'Thank God, I live in the world of sound'
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan spoke during the recent release of his father Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan's memoirs, telling Fiona Fernandez that the greatness of his father lay in his simplicity and commitment to the purity of music
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan shared a long, mutually respectful association with sitar legend late Pandit Ravi Shankar so, it was perhaps natural that we begin by asking him about the sitar legend. Naturally, one wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and whether the words would flow about it, if at all. Much to our surprise, the Ustad expressed his keenness to speak about ‘Dada’ -- “I considered him as my older brother,” he opens up, clearing his throat with a sip of water.
“Dada and I shared a spiritual connect. His guru and my father were contemporaries. My father and he shared a Guru-Bhai (disciple-brother) relationship; they also learnt under the same teacher, Ustad Wazir Khan from Rampur,” recalls the Ustad. The next few minutes are dedicated towards reminiscing about how their families connected, did dinners together, how his wife, Subhalakshmi and Sukanya (Pandit Ravi Shankar’s wife) shared a bond and how they followed each other’s festivals and performances despite following busy schedules. It’s a quick realisation of the undeniable respect and admiration within the Indian classical music fraternity.
Memoirs for father
By now, the Ustad indicates that he’d like to shift talk to the book, his labour of love. He takes a deep breath after those emotional first 15 minutes. “Ten years back, Aman and Ayaan dedicated a book to me, as part of their Guru Dakshina. It inspired me to write about my father’s life. Though I am not a good writer, in the 1980s, I maintained a diary for my overseas tours. One day, I dumped it all, only for Ayaan to stumble upon it in the waste paper bin!” recalls the Ustad. When asked about the support for this book, he quickly mentions his wife and sons roles, though Ayaan comes in for special praise.
The maestro tells us that the realisation that nothing noteworthy had been published about his father, the illustrious sarod maestro Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan, made him keener to release this memoir on the 40th year since his passing away. “From personal experience, I must admit that these days, very few disciples are fond of their gurus. There is a glamour and attraction to be associated with famous gurus. But in reality, the guru is a via media to climb the ladder to fame. This holds true for most gurus in India,” he reveals, his voice tinged with regret.
Save the Raag
“My father was a simple man who was committed to the purity and sanctity of music. He connected with the oral tradition more than the written word,” the Ustad reveals, as talk veers to why this book is special for today’s younger generation. He recalls of a time in 1960, when he accompanied his father to Rashtrapati Bhavan where he was to be conferred with the Padma Bhushan. “My father had warned me to keep my head gear on, when I was to be introduced to India’s biggest politicians and leaders. It was a tradition in those days -- Maharajas didn’t like it if musicians didn’t wear it on important occasions. I removed it finally when I met Pandit Nehru. After the investiture ceremony, while having tea, President Rajendra Prasad enquired with my father if he was content and had any complaints in Delhi.”
The Ustad’s eyes light up , “We lived in Delhi in a rented place, with no car and other luxuries. Expecting the mention of some favour to be granted, the President was shocked when my father requested that India’s First Citizen to intervene to save the purity of the Raag Darbari from Bihar instead!” He was afraid that this raag would lose its importance. As the story goes, the President reassured him that he would do everything in his power to revive its lost glory. The Ustad goes on to tell us how later, at the same function, his father who wasn’t aware of protocol on such occasions, took the President’s leave because he had to do his namaaz at that hour. “Father was such a simple soul, and it was this simplicity that made him great,” he adds. The book is laced with several similar anecdotes of the legend’s humility.
About Jaadu Nagari
“Historically, every musician always dreamt of coming to Mumbai the Jaadu Nagari (magical city),” says the Ustad when we ask him about returning to the city. “My first performance was back in 1961 . The organisers sent me a third class train ticket for my show at Chhabildas High School, it's in Dadar, right?” he double-checks. “I admired this city -- its vibe, the sea. However, I never got a chance to live here because from the time I turned 12, I began touring across India. Hence, I didn’t have time to plan my career. I was the youngest child in the family and began to take on responsibility from that young age,” the Ustad tells us leading us into another amusing episode. “In 1957, Lachhu Maharaj (Birju Maharaj’s brother) who choreographed for films like Mughal-e-Azam, Mahal and Pakeezah, was teaching me kathak. One day, when my father wasn’t around, he suggested that I go to Mumbai where he could make me a hero. As soon as he saw my father step into the room, he got scared as my father questioned him, “Lachhu, aap kya kar rahe ho?” My father was worried that young boys like me, from small towns would get corrupted if we went to the Jaadu Nagari!”
My father’s son
Throughout our conversation, the Ustad’s sense of responsibility towards his family cannot be missed. He continues, “I wanted to be around my father. He felt immense sadness when my brothers and other family members didn’t follow in his footsteps. There was a vacuum in his life; so, it was impossible to think of moving to the US, or for that matter, even Bombay or Calcutta at the time.” There is immeasurable gratitude in the legend’s tone when he says, “I was accepted by India and earned her love while I toured with my father.”
Looking back, the Ustad is happy to have been born into a world of sound -- “swar hi ishwar hai” he elucidates. It's a world where nothing can be manipulated. All is transparent. I thank God that I live in this world where there are no lies, no actors and nobody gets hurt. It’s far better than shabdon ki duniya, the world of words where it’s all about winning or losing, and everything is manipulated through our speech,” he explains not before reiterating how much putting together this book has meant to him. “It is a commitment to my forefathers; their contribution needed to be showcased and I am honoured to be their torchbearer.”
The pride is illuminated further, as we flip through the pages of the book and stop at a photograph of Amaan and Ayaan in performance. “It is more challenging for them. They are talented, and dedicated to their music. They follow a code of conduct, respect seniors and are kind and compassionate human beings. What more can I ask for!” Once last time, he quotes from his father’s book of wisdom. “He said that the greatest weapons to take you to your manzil are tolerance and patience.” Music might be his mainstay but the Ustad’s deep understanding of the mind is fascinating. “These days, there is so much anger and arrogance in the world. If we can control it, we are blessed with God’s grace and power.”
As he ended it was 3 pm, and the hour spent with the Ustad felt more like one looking through a trellis window into the celebrated corridors of Indian classical music. We left, more inspired, awakened and in sync with this world.
My Father, Our Fraternity: The story of Haafiz Ali Khan and my world. Roli Books.
Price: Rs 595