Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Remembering Ali Akbar Khan - II

[Continued from Part I]

Another anecdote from this period that Joshiji (D T Joshi) told me will, I hope, buttress the point I made earlier, to the effect that there will never again be a musician comparable with Ali Akbar Khan. Joshiji's house in Lucknow, was a meeting place for musicians. One afternoon, it was decided that the musicians present would like to hear Ali Akbar in the evening. Joshiji went over to the radio station to ask if Ali Akbar would find it convenient to come over and play. Since the prospective audience included Bundu Khan, Fayyaz Khan and Nissar Hussain Khan, Ali Akbar agreed immediately. That evening as Ali Akbar was playing Bhupali, even Fayyaz Khan had tears in his eyes! And when Ali Akbar was playing jod at a faster pace using complex right-hand stroke patterns ('lad-gutthao') Fayyaz Khan looked at Nissar Hussain, asked him to sing a "tarana", and announced, "We will listen to how Ali Akbar accompanies Nissar." This is a scenario unimaginable in today's sponsorship-driven music scene.

It seems evident to me that Ali Akbar who had been trained thoroughly by his father, thus acquiring a huge amount of erudition in the musical traditions that already existed found experiences such as the one recounted above, not only an enhancement of his musical depth but also a liberating influence. What emerged after his stint in Lucknow and then at the court of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, was a sarodiya unlike any other.

Western musicologists often describe Hindustani music performances as 'improvisatory'. But most Hindustani musicians, if honest, will admit that only about 50% of what they are doing is improvisation. The 'riyaz' (training/practice) they do is, to a large extent, a process of polishing up the presentation of set pieces which they hope to perform flawlessly during a recital. These practice sessions maybe devoted to endless repetitions of 'paltas': complex ascents and descents of one or more octaves using the notes of a particular "thaat" (a set scale of seven notes chosen from the twelve semitones that form the basic subdivisions of an octave or trying out rhythmic variations in different time signatures).

The only exception to this general mode of behaviour was Ali Akbar. I truly believe, and there is some corroboration of this in the testimony of other musicians, that Ali Akbar had no clue of what he was next going to do. For example, Kumar Mukherjee who had known Ali Akbar from his Lucknow days, mentions in his autobiography that once in his apartment in Calcutta he had requested Ali Akbar to play Maluha Kedar: a somewhat obscure raga which is a great favourite of the Agra gharana of Khayal singers. Ali Akbar complied with Kumar's request but to the latter's amazement never used the dhaivat throughout the recital. Since this particular note is normally given some considerable importance in Maluha Kedar by most expositors, Kumar asked if the absence of the dhaivat was due to the interpretation of the raga by his gharana (read 'Allauddin Khan'). Ali Akbar was quick to say that this was not so and added that somehow while he was playing "the dhaivat refused to appear"! [I have read this anecdote in Kumar Mukherjee's autobiography "Kudrat Rangi-Birangi" which is in Bengali. I do not know if it is also recounted in the English version, "The Lost World of Hindustani Music".]

This unmatched spontaneity was possible only because of Ali Akbar's total control over his instrument. In his heyday he could execute anything his musical imagination required him to play. But this is also at the root of the erratic nature of his recorded legacy. When he was inwardly at peace, his musical imagination would attain stratospheric heights and his fingers would immediately render these sublime flights of fancy. But when he did not feel in the same 'mijaz' (mood) one would hear somewhat pedestrian offerings; I have already recounted one remarkable instance of this in his 78 RPM recording of Jaunpuri and Manj Khamaj. It is very likely that these two cuts were recorded in a single session with a short interval for retuning and yet the musical qualities of the two sides are light-years apart!

Throughout the '40s Ali Akbar had been immersed in a congenial musical environment: first in Lucknow and then in the court of Jodhpur. His musical imagination was always being envigorated by interactions with other great musicians. Listeners of the generation earlier than mine own, were in broad agreement that this was Ali Akbar's "golden period". The move to Bombay in the early 'fifties meant a change in the pattern of his life. No longer was he totally absorbed in classical music. However film music in Bollywood during that era was still very largely based upon, what can broadly be described as, raga music. Indeed many of the prominent music directors of Bollywood at that time had themselves been trained in classical music. Outstanding examples of such music directors were S D Burman, Anil Biswas (who had learnt khayal from Girija Shankar Chakrabarti and Badal Khan) and Pannalal Ghosh, a flautist who had been trained by Allauddin Khan himself.

Ali Akbar produced some remarkable 78 rpm recordings during this period in Bombay, to say nothing of highly acclaimed scores for a number of films. I have not seen Chetan Anand's "Andhiyan", generally regarded as Ali Akbar's best film score from his Bombay days. During his stay in Calcutta he wrote a somewhat pedestrian score for Satyajit Ray's "Devi". My feeling is that Ray, who was a keen student of Western Classical Music, did not give Ali Akbar a clear mandate for his task. Because almost at the same time he wrote a remarkable score for Tapan Sinha's "Kshudita Pashan" (The Hungry Stones) based on a Tagore short story.

Around 1990 I had the opportunity of discussing the making of this film with Tapan Sinha and I asked him specifically about his experience of working with Ali Akbar. Sinha was effusive about Ali Akbar's sensitivity and mentioned that when he was looking at the final cut he felt that one sequence where the protagonist is galloping on horseback along a dried riverbed needed some background music. When Sinha had earlier mentioned this scene to Ali Akbar, the latter felt that the horses' hooves would provide enough of a sonic accompaniment. But the final review indicated that the sand had dampened the clattering of the hooves and Sinha rang up Ali Akbar in a panic. Ali Akbar said He'd come over immediately to the studio. He arrived with his sarode, viewed the sequence and after a minute's thought asked Sinha to roll the camera and turn on the recording equipment. I clearly remember the thrilling Sarode music that accompanied this fateful horse ride which ended in the looming shadow of the haunted castle!

I had once asked Anil Biswas why Ali Akbar left Bombay and came over to Calcutta in 1956. He rather guardedly replied that given his mercurial temperament, the 'filmi' environment made his personal life rather complicated. That perhaps Ali Akbar felt that this turbulence was having a deleterious effect on his performances as a sarodiya. His relatively short sojourn in Calcutta, I feel, was musically destructive for Ali Akbar.

His somewhat idealistic experiment in establishing the Ali Akbar College of Music yielded little in the way of well-trained musicians. The only student of the College from that era who has achieved a certain degree of recognition is Rajeev Taranath --- an emigre from Bangalore! Yet clearly Ali Akbar had hoped that since Bengal over the previous fifty years had provided the home base for many prominent instrumentalists the College and, particularly, his presence would lead to a great flowering of young talent in Calcutta. Unfortunately, Ali Akbar did not have the luxury of devoting very much time to the teaching of students; his concert schedule during the late fifties was a punishing one. During the winter months, there were several occasions when he had to give as many as ten performances in a week! What I have said just now will be disputed by some: Ali Akbar has himself told various interlocutors, that he had "struggled for thirty years to establish an 'Academy of Music' in Calcutta", and only after failing in this endeavour decided to establish a school in California. But such statements can be refuted simply by adding thirty to 1950, which was the year he left Jodhpur!

Sadly for Indian music, Ali Akbar spent the last four decades of his life, for the most part, away from India. His recorded output during this period is generally rather disappointing. As I have already mentioned, Ali Akbar performed 'as the spirit moved him' and there was little in the environment in the U.S. to rekindle the musical fires that lay buried within him. He was surrounded by what in pop culture are termed "groupies": individuals whose love and admiration for Ali Akbar vastly exceeded their knowledge or discernment of Hindustani music.

Any reasonably knowledgeable recording engineer in India would know that to ask Ali Akbar to play a raga for a pre-assigned, and extended period would never yield an example of his best music. Yet Ali Akbar, during the sixties was prevailed upon to record LPs with titles such as "The 40 Minute Raga" (Marwa) and "The 80 Minute Raga" (Darbari). For this latter recording session, I suppose the hope of the recordist was that the first two sides of the LP recordings would be a leisurely alaap (an expansion in time scale of his 78 RPM recording which I have alluded to already) and then 2 sides of 'gatkari'. As it turned out, Ali Akbar did not feel right for such a project! Fifteen minutes into the first side he can be seen already starting on the 'jhaala' section, and this occupies the entire second side. This recording has been made with great attention to audio fidelity but provides a very poor glimpse of the deep insight of Darbari that Ali Akbar had himself so amply demonstrated in his 78 RPM recording produced two decades earlier! It and the Marwa release pale in comparison even with his 20 minute LPs of Durga and Gauri Manjari. In these two cuts also made while he was in the US, he seemed to awaken from years of musical hibernation and demonstrate anew the extraordinary powers that had captivated Indian audiences in the 'forties and 'fifties.

The last memorable recordings that I have heard were produced for the All India Radio during one of his visits in the early nineties. In particular a fascinating new creation dubbed "Megh Sarang" shows that the musical genius was still at work though generally not audible to the music loving public in India.

I have never had the good fortune of meeting Ali Akbar and have admired him from a distance. In equal measure, I have been exasperated by the waywardness of his genius. Now that he is no more, I look back on that concert given on his birthday in 1959. The evening had started with a recital by Samta Prasad and, as he sat down for his solo, he leaned forward to the microphone and said "Khan Saheb ko ek hazaar saal ki umar miley"! I trust that Ali Akbar Khan Saheb's music will live for a thousand years more!


Toke Mahedra said...

vary Beautifully thought and written. What a Musician He was?As rightly said in the last.He is one of THE GREATEST MUSICIANS OF THIS GREAT COUNTRY.The only Music Director who made the Great USTAD AMIR KHAN SAAB sing a THUMRI for the film KHUDITO PASHAN.

Rajesh said...

Being an avid listener of ICM and especially ustad AAK, I read Prof Mukerjea's post with great interest and a pang of regret. To me AAK will always remain the greatest master of the music. Everything in his music was subservient to the single purpose of projecting the aesthetically most complete picture of the raga. Having listened to an inspired performance by him, the listener is left with the feeling that the raga should be played only that manner and no other. His remains one of the very few musicians who could hold a lay listener spell bound with pure alap only. Based on my listening to AAk's recordings, his genius to me revealed itself fully in 4-5 recordings. His Basant Mukhari from the Anthology of Indian Music, Shree with Pt RS, duets with LS and to a lesser extent with VK, Bairagi, Jogiya Kalingda and a music cassette which had a number of short pieces by him (the Malkauns/Jaijaivanti/Bilaskahni/Asavari were superb) come to mind.

Despite his genius being apparent from these recordings, I still find it difficult to hear most of his other recodrings where his performance can be down right bad e.g the Marwa/Puriya from his later years and his Emperor of Sarod. The depressing part of Prof Mukerjea's article for people like me is that music from AAK's peak in the 1940s-1950s will never be accessible to us and we can only feel regret at what we have missed. The article serves also as an illustration of how one's potential can be squandered away easily and how decades of one's professional life can be lost if one is removed from an intellectually stimulating environment. If only the ustad had more disciple in his personal life and spent more time in India ...


Prabal said...

It's refreshing to see a detached yet engaged assessment of Ustad-ji's work. I have two related points to make. While it is an inescapable fact that even in big US cities like New York and San Francisco an Indian classical musician, even of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's caliber, can lose his bailiwick, I wonder if he was already feeling suffocated in the changing waters of the domestic music scene, dominated by, to quote the author, the sponsor-walas. Also, I wanted to see little more on his impacts on international perception of Indian classical music (one may or may not approve the nature, but Pt. Ravi Shankar's influence is redoubtable). What may appear to be a loss for the Indian aficionados, could be a broader gain for the Indian classical music..

Kalyan Mukherjea said...

Hi Prabal, thanks very much for your generous comment. As for the points you raise, I have very little to say.

Khan Saheb started the Ali Akbar College in California in 1967. I
was already studying in the U.S. at Cornell University and not in touch with the music scene in Calcutta. Indeed, I had left India in 1962 for higher studies.

But I don't think the Music Conference organizers were so heavily dependent on corporate sponsorship as they are nowadays. Of course, generous donations from "fat cats" was an essential part of the budget and this went mainly to secure the services of the "top artistes" like Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and vocalists like Amir Khan and Bhimsen Joshi. (In Calcutta, at least, vocalists commanded a smaller fee.) But contributions from rich individuals had always sustained Hindustani music. The fees charged by Ali Akbar, Ravi Shankar were certainly not in the six-figure range but then at that time judges of High Courts would earn salaries of a few thousand rupees. Given the country's economic situation, Khan Saheb had little reason for complaint. I think the U.S. held other attractions for him; the easier availability of fast cars (an enduring passion of his!) for

As for the impact on the music world at large, I really am not in a position to judge. Certainly the `Ravi Shankar' label has a huge name recognition, but does it matter for Indian music? I have read that during the Concert for Bangladesh Khan Saheb, when not actually in performance with Ravi Shankar, plugged his ears with toilet paper to avoid noise pollution! Which suggests that Khan Saheb was not very sympathetic to the pop scene. But he did participate in a few duets with Julian Bream (guitar) and Larry Adler (harmonica). I have heard
recordings of these played over the BBC Third Programme in the sixties and can say that they were musically interesting and enjoyable.

I cannot say the same of the LP discs produced by "George Harrison
and Friends". As for as Western exponents of the Sitar and Sarode, I have not heard Ken Zuckerman, reputedly the leading American student of Khan Saheb, nor Alam Khan, his youngest son. So I do not know if the loss for Indian music lovers is counter balanced by the overall gain in the profile enjoyed by Hindustani music in the wider world.

Prabal said...

Thanks very much for your prompt reply. Nothing you have written is really disputable. Though I just want to underline the arduous task of measuring the impact of someone like Ustad-ji's lifetime work. To draw an example from cricket, granted that Sunil Gavaskar has played many silly shots and indeed done many silly things, but should we discount his impact on Indian cricket too much because of that (please see my Shakespeare-related comments on the first part)?
I admit that there may be something in the American lifestyle that attracted him (perhaps he dreamed of becoming a phenomenon here too, no one knows perhaps). But being an immigrant myself, I feel that Indian music establishment cannot escape responsibility entirely for failing to hold him back. I like your un-deified portrayal of Ustad Ali akbar Khan, but to me his life and work remain so extra-ordinary that I cannot imagine someone emulating them (certainly not the poster-boy of his school).

Kalyan Mukherjea said...

Hi Prabal,

I am happy that you appreciate my "undeified portrait" of Ali Akbar Khan.

As regards your reference to Gavaskar and his mistakes: I can only say that in the very first few sentences I made clear that in my opinion, no sarodiya of Ali Akbar's stature will ever appear again. I have also said that he "was a sarodiya unlike any other".

I will take this opportunity to comment on your comment that Ali Akbar's contributions to Indian music outstrip those of Shakespeare to English Literature.

Very few people can claim to have equally profound knowledge of two very diverse subjects such as Hindustani Music and English Literature. Certainly I make no such claim. But I think the commentor who regretted that Ali Akbar did not realize his potential to become "a Shakespeare of Hindustani Music" has a point.

How many of Ali Akbar's compositions are performed by Hindustani musicians of other gharanas? How many of the ragas he has composed are part of the standard repertoire? Contrast your answers to the above questions with a paragraph I am pasting below (quoting the wikipedia):

In Shakespeare's day, English grammar and spelling were less standardised than they are now, and his use of language helped shape modern English. Samuel Johnson quoted him more often than any other author in his A Dictionary of the English Language, the first serious work of its type. Expressions such as "with bated breath" (Merchant of Venice) and "a foregone conclusion" (Othello) have found their way into everyday English speech.

This is not to belittle Khan Saheb's greatness as a musician but just to correct a hyperbole that you perpetrated!

Prabal said...

Unfortunately, this is not an efficient way of having a conversation. The comments lose their punch when read after several days.
Anyway, I am a bit confused. I did not start the Shakespeare example, I was merely commenting on another comment. Also, you seem to agree that both he and Ustad-ji are irreplaceable. It is obvious that I also hold Ali Akbar in the highest respect. Therefore, what remains to be resolved is my standing on the Bard. I think we can all agree that this is not an appropriate place to discuss that.
At the risk of making the same mistake, let me quote what Hans Bethe spoke of Richard Feynman: "There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could to the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it.... was a magician"

Saayan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhik Majumdar said...

This is my two bits to the very interesting ongoing debate between Prabal and Kalyanda. To a significant extent, I'd say I can empathise with either viewpoint. Possibly that is because the two are actually very similar. Both agree there can be no doubt about Khansahib's greatness. Even where they seemingly disagree, I feel they do so not because they don't countenance the other's viewpoint, but because they perceive the same thing from two distinct perspectives.

The issue in question is surely Khansahib's output in the '60s and '70s (surely it is no one's case that his output of the '50s was consistently scintillating, occasional quiggle-bandi aberrations aside!). We may justifiably hold that in this phase, what Khansahib gained in musical maturity he lost through his inconsistency. When he was good he had no equal, which is why Prabal does not hesitate in likening him to Shakespeare. On the other hand, in many of his performances he came across as, well, desultory. As if he were merely going through the motions, and not very seriously.

The question is, what was it that disenchanted him? Not himself, surely. Neither music per se; that would be tantamount to blasphemy. Perhaps what had faded was the need to give of one's best, one hundred percent, at every performance. This needs to be placed in perspective. No musician, however great, has yet succeeded in avoiding the occasional drab, uninspiring performance, and it would be unfair to use these one-off instances to question their greatness. And yet even allowing for this, Ali Akbar's let-downs stand out. Why? Possibly because to the listener, it becomes apparent that their causes lie within the artiste himself. That is, that he's somehow not making enough of an effort to transcend his disenchantment.

Incidentally, while writing this comment, I was simultaneously chatting with Arnab about this issue. I feel his take on it is very insightful: "It could also be that the framework of hindustani music, with an inherent predilection towards linearity, might have been too limiting for AAK's genius because he felt the need to respond to multiple impulses simultaneously, but was unable to do so, and in that tussle, ended up confused." This ties in with my own views. Could it be that Khansahib's shortcoming lay in failing to make enough of an effort to resolve these multiple impulses in a systematic manner?

Anonymous said...

This retrospective article on Khansahib was very insightful and delightfully honest. The absolute lack of pretense of scholastic writing or the need to indulge in sycophant behavior was a breath of fresh air, nay, a blast of fresh air, when compared to other writings on the Ustad. No writing connected with him seems to be devoid of ulterior motives. There are, on one hand, people connected with his college who are writing about the Ustad to leverage his life and death so as to assist them in their quest and claim for legitamacy/succession and on the other hand, there are some others who want to make a fool out of him to gain leverage for their so-called satirical writings on Indian Classical Music. So given this setting, this article seems like divine intervention. It portrays him neither as a court-jester nor as saint, but just a human being with his own little quirks. The self-introspection that Mr. Mukherjea partook (while narrating anecdotes from his life connected with the Ustad) to write the article is very palpable. Sadly, such honesty seems long lost in most Indian writing, leave alone on classical music.

Anonymous said...

This was a very, very good read for me. I have never really been able to ”get” Ali Akbar Khan’s music ... probably because much of what I’ve read was written by his fans, to whom he could do no wrong, and often when I’m listened to him it has not been as fantastic as it was written to be.

It helps a lot to be able to think of him as an uneven artist.

It also raises the spirit to see that someone has the strength to write honestly and realistically about such an iconic figure!

Anonymous said...

It is very normal to find similar examples like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in day to day life in a community. Common human existence is an entanglement of illusion or maya. Sporadically one would get the glimpse of the truth beyond the illusion and the true creative spirit will manifest in the form of music or painting or a nice stroke in cricket or a nice goal in soccer or nice poem. Once the moment of glimpse is over the creative spirit is decayed and the result is a dull recording, a poor shot or a bad pass etc. That's why the ones whose every performance was divine were the wandering saints like Swami Haridas, Mirabai, Amir Khuso, Surdas etc. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's taste for fast cars indicate his entanglement with material world. Comparatively his sister Annapurna Devi and his father Baba Allahuddin Khan was not distracted by the material entanglements. We are probably more unfortunate that we will not hear almost anything of Baba Allahuddin Khan and nor of Annapurna Devi even though she is still alive.

Saayan said...

I think, it is NOT very normal to find similar examples like AAK in day to day life in a community. Of course he was human and had good and bad recordings.

I do not think a taste for fast cars precludes divinity in art. Formula one car drivers are also artists of a kind. The threshold for qualifying as "unentangled" is subjective.

Also, austerity is not necessarily a measure of "tyaga". How easily you can give up what you have is a better measure in fact. Neither can austerity breed creativity nor guarantee divinity. The true virtue which is at the core of this music is emotion.
If someone does not have that depth, just by being austere is not going to give him/her that depth.

Of course the artist's lifestyle will have an effect. Performances will vary and how the public views him/her will vary accordingly.
But the happiness an artist gets inside will remain intact because true artists are doing it for themselves and do not care if anyone is paying attention or not.

I think its foolish to compare any of the musicians mentioned in the above post. Also, many of the mentioned artists do not have available recordings that we can evaluate as having a consistent degree of divinity or not. We can just appreciate whatever good music they have given us.