Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Remembering Ali Akbar Khan - I

If a random group of scholars of English Literature were to be asked when they expected the reemergence of a literary persona of the stature of Shakespeare, I am sure that everyone would simply say "Never". I think the same response would come from Bengalis if asked about the "next Tagore". For myself, I do not think that it is possible for a sarodiya with the same compelling musicianship of Ali Akbar to ever appear again. This piece is an attempt to draw attention to what I feel were the features that made Ali Akbar's music a singular phenomenon. It is also a tribute from an ardent admirer who due to unforeseen circumstances did not follow Ali Akbar's musical output very closely during the last twenty years.

If one is to judge a musician at the end of his career in any manner that can claim to be objective, the procedure is simple:

1. Examine the recordings that are available;
2. See how the music lovers have responded to the musician during his performing career;
3. if possible, gauge how fellow musicians viewed the artiste .

In all but one of these criteria it would be difficult to make a strong case for Ali Akbar as one of the greatest of all Hindustani musicians. In the first place, the quality of Ali Akbar's output fluctuated wildly, not only over the course of his six decade long career, but even within the span of a single week or a single day!

As for listeners' reactions, Hindustani music lovers are, to my mind incorrigibly opinionated: the devotees of Pandit ABC will not acknowledge even the technical competence of Ustad XYZ if the latter is regarded as a competitor of the former! This propensity becomes even more pronounced when one restricts to the subset of listeners who are student/practitioners themselves. While Ali Akbar's devotees would invariably find his music overwhelming I would quite often wonder wether I was listening to a different concert at a different venue.

One occasion which I remember vividly even after almost 50 years was a concert held at the lawns of a private residence in South Calcutta, to celebrate Ali Akbar's birthday which also happened to be the Bengali New Year's Day and the anniversary of the founding of the Ali Akbar College of Music. After a long solo by Samta Prasad, the main item commenced: a most remarkable, unwieldy and unsuccessful assemblage of four musicians: Ali Akbar himself, Nikhil Bannerjee, Bahadur Khan and Ashish Khan!

The first problem was that only Ali Akbar, Nikhil Bannerjee and, of course, Samta Prasad had microphones in front of them. The two sarodiyas in the second row could be barely heard; but during the alap Ali Akbar felt compelled to be fair and give one fourth of the time to these inaudible members of the quartet. The remaining time was split between himself and Nikhil Bannerjee. The alap in Bihag gradually progressed into the jor and one of the musicians in the second row was playing and Ali Akbar with a broad grin snatched away the slow musical progression of the jor with a jangling and undecipherable cascade of notes ending in Sa, played a brief mohara, and handed over to Nikhil who gave it back to Ali Akbar. Half the audience roared "Wah wah!" for what was a bored and exasperated outburst from Ali Akbar which lacked any musical content whatever. And Ali Akbar rocked in mirth! Unfortunately the devotees could not comprehend that their idol was openly mocking their reaction!

It is only when we try out the third criterion and ask fellow-musicians, that we find a near-universal feeling of awe and wonder at the achievements of Ali Akbar. But even here, I am compelled to qualify what I have just stated. One has to probe musicians who have heard Ali Akbar in the fifties or earlier. I recall that in 1977, my student Peter Manuel brought over a young sitariya to my flat in Delhi (he is now well-known and hence will remain anonymous here). We spent a very pleasant afternoon talking about music and listening to choice items from my collection of spool tapes, mainly Ghulam Ali Khan and Vilayat Khan. Before leaving the young man thanked me effusively for playing for him the two maestros that he most admired. When I apologized for not playing any of Ali Akbar's music since my collection did not include any live recordings of his, he looked surprised and asked if I considered Ali Akbar in the same league as Ghulam Ali and Vilayat. I laughed and said that he would probably be assaulted physically, if he had put this question to Vilayat Khan himself!

The most extraordinary feature of Ali Akbar was that he did not play along any of the established traditions that had existed before he had burst into the Hindustani music scene in the late thirties. But this is what makes his music very difficult to evaluate in an objective fashion. I will try to clarify what I mean by describing my personal encounter with the music of Ali Akbar Khan.

I had had very little prior exposure to Hindustani music when I started learning the sarode. My very first encounter with Ali Akbar was through the medium of (what I believe) was his first recording: a three and a half minute exposition of Ahir Bhairav with tabla accompaniment by Jnan Prakash Ghosh. I was wonderstruck that sarode could be so emotionally evocative, that in such a limited time a presentation of a raga could start with a completely relaxed meandering on the mandra Shadaj string and end with a lilting jhala and yet the whole progression seem utterly logical and unhurried. Even after fifty years I remember the recording almost by heart and cannot think of doing any changes that could improve upon what Ali Akbar had played. In particular, there was a 'harkat' near the tar Sa which haunted me for years: when five or six years later I was taught the raga, I tried to replicate that phrase but try as I might I'd always fail to achieve the effect Ali Akbar created. It was some twenty years later, I realized that Ali Akbar had achieved his magic by using the (prohibited) notes, Suddha Ni and Suddha Re! He is the only musician who could ever induce in my mind, such a state of "willing suspension of disbelief".

But the next 78 rpm record of Ali Akbar, Jaunpuri and Manj Khamaj that I heard produced a very different reaction. The Jaunpuri seemed to be devoid of any sparkle whatever; it was a medium fast razakhani gat whose 'manjha' vitiated the arohan by using the phrase "Re ga Ma" without serving any artistic purpose whatever. How could the same man have recorded that magical Ahir Bhairav I wondered as I flipped the disc over to listen to the Manj Khamaj. And suddenly the musical wizardry was in evidence in every stroke. A double sided alap in Darbari again evoked a mixed response. On the one hand the first side, the alap, was a superb distillation of the spirit of Darbari, all the more remarkable since the time available was three and a half minutes. The jor and jhala on the second side was very fine as sarode playing but strayed from the generally accepted grammar of the raga.

And so it continued all through my life. I'd hear a superb recital and then would follow a string of disappointing concerts. And I remember, once when I complained to my guru Radhika Mohan Maitra (Radhubabu), that I will stop listening to Ali Akbar if I keep hearing such failed performances he said something like "You do whatever you want to, but remember that Ali Akbar is truly outstanding no matter how long his patch of bad recitals last." This confounded me somewhat because one reason I could not enjoy Ali Akbar's concerts at this time was that he violated every rule for the steady development of alap and jor that Radhubabu was inculcating in me with such care and effort. I concluded at that time that Radhubabu's reply was just a cautionary measure to prevent me from getting into polemical disputes with other young musicians. But Radhubabu's admiration for Ali Akbar was unshakeable: he had heard him when Ali Akbar first emerged from under the wings of his father and joined the Lucknow station of the All India Radio and he told me how he would listen through the static and still be moved to the very core by the recitals Ali Akbar would broadcast.

[Continued in Part II]


Soumya said...

Excellent write-up, Abhik.
In fact, Ali Akbar was one of the two musicians (the other being Ravi Shankar) who first got me interested in Indian "classical" music, and still remains one of the very few persons in the field about whom I have fond memories. I have seen him performing a couple of times in Delhi (if I remember correctly, once at Modern School auditorium, and once at Ashoka hotel convention hall).
And you are right about one thing, he had been somewhat inconsistent and temperamental, if I may use the word, in his performances. Someone had once told me that this was due to a series of personal problems that he faced during his lifetime, which at least for a while made him resort to drinking habit. In fact, both Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar, (who were very close and often performed together - in fact I feel some of their greatest performances happened when they came together) during certain stage of their lifetime faced a lot of criticism and disapproval from their peers and society at large, not only for being somewhat unconventional in their style of playing, but also their unconventional lifestyle. In fact I remember one interview by Ravi Shankar long back (early nineties, I suppose, when Indian media, and particularly Bengali media was full of spicy details of his life, just around the time when the news about his marriage to the current wife came out) where he spoke in detail about this aspect, and also the fact that this sort of social and peer criticism/interference affected Ali Akbar a lot more than Ravi Shankar. In fact, there was a period when, embittered by interference with their personal lives, they both had decided not to perform or come back to India again. However, Ravi Shankar did return, but with Ali Akbar, this partly explains far fewer performances by him in India in the later part of his career.

I also remember one of my first experience of listening to him: the LP record containing a collection of short performances of various ragas (I suppose the same one you mentioned in the blog), and at the other extreme, another double-sided LP, containing a single long rendition of Bagashree Kanada. In fact, when I started learning Sitar, one of the first things I noticed was two "forbidden" techniques often employed by both Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar to good effect: firstly, use of forbidden notes (and often adjoining notes, like Komal Ga and Suddha Ga one after other); and secondly, use of polyphony: sort of chords over multiple strings; both forbidden according to traditions. These days I find a lot of performers employing these two techniques, though often at the cost of messing it all up!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Soumya, many thanks for the comment, but I am not the author of this article!! It is a contribution of Prof Kalyan Mukherjea (Kalyanda to us admirers), a noted mathematician and a fine sarodiya as well. He has contributed several excellent articles to the blog, including a lengthy biographical essay about his mentor Radhika Mohan Maitra. There is also a brief introduction to him that I had posted when he first agreed to write for the DSS blog.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the stories in Kalyan Mukherjea's remembrance of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. However, my overall impression on reading the piece is that here was someone who might have but never did reach the heights of a Shakespeare.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Many thanks for your comment, Prof Bhatia (I presume you're the author of the one before this one). A most interesting observation, I must say. Succinctly sums up in one line all that I personally feel about Khansahib.

Prabal said...

You think that Ali Akbar Khan never reached the height of Shakespeare as perceived by the British, or as perceived by yourself? For me, Ali Akbar Khan means more to Indian classical music than Shakespeare means to English literature.

Rahul Bhattacharya said...

Dear Kalyanda
Great article ! I must admit that the episode of the young sitariya questioning the stature of Ustad Ali Akbar reminded me of a personal experience: as a young student of the sarod in the early nineties learning a completely different style of sarod playing, I was advised by the maestro (who is extremely well known) to listen to Ali Akbar Sahib's older recordings. Breaking the protocol of not questioning your Ustad's advice - I timidly put it to him that I found Ali Akbar Sahib's music not very attractive. I did not get very far ! I was sternly reminded never to ever repeat what I had just said about such a genius !

While the reasons for his admiration were never explained to me, I did try and listen to as many of the recordings as I could, and on the whole, I must say, I was largely disappointed. Reading your article, I think I now know why. Firstly, musical opinions and preferences are inherently biased, and I have a great bias for very clear sound quality - muffled, wooden, jangling sounds really put me off. I found his style to have a lot of unwanted sounds. Secondly, while Ustad Ali Akbar may have been a revolution when he first appeared, other sarodiyas incorporated some of his elements into their playing over time, so for a latecomer like me, the difference would not be as obvious. The third reason is again due to personal bias - I favour simple, elegant ragas - someone playing raga Darbari Todi or some incomprehensible spaghetti of ragas loses my attention fairly quickly.

The key "wow" factor in Ustad Ali Akbar was his ability to suddenly introduce a note or sequence which was unheard of in that raga before - I heard him do that a few times, and my reaction was "How did he think of that !?". That was pure genius and no-one else that I know of can do that as he did.

Anonymous said...

Whatever you feel about Ali Akbar Khan-sahib's music, I have to say I found this article very distasteful. Personally, I am an ardent admirer of his music. I can't help but feel offended that Dr. Mukerjea would entitle his article 'Remembering Ali Akbar Khan' as if it was a eulogy, and then be so critical of his musicianship. Of course, I completely disagree with Dr. Mukerjea's take on Khansahib's music, but I object more to his blatant lack of respect. Ali Akbar?! Please show SOME respect. At the very least, Mr. Khan. After reading this article, my impression of the author is that he is bitter that another musician on his instrument attained more popularity than himself and this article is him lashing out.
Two thumbs down...

Abhik Majumdar said...

Anon, if you are looking for eulogies or hagiographies, you have come to the wrong place. Normally I do not react in this fashion to comments. But yours is exceptional, not because you have expressed strong views (which we welcome), but because you have not thought it necessary to substantiate them. For this reason alone, I feel compelled to point out just how far-fetched your views are.

One tangible reason for our music's sorry condition today is an all-pervasive conflation of "respect" with unqualified adulation. Your comment is a perfect specimen of this. Mukherjea's article seeks to be a balanced comment. In places it is openly admiring of the maestro, in other places less so. What is important here is that in both cases the opinions are accompanied by _reasons_ - reasons why his music scaled new heights at certain points, reasons why in the author's opinion Khansahib came across as sub-par. The resultant is a balanced and, more important, a reasoned critique. Which is why, like it or not, it is difficult not to take the article seriously.

You, on the other hand, accuse him of being (of all things) bitter about another musician gaining more prominence. Just a baldly stated opinion, no reasons or justifications, not even specific passages pointed out where you feel the article is deficient. Except in one place.

> Ali Akbar?! Please show SOME respect. At the very least, Mr. Khan.

Sure, and likewise Mr Shakespeare, Herr Mozart, Maestro Bernstein, and especially Lords Britten and Menuhin, right? Or are western commentators exempted from the rigours of "showing respect", and hence may feel free to dispense with honorifics and titles?

And if you think "showing respect" is intrinsic to "Indian culture" (whatever it may mean, this glorious testimony to reification), you have another think coming. Down south, musicians are routinely referred to by the names of their hometown, their first names, or even (horrors!) their initials - vide Chembai (Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar), Lalgudi (Jayaram), GNB(alasubranium), MS (Subbulakshmi), MDR(amanathan), (Mysore T) Chowdiah or (M) Balamuralikrishna. In Bengal (incidentally, where Ali Akbar Khan himself came from) it is similarly commonplace to refer to men of arts and letters by their first names - Saratchandra (Chattopadhyaya), Bibhutibhushan (Bandyopadhyaya), (Kazi) Nazrul (Islam), Debabrata (Biswas), Kanika (Bandypadhyaya), even Bankim (Chandra Chattopadhyaya). For good measure, the present practice of addressing senior Muslim musicians as 'Ustad' is not even a time-honoured one. It was instituted by the government (no less) after independence, as part of its efforts to standardise cultural practices. Prior to this, 'Khansahib' rather than 'Ustad' was the preferred honorific.

In short, anon, your comment does not carry the slightest indication that it was intended as serious, well-considered and unbiased criticism of Mukherjea's article. You make these reckless observations, fail to adduce any kind of justification or substantiation and, for good measure, you don't even disclose your identity. In short, "lashing out", that ridiculous phrase you use, clearly applies far more to you than it does to the article.

The anonymous comments feature, as well as the DSS blog in general, are intended exclusively for serious discussion, not for giving vent to your misbegotten petulance. In the larger interests of encouraging constructive debate, we shall retain this comment of yours. At the same time, please keep it in mind that we are under no obligation to approve each single instance of such ill-conceived commentage. In particular, no further abuse of the anonymous comments feature will be tolerated.

Heifetzlistener said...

Obviously the Ahir Bhairav 78rpm disc mentioned by Dr. Mukherjea has other admirers. Below is what appeared in an article about Ali Akbar in the India International Quarterly of October 2009:
"The 78rpm records of the late 1940s and early 1950s have almost all been reissued and amongst them is the marvellous Ahir Bhairav in a madhyalaya teental gat with Jnan Prakash Ghosh on the tabla. The mukhda or refrain is elementary and the tabla accompaniment sedate, but the listener is transfixed by the conception of Ahir Bhairav in those three minutes. Who could do more in thirty? Not even Ali Akbar, it transpires. Much later, the now accomplished master played the same gat for an LP with Zakir Husain rendering an even more sensitive accompaniment, but it was difficult not to recall the 78rpm version."

Abhik Majumdar said...

Interesting observation, Heifetzlistener. Could you tell us who wrote the article?