When Ustad Amjad Ali Khan touched base with his old self

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with Pt. Ram Kumar Mishra
| Photo Credit: P.C. Innee Singh

The qualities that once defined Amjad Ali Khan’s music were in full display at the Parampara festival

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan started his concert career very young — there was no option as his father had stopped performing at a relatively young age compared to his contemporaries, and the incredibly talented Amjad Ali had to be launched. As such, his initial few concerts needed to make an impact; the presentation had to be dramatic; his own playing style, which echoed his father’s lent itself beautifully to this end. The crystal clear strokes,  wazandaar ‘jhala’, ‘sapaat taans’, resounding ‘gamaks’, sudden ‘lar lapet’ played with incredible mastery, propelled him into the type of stardom few other classical musicians have experienced. His command over taal was another asset he used skilfully, interacting through ‘laya khel’ with seasoned masters of an earlier generation like Pt. Kishen Maharaj, and Pt. Samta Prasad. Indepth exploration of the raag, and prolonged aalap were never used by him to captivate the audience. His skill with his instrument dominated his playing style.

Formidable lineage

His father’s raag vidya was unmatched. He was the fifth generation musician belonging to the Shahjahanpur gharana. Uniquely, he additionally took training from the direct descendants of Mian Tansen. He also learnt dhrupad from masters in Vrindavan, belonging to Swami Haridas’s musical lineage. The young Amjad had absorbed enough (he was 27 when his father passed away). But unlike many other instrumentalists, he did not rely on showcasing rare raags in his concerts. His focus was on appealing younger audience, wowing with his musicality rather than erudition. In this, he succeeded as no other sarodiya has.

From a very young age, he collaborated with well-known exponents such as Ustad Bismillah Khan, vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman, and vidwan Emani Sankara Sastri. Amjad Ali Khan demonstrably established his confidence as a musician. The world of music he entered as a youngster comprised the most incredible instrumentalists — Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan, to name the top players; Amjad, made it to this circle, playing by his rules, and taking risky musical decisions.

After the initial overwhelming popularity for about three decades, there was some criticism over his limited presentations, his unconventional format of playing, and reliance on speed at the cost of musicality. A newer generation that had not heard his earlier concerts erroneously assumed him to be merely a virtuoso. Although music presentation rules are meant to be broken by iconic musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, what was perhaps missing in some of his performances was the  rooh.

Subtle changes

Hearing him live after a two-year hiatus at the 26th edition of the Parampara series, the National Festival of Dance and Music by Raja Radha Reddy’s Natyatarangini performing art centre, made one realise that the 77-year-old Amjad Ali’s music has subtly changed. What has not changed is his usual style of playing a raag only for 20-30 minutes (his father insisted on a precise delineation rather than a prolonged repetitive one where shades of other raags could creep in) is . However, he now prefers to do what appeals to him rather than playing what he knows will appeal. One must remember, he is a seasoned performer with more than 60 years of experience.

His opening raag Jhinjhoti dwelt on ‘jor’ which he has tended to ignore over the years, laying more emphasis on presenting compositions. In the past, no one played different ‘jhala bols’ like him; indeed one could say ‘jhalas’ were the defining feature of his music. Over the years, he almost stopped playing ‘jhala’, but in this concert he showcased his old self.

What followed was a composition in raag Durga, a favourite of his since the 1960s. Here too one sensed a change. The vilambit teen taal gat was lyrical. One got the feeling he was playing for himself.

The unobtrusive expert tabla sangat by Pt. Ram Kumar Mishra, with whom the veteran had never played before, as he said after the concert to this writer, “inspired” him.

Though he announced that he would play ‘Ekla chalo’, a staple at his concerts, he couldn’t stop himself from drifting towards Khamach. He moved gracefully, in a totally spontaneous, natural way between snatches of raags, playing with a heartrending  chayn. It seemed Ustad Amjad Ali Khan had re-discovered his inner being.

The Delhi-based writer specialises in classical music.

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