons in humility and Ustad Amjad lived up to my expectations and then some, as we shared a chai and chat at his temporary nest.

And as much I look forward to listening to the legend live again, I also dream of one day meeting his progeny and finding out what makes him tick as a father and teacher.

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