The Ustad and the long-playing sitar
Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan is a living legend, and one among the trinity of Sitar maestros including the late Pandit Ravi Shankar and the late Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb. To mark his 85th birthday on February 23, stalwarts like Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Shubha Mudgal will perform at a tribute concert. Soma Das caught up with the down-to-earth Ustad for a candid tete-a-tete
The term ‘walls speak’ holds true as one enters the humble residence of Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan in Bandra in Mumbai. The walls are adorned with photographs of the Ustad receiving awards from dignitaries including former President APJ Abdul Kalam. There are a host of such honours that have been bestowed on him over the decades, including the Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award as well as the Tansen Samman.
Stacked against the walls are several sitars in cloth bags, which the Ustad uncovers whenever his students come by for lectures. While the 84-year-old Ustad may have given up performing on stage due to a hearing problem, he is still physically fit (thanks to rigorous 8-12 hour long riyaaz sessions) and teaches the art of playing the Sitar.
To his students, who range in the wide age group of 9 to 77, Khansaheb teaches the essence of playing the sitar interspersed with anecdotes and quotes on life. “It is easy to teach from books but true learning happens only through and from the soul. Music is like a deep sea; its never-ending. One can keep reading and writing about it.
There are only 12-notes (sur) but from their combination emerges music in all its diversity. Students must learn not just the techniques but also the skills to navigate the depths of the sitar and that’s something you can not find in books. As Keats said: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, so there is a long way to go and musicians like me have just paved a part of the path,” explains the soft-spoken Ustad.
Born in 1927, at Jawra in Madhya Pradesh, Khan started studying vocal music and sitar when he was five from his father, late Ustad Jaffer Khan, the famous musician from the Indore Gharana.
Some of Khansaheb’s major contributions to music over the years include the blending of the styles of vocal music, veena and sitar. He is known for his penchant for experimentation and for introducing the Jafferkhani Baaj — the creation of fractions within a matra or beat and embellishing them with multiple notes through varied techniques.
The Ustad is known to have familiarised North Indian music lovers with Carnatic ragas like Latangi, Kirwani, Chalanati and Sarasangi. Besides creating new ragas like Madhyami, Chakradhun, Shravati, and Khusravani, he has also pioneered the jugalbandi format performing with Hindustani instrumentalists and Carnatic musicians such as Emani Shankar Shastry, classical guitarist Julian Bream and Jazz musician Dave Brubeck.
Despite his many achievements, the Ustad remains humble and attributes it all to good luck and blessings. “Artistes are born, not made. There is a saying that though the sitar is inanimate and made of a dried-out pumpkin, where does its sound come from; its all nature’s blessing and luck plays a major role as well. I consider myself lucky to have been born in India; one needs several births to be born here,” says the Ustad.
Passing it down
In 1976, Khansaheb established the Halim Academy of Sitar to impart formal training in sitar. He has also written Jafferkhani Baaj — A Book on Innovation in Sitar Music with an interactive CD Rom. Ustadsaheb admits that he created the CD to help students have a visual reference for the intricate finger movements.
The Ustad, who is considered one part of the sitar troika — with late Pandit Ravi Shankar and late Ustad Vilayat Khan being the other two, admits that while they may not have performed together they had mutual respect for each other. “Pandit Ravi Shankar was like an elder brother; he understood me and I understood him. I also have a deep respect for Ustad Vilayat Khan. As a musician, it is important to listen to other musicians and gain inspiration as one person is not blessed with all the qualities and one can thus learn a lot from each other. Every flower has its own unique essence and smell;likewise, no two musicians can be compared. It’s not the gurus but the shishyas who fight against each other,” observesKhan.
A case for tradition
He also comments on the blind respect accorded to foreign-returned musicians as opposed to local ones. “It’s a form of reverse slavery where any musician who performs abroad and returns is given a lot of respect by Indians. Yet, we don’t respect the talent of musicians playing within the country. The obsession with fusion is also baffling; a lot of it is just confusion without melody,” laughs the Ustad.
He also adopts a flexible approach to the topic of gharanas: “There is no greater gharana than Laya (tempo) and sur (note) in music.” The Ustad who has also composed and played for films such as Mughal-E-Azam, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Goonj Uthi Shehnayi and Kohinoor, admits that it was a learning experience.
For aspiring musicians, the Ustad advises them to look at music as an end in itself. “Keep the culture alive and never forget your parents or your heritage. Whatever you do, do it religiously and don’t be mediocre. Wake up 10 minutes early and contemplate on the divine unconscious power. Don’t wait
for the reward; it will come automatically.”