Chai with Manju speaks with Amjad Ali Khan

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“Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything,” said the Greek philosopher Plato thousands of years ago, and like most beautiful things his explanation of music will remain true forever. We are a very lucky because we live in a world where with latest tools like the Internet and YouTube we can be instantly transported to the magical world of art and music, which has been perfected for generations by the likes of families such as that of Amjad Ali Khan. He is an extraordinary man, a living legend who carries in his veins the teachings of five generations of Indian classical music. He is a musician and sarod master who has performed in the best and most beautiful places in the world and has been given the highest awards and honors for his music. He is a visionary who has joined some of the bests in European classical music to create melodies that appeal to all, a trailblazer devout Muslim man who married a Hindu and taught the world that we are all connected to every soul and we all answer to a common power. He is a father who sang to his sons, Amaan and Ayaan, the first time he held them in his arms and also by becoming their guru and upholding the “Guru-Shishya Parampara” with them, and has perhaps given future generations a timeless legacy with their musical talent. It was an incredible privilege for me to interview Khan Saheb, an honor to listen to him talking about his music, fun to have a one-to-one talk with him about lighter things in life like his favorite movie “Padosan,” extraordinary to listen to his take on friendships and love, wonderful to get some tips on parenthood, marriage, success and above all inspiring to listen to his philosophy about life. Moreover, it was a treasure to hear him share his all important message about healing and tolerance in the world and that music can indeed be the bridge and has rightly been called medicine of the mind.

Since the age of 6, when he gave his first recital of sarod, Khan has been the author of a glorious chapter in the history of Indian classical music. Taught to play the sarod by his father, Haafiz Ali Khan, whose family stakes claim to having invented the famed stringed instrument, Khan represents the sixth generation in this legendary lineage. Amjad Ali Khan’s wife Subhalakshmi has been a great exponent of the Indian classical dance, Bharatnatyam.

Throughout his illustrious career, Khan has performed internationally while representing India at the World Arts Summit in Venice and receiving honorary citizenship in the states of Massachusetts, Tennessee and Texas. In addition to performing at major music festivals around the globe, Khan has been a regular performer at some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls including Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, the Kennedy Center and Mozart Hall.

In 2001, Khan was awarded India’s second highest civilian honor when he received the Padma Vibhushan; recognizing his exceptional and distinguished service to the nation. He was also nominated for a Grammy in 2009 in the Best Traditional World Music Album category for the album “Ancient Sounds” — a joint venture with Iraqi oud soloist Rahim Alhaj.

You have written a book about your dad Haafiz Ali Khan on the 40th anniversary of his death. Why did you write this book and why did it take so long?

The prospect of writing a book was constantly in my mind in all these years. However, it got a kick start due to my family. I use to maintain a dairy from 1984 to 1986 in which I would write about my daily travels and concerts. Along with that I would go back in time and write detailed anecdotes and incidents about my father and his contemporaries. I had thrown these so called “useless” dairies away one day, but little to my knowledge my family saved. They got it all typed up and gave me the manuscript and said that this can be a potential book. I was thrilled at the prospect as so any years had gone by and I did want to say many things at this stage of my life. The fact that my sons, Amaan and Ayaan, wrote a book on my in 2002 was also a great inspiration. It took me almost three-and-a-half years to complete this book. The fact that it coincided with my father’s 40th death anniversary was a great coincidence.

You have said that “Guru-Shishya Parampara” came before father-son relationship. Does this apply to you and your sons, too?

I cannot remember a particular day that I was initiated into the world of music. It was a part of me from as early as I can remember. Indeed, I cannot think of a moment when music has been separated from my life. My father, the legendary Sarod maestro, Haafiz Ali Khan of Gwalior lived for music. Today, a wise man does not allow his son to become a classical musician, because of the uncertainty and insecurity of a livelihood. That is why, in the past, only sufi saints and faqirs could dedicate their lives to music or to God. 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. Musicians and listeners of music have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this “language” from time immemorial.

As we use flowers in worship, welcoming, honoring, departure and celebration no matter what our race, origin, religion or language, we similarly arrange musical notes into “bouquets” or compositions which display all our human feelings and emotions. I am grateful to God that He has given us Amaan and Ayaan. My years teaching them have been quite an experience. In a family where music is a way of life, and fundamental to it, training in its intricacies starts from the moment a child is born. 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. As a teacher, it was the first time I was able to hold a student on my lap. As time progressed, their training and the musical knowledge that I have tried to pass on to them, continued in our music room. In the course of Amaan and Ayaan’s training, which is an ongoing process for a classical musician, 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. This I feel is only natural, for the music that an individual creates is a reflection of his or her mind and soul. Over the years Amaan and Ayaan have received immense love and blessings from people in India and all over the world. 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.

In the current world of multimedia and so many resources to learn from, how important is “Guru-Shishya Parampara” and do you think it is possible to be successful without it?

There is no logic to success. An outstanding musician can emerge from any school or system of music. I, however, value and respect the age old timeless tradition of Guru-Shishya. The multimedia or even institutions could not produce any performing artists who really made a mark.

You have received numerous awards. Which one is most special to you?

The greatest award is a good concert and the love of the audience.

You are quite a trailblazer in every way. You are also a Muslim married to a Hindu. How has that affected the upbringing of your kids?  What were the major challenges that you encountered?

Our family feels connected to every soul and we have a common power up there. For us the religion is music, the air we breathe is music. Like flowers, air, fragrance, color belong to all, so does music and musicians.

Your sons wrote the book “Amjad Ali Khan Abba.” How did that make you feel?

I was very proud and happy as they had to touch many aspects of my personal life and profession keeping in mind that I am also their guru. I think they did a great job. Like I said, my book was inspired by theirs.

Would you like to be a part of the Bollywood music world? Have you played for any movies? If so, which one is your favorite?

I ironically played myself in Sai Parajpai’s movie “Sparsh” where I was giving a concert. I have many dear friends in the Indian film industry but the prospect to do a project in it has yet to be.

You have taught at Stanford University. Do you enjoy teaching? How do you prepare for it?

It was a great experience. I have had the honor of teaching at so any universities including Washington, Yorkshire and Stony Brook. I love these residencies as I am not teaching sarod but making students realize music as a way of life. In fact my course at Stanford was called “Indian Classical Music: A Way of Life.”

How do you prepare before your performances?

Eat, pray and think. It all depends on the audience, the atmosphere and surroundings. It’s all inspirational.

Which performance has been most satisfying for you?

I am yet to be satisfied.

You have performed at so many places in the world. Which one is your favorite? Is there any place that you still want to perform?

I feel as satisfied to see the presentation of concerts in Europe and the United States. The concept of a venue presenting an artist is so wonderful. Indian classical music is ideal for intimate settings but every concert hall has its own interpretation of sound and atmosphere. I feel very honored to have played in so many prestigious venues. You feel as if you are an extension of the great music played in that stage. However, I have had so many memorable concerts even at lesser known or smaller venues. The music, the inspiration and the audience eventually makes the concert memorable.

What is your favorite piece of music and why?

So many — it is very hard to list.

Can you explain your comment “when sound becomes music”?

When sound becomes melodic and appealing, it’s music.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?

When I am with my family.

How do you balance music, work, travel and family so well?

Time management.

Does Amjad Ali Khan still have any dreams or has fulfilled them all?

So many to be fulfilled. Sky is the limit.

Any regrets in life?

I wish I could hear my father when he was much younger as I was a late child.

Do you have any message for our readers?

Musical vibrations can convey moods and emotions and have the ability to mold and shape our consciousness. Different types of music can have different effects on the mind — both positive and negative. Our mind is like any living organism. It must be nurtured and needs stimulation to develop and grow. Music is one of the most important “foods” for the intellect. Each musical note is connected to this most important part of our minds.

Music has many faces. Conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all part of music. Music can be either vocal or instrumental. Vocal music appeals to most of us because of its poetical or lyrical content. Instrumental music on the other hand, such as what I play on the sarod, is pure sound. It needs to experience and felt. Since there are no lyrics, there is no language barrier between the performer and the listener, and that is why instrumental music transcends all barriers. 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. Sound pollution is also a daily hazard. Music helps to retune ones system. That is why eminent doctors and psychologists are prescribing certain type of music as a form of therapy and treatment for stress disorders. Noisy music on the other hand can be damaging to human mind and body. Music, like sarod, needs to be heard at moderate volume and with concentration to avail of its positive effects.

In Western classical music, a composer scores a composition which is read and sung or played by the vocalists or musicians. In the Indian classical system, there is no written or scored music. It would be extremely difficult to record and subsequently interpret the subtle nuances on paper. We therefore follow an ‘oral’ tradition. Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers, one that I am constantly sharing with my disciples.

His response to “Rapid-Fire Questions”:

Music is … my life.
Love is … very important for every human being.
Fame is … blessings from God.
Marriage is … commitment.
Money is … essential for survival.
My favorite Raag is … Love them all but I do favor “Bhairavi.”
My favorite travel destination is … Gwalior (home town).
My favorite hobby is … right now, writing a column in The Week magazine.
My favorite quote is … I believe in and like to say “By the grace of God.”
My favorite movie is … “Padosan,” a classic. I totally enjoyed Mehmood and Kishore Kumar in the movie.
My favorite song is … “Chingari koi Bhadke” from the movie “Amar Prem.”
My favorite singers are … Ustab Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Begum Akhtar.
Best advice given to me by my dad is … to be the best and the importance of understanding “Swar ki duniya ko samjhana zarori hei.”
Best advice that I have given to my sons … “Bahut riyaz karo.”
My best quality is … Looking for other people’s best qualities.
My best friends are … My sons and my wife.
I believe that … Success has no logic.
Secret of my fitness is  … I always eat less than what I want to eat … and I recently met with Baba Ramdev to learn more about yoga that I hope to implement in my life .
I truly believe in … “Ek hi sadhe saab sadhe, saab sadhe saab jaye.” (Know one, you know all; try knowing all, all will be nothing.)
My last word on chai with Manju is … Anyone who is trying to achieve something in life needs to learn tolerance and patience.

Every life has a story, share it with INDIA New England over “Chai with Manju,” an exciting, innovative and riveting series featuring interviews with some of the most interesting, active, accomplished, amusing and entertaining men and women. Conducting the new interview series is Dr. Manju Sheth, a well-known physician at Beverly Hospital and INDIA New England’s 2011 Woman of the Year. She is also president of Indian Medical Association of New England. Sheth leads and is involved with numerous professional groups, charities and advocacy organizations, and will be profiling people who have compelling stories to tell. If you or someone you know has a compelling story to tell, you may contact Sheth at  or INDIA New England Editor Martin Desmarais


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