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Sarod Wizard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

I owe deep gratitude to the late Maharaja of Jodhpur for my close association and friendship with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Both of them, too, owe him a great deal. But for the liberal patronage this generous music loving prince gave to the duo in their early years, they would not have been what they are today. Credit goes to both these artists for putting the classical music of India on the map of world music. lt was Ali Akbar who, with the enthusiastic support and cooperation of the great violin player Yehudi Menuhin, cut for the first time in the late 1950s a long-playing disc of Hindustani music in New York and acquainted the Western musical world with the bewitching magic and artistry of our raga-music.

When I first heard Ali Akbar play the sarod he was in his 20s. I still remember vividly the stunning impact of his playing on the entire audience. My heart throbbed with the divine touch of his music and I felt the presence of a future superstar. He stole the show that night, and from then on it has been an onward march for him to worldwide fame and popularity.

I met him and heard him again in the year 1945. In the intervening period, he had been groomed with care by his illustrious father, the late Ustad Allaudin Khan. Although the sarod has always been his forte, Ali Akbar learnt to play various instruments in different styles - dhrupad, dhamar and khayal - from his father, and the percussion instruments pakhawaj and tabla from his uncle. He was made to practise for a gruelling 15 to 18 hours every day during his training period. No wonder that in due course he attained the status of an Ustad and emerged a shining and expertly chiselled model musician of world fame.

After the death of his patron the Maharaja of Jodhpur in an air crash, Ali Akbar set out to discover new horizons and bring more people under the spell of his music. Even today he is a globe-trotter, carrying the blazing torch of Indian classical music to distant lands. He has founded colleges to teach Indian music in Japan, Canada and the U.S.A. During my visit to the U.S.A. in 1977 he invited me to give a lecture demonstration in his college of music, at San Rafael in California. For me it was a revealing experience. The audience that evening consisted of his American students, one of whom provided me with very competent accompaniment on the harmonium. The entire group listened to my discourse and demonstration with appreciation and knowledgeable interest.

Although he has not had any formal academic education, by virtue of having lived in developed Western countries Ali Akbar Khan has a very progessive and broad outlook. In the year 1958, he gave me his wholehearted cooperation in conducting experiments to determine the moods of different ragas.

The notes of a raga have a character peculiar to itself. While expounding a melody through the skilful manipulation of these notes, a performer paints before his listeners an attractive musical picture of the raga, and during the development carries them through an emotional experience in keeping with the mood of that particular raga. Experts in the art of drawing and painting have also attemptcd pictorial representations of ragas. These paintings are mostly in miniature and are to be found displayed in art museums in the big cities of India. They are in varied style - most prominent being the Rajput, the Mughal and the Bengali styles. In various books written on Indian music both by foreigners and Indians, these miniatures are displayed to enrich the attraction of the book with their attractive colours and interesting thematic character. Usually there is, at the top or bottom of the painting, an ancient Sanskrit or Hindi couplet describing the raga.

It is interesting to observe that in all these paintings by artists in different places, at different periods and in different styles, the subject and objects are almost the same. Usually the young maiden - lovelorn - is depicted in a garden in full bloom, in company with a parrot or peacock, a cow or a deer. Occasionally she is with a youth - her lover- or a female companion. These are painted in a riot of colours, mostly green, yellow, blue and red. There is no expression on the face of the maiden and one has to visualize and imagine her mental condition by reading the couplet and from the established conventions about the mood attached to the raga. Even if there is a change in the couplet or in the picture it would not be noticed nor would it affect the artistic merit of the picture. I felt that all these paintings were results of the artists' imaginations and had little to do with the notes or moods of the ragas. I was therefore eager to find out if there was any corelation between 'line and colour' on the one hand and 'music' on the other. To arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, it was necessary to conduct an experiment. I therefore invited a galaxy of painters of nationwide and international repute to our studios one night. I explained to them individually the purpose of the get-together and I brought Ustad Ali Akbar to perform for the experiment. He was, like me, curious and anxious to know the basis for these illustrations, hence his ready cooperation. That night he gave a masterly exposition of Ragas Darbari and Malkauns on his sarod. During the marathon session lasting over 4 hours he gave very elaborate treatment to the melodies and put over a superb performance. All the painters present were carried to dizzy heights of ecstasy and pleasure, When at the end of the performance they came out of their trance, each of them was overwhelmed by the respective moods of the 2 ragas.

Towards dawn the mehfil came to an end. Before leaving the painters promised to send their pictures depicting the moods of the two ragas in a week or so, but not one of them did so, even after 3 weeks. When I met them to ask the reason for the delay, some of them requested me to let them hear a vocal rendering of the ragas in addition to the instrumental recital they had heard. 'It will then be easier for us to crystallize and express our ideas in colour,' they said. I agreed to this and persuaded no less a person than Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan to partake in experiment number two. Khan Saheb was intrigued by the novel idea of the experiment. He too sang the same ragas, Darbari Kanada and Malkauns, for two hours each, before the distinguished gathering of painters. Mr. K. K. Hebbar the renowned artist was the only one to confess frankly, that it was impossible for him to draw pictures of the ragas in this way. All the other artists once again promised to send their pictures in a few days, but none of them ever did.

The question as to whether these 2 branches of art - painting and music - are corelated is still undecided and this depresses me greatly. Whenever Ali Akbar Khan comes to India and meets me, his first question is whether I have made any fresh findings on this subject. I still have hopes of conducting another experiment and this time I am going to lay down the condition that the painters must draw on the spot, while listening to the expositions of the ragas.

****Insert: Four or five years back, there was a similar "experiment" done with Bhimsen Joshi and M.F. Hussein. I forget the details of what actually accrued. Would someone care to elaborate??....Rajan ****

Some years ago Ali Akbar wrote the music score for the Bengali film Kshudhito Pashan (Hungry Stones) which became very popular. It gives ample proof of Ali Akbar's fantastic imagination. He played the tape of background music for this film to me, and explained how he had made full use of various musical instruments. The skilful blending of the sarangi and sarod was a treat for my ears. Ever since I heard this combination of instruments, I have wanted to make a recording of a jugalbandi betveen these two instruments. Since 1954 Ali Akbar has been abroad. For the sarangi I could find no other artist to match him except the famous sarangi nawaz Pandit Ramnarayan. Both of them have agreed to make this recording, but as luck will have it, whenever Ali Akbar is on a visit to India Ramnarayan is abroad, and so this jugalbandi recording has yet to be made.

Ali Akbar, although at the pinnacle of success, is a very simple and modest person. He prefers to dress in the Indian tradition, in a long white malmal zabba and snow white pajamas. If an engagement is fixed for 10.30 Ali Akbar will invariably be there by 10.25. For the recordings he always comes fully decided on which ragas he will record and on many occasions has presented entirely new ragas of his own creation. Ragas Chandranandan, Prabhakali, Gauri-Manjiri, Hindol-Hem, Lajavanti are examples. Ragas Lajavanti and Prabhakali are his favourites and he has named his two daughters after them. While recording is in progress he is so completely absorbed in his playing that he is oblivious of time. Even so, when I, with great reluctance, would touch him softly to bring him out of his trance, he always managed to achieve in a moment a perfect finish to his performance. This, more than anything else, proves the complete mastery and control he possesses over his instruments, the swar and the taal.

From G.N.Joshi's book, posted by Rajan Parrikar on RMIC as part of Great Masters Series

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