When Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash take the stage, they have seven generations of music flowing through their fingers into the sarods. Their concert in the San Francisco Bay Area in August helps raise money for the India Literacy Project. Coupling musical mastery with a social cause is something that has always been dear to Amjad Ali Khan. Now, with his two sons joining him on stage, the charismatic performer is taking his art and his sensibilities to a new generation.

Your family developed the sarod from a Persian instrument, the rabab. How do you feel you have helped the music to evolve?

I always wanted to bring out song on the sarod, to sing through the instrument. My father said it’s not possible?it’s a fretless staccato instrument, not a bow instrument like sarangi. But most of the time he would sing and I would follow him. That helped me?by the grace of God, the sarod is more expressive today. That is why I could do something like an album of Rabindra Sangeet with Suchitra Mitra.

On your website www.sarod.com, you list the different raagas you have created like Priyadarshani. What is a new raaga?

I feel embarrassed to say I have composed a raaga. I would like to say I have discovered raagas. They are always there in the air somewhere. When I am sitting alone I am humming and singing to myself, the raaga asks me, “do you know me?” I say no. The raaga says, “Will you accept me or should I go?” And sometimes I do accept and give them a name. Like any newborn, which has the mother’s eyes or the father’s lips, every raaga has glimpses of other raagas, but a different soul.

You spoke out against the recent communal violence in Gujarat. What role can an artiste play in these times?

Flowers and music have no religion?but every religion needs them. I feel like I am connected to every religion. My wife Subhalakshmi is Hindu, and I am Muslim. In our house we have freedom of religion. That’s the character of India. I feel ashamed as an Indian to see what happened in Gujarat?for two months everyone watched and no one could stop it. All over the world now I see the fear of destruction?whether it is Sept.11 or the train being burned in Godhra or Gujarat. As an artiste I feel there should be peace all over the world.

Your father Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan was a court musician of Gwalior. After the privy purses of the maharajas were abolished how did it affect musicians?

With all due respect to rajas and maharajas sometimes it’s a great strain for musicians to please a person who does not understand music. Thank God that time is over?now the world is my audience.

What about the Indian government? Has it done a good job preserving classical music?


Nothing is enough obviously. But if you look at the situation 50 years back, in spite of all the struggles in Indian music, there are many more classical musicians existing today in all fields. But the outlet is limited, opportunities are limited. So there is a lot of frustration?some musicians are full of venom.

What about NRIs? What role can they play?

I feel proud to see the achievements of my countrymen. I think successful NRIs could establish scholarships for young musicians. I just finished teaching a course in Illinois. I was teaching mostly Americans who are learning Western classical music. So they were all musicians. I did not want to teach people who are learning for a hobby.

When you hear your sons play can you tell them apart?

I feel no musician, is complete. Sirf Bhagwan complete hai (Only God is complete). Amaan and Ayaan are good human beings, but different ones, and they sound different. Their approach is different and they complement each other. Thank God they are not identical. Some gharanas, they all sound alike.

As a father, were you nervous when you realized your sons would follow you into this field?

I feel embarrassed to say classical music is my profession. It is my passion. It is 50 years since I started performing. I never had the chance to think what would be my career. I was just serving my guru, my father. I believe nothing good can happen until our parents and guru bless us.

In the creative field 2+2 is never 4. You have to surrender?to God, art, and the purity of raagas. Future was always uncertain and always will be.

Initially my sons were nervous about their future. I would say, I don’t know your future but you are in better shape than I was. I had rented a house for Rs. 250 a month and I was not sure if I would be able to pay the rent. But by the grace of God, I did. Thanks to the people. Amjad Ali Khan is made by India, by the love and encouragement of the people of India, no matter what happens in Gujarat or Babri Masjid.

How was it to deal with your father as teacher?

He was very flexible and liberal compared to his father. We were the youngest disciples?he was almost helping us change our diapers. Now we are bringing out a book called Abba which is our perception of his life.

How are young people regarding Indian classical music?

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When we see people of our own age group performing?it gives a different message. Our age group can connect to us in a better way. So it’s always a great pleasure seeing so many young people at concerts. I have been going to my father’s concerts since I was 4 or 5. I would not see many people below 30 then. But now it seems there are so many more young people. Of course I think in the ’90s people rediscovered Indian classical music. People even use it for Reiki healing and yoga.
The atmosphere is tense at a lesson. Being the older one, people expect me to be quicker as far as pickup is concerned, maturity is concerned. Ayaan and I are more of friends than brothers. When I hear him at the concert I want him to be very good. I don’t think, “I hope he isn’t as good as me.” Jealousy just holds you backWhat is a lesson like with your father and brother?

What has been your mother’s role in your musical development?

Father has made me a good musician. Mother has made a good performer. There is no point in being one without the other. My mother has taught me the basics of presenting yourself on stage.

So what have you revealed about your father in your book on him? Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is known as the perfect musician, perfect performer. Is he the perfect father though?

He has his weaknesses?he really loves chocolates though he tries to control that. He is also crazy about Starbucks coffee. Whenever he has some money in his pocket he is getting himself an espresso latte or a cappuccino. But Abba is God’s greatest gift to us. To get a father and teacher in one person is a big boon. Now it is up to me and my brother is to take the best and see how much we can do.

1cc4c11431e1440ee70609df6e1fd233-4 Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the California Media TV show. He won the first prize in the Katha Indian-American fiction contest of 1998.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.