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An Exclusive Interview With Sarod Maestro – Amjad Ali Khan

At the age of 6, Amjad Ali Khan gave his first recital of Sarod. Since, then it has been nearly 70 years and there has been no looking back. Mr. Khan belongs to Bangash lineage which is credited with the facilitating the survival and evolution of this beautiful instrument. He has also created many Ragas. Mr Khan has been bestowed upon with several national and international awards, doctorates, citizenship and other honors during his life span. He is also one of the living legends who was honored with declaring 20 April, 1984 as Amjad Ali Khan day by governor of Massachusetts. He has bee invited to perform at all world stages including the Noble Prize ceremony.

Mythical India Interview Amjad Ali Khan Sarod
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with Sarod

We can go on with his list of achievements and write a separate post about them. Mythical India got this wonderful and honoring opportunity to interact with the living legend Amjad ALi Khan, over an email interview about his career, Sarod, Indian classical music, his sons and much more.

Mythical IndiaYou started playing since the age of 6 years and have played for nearly 7 decades during your illustrious career. Your ancestors are said to have developed and played the instrument for over a century. Can you tell us a bit about the interesting history of Sarod?

Amjad Ali Khan: Sarod is one example of an instrument that evolved from other structurally similar Indian and Afghan lutes around the middle of the nineteenth century. The Sarod as we know of today, traces its genealogy and origin back to Rabab of yore. So, it was with the Rabab, the folk instrument of ancient Afghanistan, Persia and several other countries, each with a variation giving it an identity of its own. The Pathan Bangash family who were from Central Asia pioneered the task and contributed to the evolution of the present day Sarod. It was the quest of Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash for something more that resulted in the modification of the Rabab with certain additions-the new element of melody being the high point of change (largely made possible with a metal chest on the finger board along with metal strings instead of those of gut).And it was this concept of melody, which gave the instrument its name SAROD-being literally a derivation from “Sarod”- meaning melody in Persian. These innovations won Ghulam Bandegi Bangash great acclaim which was further perfected by his son Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash. They were all our forefathers! Having said all this, you eventually are what your music is. Your legacy should show on your work not on facts and history alone!!

Mythical IndiaYou learned the music from your father Hafiz Ali Khan sahib and your ancestral heritage is related to Sarod playing. Did all this ever made you feel burdened and nervous?

Amjad Ali Khan: For my father, 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. My father, Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan Saheb was, by example, completely devoted to the purity and sanctity of music, which permeated every aspect of his daily life, and at the basis of which, was a deep and fundamental love for music, humanity and God, which, for him, were inseparable from one another. As my guru, along with music, he also taught me the lessons of love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and the strength of faith. His trust and faith in humanity was complete and unquestioning. There was no doubt in his mind that the mutual dependency and trust with his neighbors could not be broken by mere politically motivated differences. I offer my humble salutations to the man, the music and the guru whom the world knew as Haafiz Ali Khan every day of my life!

Mythical IndiaWe read that you yourself are very fond of European classical music, listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart etc. Do you feel that there is a need for Indian students to be exposed to this culture of Orchestra which is prominent in west?

European culture always fascinated me because of their collective contribution to create beautiful music and also their commitment and dedication to the melody.

Amjad Ali Khan: I am so proud to see and feel the reverence and admiration the western world has for creative people. All the great composers of the European music like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky etc. are still alive through their legendary compositions. It is a duty of school and colleges to find out from the students what kind of a music they would like to listen to and which artist they would like to invite to their schools or colleges for an outreach. I have always admired the European system of music. In fact, all my past residencies in Universities have had students of western classical music learn our musical way of life. In fact, the name of the course of my residency at Stanford this spring is called Classical Music: A Way of Life. My aim is to teach student musicians, to perform and appreciate Indian Classical Music, and shares my own experiences as a classical musician raised in the traditional system of music discipleship. My past residencies at York University in UK, Washington University in Seattle and Stony Brook University in New York are open to students of all instruments and from any musical tradition. No previous experience with Indian music is necessary. After nearly a year of work, I decided to name this project Samagam-A concerto for Sarod. The idea was to bring the spirit of sharing the great unique treasures of our own artistic traditions, as well as finding common ground in Ragas and Medieval modes.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with Sarod - Mythical India

Mythical IndiaYou have dedicated your life to Indian classical music and making “Sarod” famous in the western world. Now, your sons are touring European, Asian and American countries doing the same. What changes do you foresee regarding the popularity of Sarod?

Amjad Ali Khan: Since my childhood, I always wanted my instrument, the Sarod to be able to express the entire range of human emotions…to Sing, Shout, Whisper and cry. All the emotions! It has been a long journey so far and by the benevolence of the heavens, the Sarod has become far more expressive than it was 25 years ago. Sarod has reached out today all over the world. In recent times, the Guitar legends like Joe Walsh and the young Derek Trucks have taken a fancy to Sarod. Along with my sons Amaan and Ayaan, we presented ‘Raga for Peace’ on this momentous occasion of Nobel prize ceremony as a tribute to Kailash Saryarthi and Malala Yosufzai. I am grateful to God that people of India and all over the world love me and my family and have many expectations from us. I am definitely constantly thinking and searching for something. It’s all there! We just need to tune to the frequency. Today, I am experimenting, doing interesting projects. The world today has indeed become a global village. Musically, there is so much more that has to be done. It’s a long journey.

Mythical IndiaWhat is the inspiration behind your music? You have created so many ragas, so what would you credit your inspiration for the tunes that you have created?

Amjad Ali Khan: I feel very hesitant and embarrassed to say that I have composed the ragas. I feel embarrassed or rather find it technically impolite to say that I create Ragas. A new Raga is like a new born Baby. A Raga for me is not just a mere scale. It is much more than that, perhaps like a living identity.  When a child is conceived, in this case a Raga invoked, how can you not accept the Raga? The Raga would ask me ‘Do you know me?’ and I say ‘I don’t’. Then I have to give it a name and hence the Raga becomes mine, just like my own offspring. I would like to believe that the motivation for this is, spiritual. In fact, I have discovered many Ragas like Ganesh Kalyan, Lalita Dhwani, Bapu Kauns – On the 125th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi composed Bapu Kauns and performed in UNESCO Paris in the presence of Late Shri. P.V. Narasimha Rao, former Prime Minister of India and Director General of UNESCO. The list goes on around forty ragas. I feel that certain Raags cannot be explained through notation only. Since ours is an oral tradition, one needs to understand the character of each Raag and understand its mood.

Mythical IndiaWhat according to you should be the right method for someone to attain perfection in Indian classical Music forms like yourself?

Amjad Ali Khan: A wonderful and strange mystery of Indian classical music is the fact that one can spend a lifetime trying to attain knowledge and perfection and still feel that one has only touched a mere drop of an ocean. Along the Journey of searching and discovering, the learning never stops. Its understanding changes with every year a musician lives. I see so much talent which perhaps I hadn’t seen twenty years ago. The young artists today are also very fortunate to have so many platforms wherein they can project their hard work and skill. I wish every youngster the very best in life to achieve their goal. Every era incorporates a new flavor and colour to an existing canvas. Music also finds a new method and new feel to every passing year. There is no method or technique to what is the right way as classical music is an oral tradition and no book or shashtra says how it should be executed.

Mythical IndiaBoth Ayaan and Amaan are shouldering the responsibility of taking forward the legacy. Can you tell us more about their training and how has been your experience performing with your sons?

Amjad Ali Khan: I am grateful to God that He has given us Amaan and Ayaan. When I held Amaan for the first time, I sang into his ear. On Ayaan’s arrival two years later, I did the same. In essence, their training started from that moment, soon after their birth. From the day they came into the world, they were both drawn to music. Perhaps, a wise parent would not allow two sons to play the same instrument, but because music is the only wealth I inherited from my forefathers, I wanted to share it equally with both of them. In the course of Amaan and Ayaan’s training, I never encouraged them to copy my style. As they matured as musicians, I was relieved to see that both the brothers were developing an approach that was distinctive and rather different from what they were taught. I have really enjoyed their collaboration with guitarist Derek Trucks, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and cellist Matthew Barley. Subhalakshmi and I always hope to see them progress, be successful and happy. By the grace of God, they have matured into multi-faceted personalities. With time, Amaan and Ayaan have become my closest companions in the music industry. Most of our concert tours, especially the ones overseas, are together, and as a result we have been able to spend immense quality time, both as father-son and teacher-disciple. All concerts have been memorable, from numerous ones at the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, among many others.

Mythical IndiaWhat would you say is one striking contrast you notice while performing India and abroad?


Amjad Ali Khan: Every part of the world has its own distinctive color. In India, we are used to hearing phrases like ‘Kya Baat Hai’ or subhanalaah’ etc whereas in the west the concept of a standing ovation or not walking in during a set is something we still need to learn from.

The wonderful truth is any music, from anywhere in the world is based on the same seven, beautiful musical notes;

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni


Do Re Me Fa So La Ti

Mythical IndiaWhat is that one piece of advice that you would like to share with young musicians who aspire to be successful if their art form?

Amjad Ali Khan: Music is essential for mind and body. Pure music like Sarod, violin etc. listened to with concentration restores the subtle mental imbalances that crop in today’s modern lifestyle. People today need more than ever to cope with tensions, distress, depression and struggle to find peace and relaxation. Music helps to retune ones system. Music, like Sarod, needs to be heard at moderate volume and with concentration to avail of its positive effects. Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers; one that I am constantly sharing with my disciples.

There isn’t any instant coffee culture that you can follow! Only Practice can work not any kind of digital correction can!

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