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Even though music is a sonic art form, the visual element is still important, even for concerts by musicians who have no interest in theatrics. Concerts may produce some spiritual “vibe” or “energy,” which can’t be captured on film or video. But a video can still increase our appreciation of music in ways that an audio recording cannot, because what we hear is shaped and conditioned by what we see. Modern neuroscience has taught us that the theory of five separate senses is a myth. The input from our eyes, ears, and tactile sensors crosses and blends throughout the brain; it is not processed by discrete modules. Seeing the musician’s hands thus makes it easier to hear exactly the speed and depth of the trill or vibrato or slide. Even the hand gestures of khayal singers, which have no direct causal connection to the sounds of the voice, give a sense of the ebb and flow of the melody. And when you can repeatedly see a musician’s performance, with the opportunity to play back particular passages, you get an understanding of a musician’s art that cannot be duplicated any other way.
These two videos have been amongst my most precious possessions for years. I was fortunate enough to attend this concert in 1987, and can never forget the impact that it had on the Bay Area Hindustani music community. The thunderous applause did not stop even after Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain had walked the full length of the concert hall and out into the lobby. For months afterwards, the students at the Ali Akbar College of Music received lessons from Khansahib that were filled with exuberant youthful energy. In every class he introduced melodies and rhythms of breathtaking virtuosity with an impish smile on his face, as if to say, “I dare you to try this one.” These videos of that groundbreaking evening make it possible to retrace the source of that inspiration, which had a profound impact on all of Khansahib’s students during that time.
The videos themselves are unedited one-camera shoots, which are documents not works of art. They are almost never out of focus, the sound can be heard clearly even through a television speaker, and the videographer knew enough about the music to point the camera at the right person at the right time. All of this enables the video to become an invisible conduit for the performance, which is so magnificent that it quickly dispels any awareness that one is watching a tiny screen in one’s living room. And because this video provides an opportunity to see and hear the same concert several times, this music can continue to reveal the many facets of its greatness with each new viewing. The strong personal communication between the two musicians is definitely one factor. We see Hussain reverently trying to touch Khansahib’s feet during the applause, and Khansahib seizing Hussain’s hands in a handshake before they could reach their intended destination. But most importantly, we see Khansahib’s and Hussain’s ability to work completely within a tradition without being at all confined by it. Studying other Hindustani musicians reveals that there are certain structures that everyone else follows, to make sure that their improvisations have firm foundations. Khansahib and Hussain, however, know these foundations so well that they can use them as points of departure, rather than places to settle down.
Traditionally, the featured performance of a concert is a single raga, first developed in the solo alaap-jhor-jhala format, and then moving on to variations on a gat (melody) that follows the taal cycle played by the tabla player. Khansahib, however, plays the alaap/jhor/jhala in the raga Roop Manjari Mallar, and the gat in raga Pahari Jhinjoti. It was an unlikely combination, even though the two ragas have very similar scales.
Roop Manjari Mallar is a rare and difficult raga, which Khansahib admitted he was playing in public for the first time. Pahari Jhinjoti was described by Khansahib as “a small and questionable raga, which gives you lots of freedom, like a big estate on a small island.” Khansahib used this freedom to bend the light raga into the shape of the heavy raga by using the same leitmotif in both: the phrase “n P m R G (or in the key of C: B flat, G, F, D, E). He then proceeded to play variations on that phrase which seriously rival the variations that Beethoven built around the famous four note phrase in his fifth symphony.
The phrase first appears in the long arhythmic alaap at the beginning of the concert. It then reappears as the mukhda (extended pickup phrase) in the gat built around the new raga. Most Hindustani musicians use the mukhda as a recurring theme, and play or sing their variations everywhere else.
Khansahib, however, reverses this practice, and uses the mukhda as the place to do the most complex variations. And because he has already played this mukhda phrase several times in the alaap, he can start building these variations almost immediately. He triple-times the phrase and plays it three times, so it becomes a tihai that is exactly the length of the mukhda.
He then builds several other tihais around this same phrase, changing its length and adding a variety of different slides and trills. And finally, once this phrase has become completely associated with the tihai format, Khansahib uses it to create a bizarre hybrid: a pseudo-tihai which repeats the same melodic phrase three times, but stretches and compresses the rhythmic values so that no one of these phrases is the same length.
These revolutionary variations on the tihai format are only one example of Hussain’s and Khansahib’s ability to create a breathtakingly large number of variations within what anyone else would see as a narrow range of possibilities. There is a period of almost 10 minutes where Khansahib plays nothing but variations on low-note slides and bends. The emotional intensity increases as vibrato and slides become gradually deeper and wider, and each phrase climbs higher as it moves up the scale, then down, then up again. When Hussain takes a solo, he explores all the nuances of one distinctive rhythmic pattern. One solo is built around the triplet shuffle known as “trigun laya,” another explores every ripple of the rich textural swirls of fast terekita patterns. Traditionally, when a tabla player takes a solo, the melody instrument plays a preset pattern. Khansahib, however, ornaments this supportive melody in ways that help shape and guide the solo, without ever overpowering it.
The performance of these paired ragas concludes when Khansahib breaks his second string of the evening, and gracefully escapes with a wildly dissonant, but rhythmically impeccable, tihai. (The first broken string had been used by Hussain as an opportunity for a tabla solo, which concluded with the creaking sound of Khansahib’s tuning pegs, followed by the reappearance of the gat at exactly the right point in the taal cycle.) Khansahib had announced that he was going to play in both slow and fast tintal. However, the variations in slow tintal had built up to such a level of speed and exuberance that the fast tintal had become superfluous. But because both artists and audience could not bear to have this concert end, the artists performed the two pieces on the second video. Zilla Kafi in moderate tintal could not stay moderate for very long. Once again, the energy builds higher and higher, and the imagination is continually challenged by audacious variations. Then Khansahib expresses his regrets that the concert hall will have to close soon, and plays a Bhairavi in dadra tal to conclude the evening. This would ordinarily be a diverting light classical appetizer, but even here Khansahib pushes the envelope.
Among other things, he plays whole phrases exactly a quarter-step sharp, then resolves back to standard tuning in places that make perfect musical sense. And finally, there is the applause, and the flowers, and the memories, which thanks to these videos, can be shared forever.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.