Ragas and riches

If western chamber music has a mecca, it’s London’s Wigmore Hall. For a non-western musician to be awarded a residency there – as will happen next month – is both unprecedented and significant. Wigmore director John Gilhooly is one of the most prescient operators in the business, and if he thinks it’s time to open his sacred space to the classical music of another culture, the rest of the classical world should take notice.

By welcoming the Indian sarod master Amjad Ali Khan into the Wigmore, Gilhooly is joining a global fan club. This charismatic musician’s admirers include Prince Charles, United Nations secretary-general Ban-ki-Moon and the Dalai Lama; US cities have been queueing to award him honorary citizenship. Khan is a festival favourite on every continent, and a frequent collaborator with western musicians. As a sarod soloist, he is without peer.

Khan’s father was the celebrated Indian musician Haafiz Ali Khan. His Hindu wife Subhalakshmi – Khan is a Muslim – is a former Bharatanatyam dancer; their sons Amaan and Ayaan are now sarod masters in their own right. Wife and sons are present to welcome me for my audience with Khan at his London hotel.

With a gently courteous manner, and a face that at 66 still suggests youthful grace, Khan has instant charm. He’s just back from the Edinburgh Festival, where his job was to play a series of “morning” ragas to complement some “evening” ones by Ravi Shankar. This pairing was appropriate, since Khan has done for the sarod what Shankar did for the sitar: both have been their instrument’s prime ambassador.

Both instruments are lutes but the sitar and sarod are very different in sound and aspect. The long-necked sitar has frets and a gourd resonator, while the short-necked, unfretted sarod has a goatskin sound-box; the sitar spreads a penetrating musical perfume but the sarod’s voice has an inward quality. “God has sent me into this world to make the sarod sing,” says Khan, and that is indeed what he achieves with his microtonal expressiveness on its smooth steel fingerboard. This is done with the edge of the nails: after each performance he has to file the resulting grooves flat, so he can’t perform every day.

Tutored by his father, Khan was first put on stage with a miniature sarod at six, and at 12 he was out on the road, earning money to help pay the housekeeping bills. He wasn’t born Amjad: “A holy man came to the house and I played for him,” he explains. “He asked my name – and when I told him, he said, ‘No, from today you are Amjad.’ The name means ‘most glorious’.”

This sacramental seriousness pervades all his stories of family life, and most particularly that of his sons’ induction. “When a child is born, we sing certain notes into his ear, hoping that that he will love music,” he tells me. “Amaan was drawn to it, and tried to copy me, so we gave him a small sarod. Two years later Ayaan came, and the same thing happened.” But his sons always practised alone, he stresses, in separate rooms. “I didn’t want to create three Amjad Ali Khans. Unlike certain gurus, I was keen that they should not become my Xerox copy.”

Recently, Amaan and Ayaan, now in their thirties, published a joint account of growing up with their father, entitled (without a trace of irony) Abba: God’s Greatest Gift to Us. Khan (abba means father in ancient Aramaic) is now about to publish a biography of his own father. Thus does a dynasty strengthen its foundations.

Tucked inside the sons’ biography is the CD re-release of a recording Khan made when he was 18. Even at that early stage his sound had the amplitude and depth that is his trademark. When I ask for Khan’s musical philosophy, he replies like a priest: “A classical musician has to surrender himself to God, and to music.”

The fixed pattern of notes that forms the basis of a raga – the word literally means “passion” – is less a scale than a melody, which he likens to a skeleton: “You see it lying there, and with your music you must give it life. A raga is an entity towards which we must be respectful, which we must handle with care.”

Amjad has composed between 30 and 40 new ragas, though rather than “composed” he prefers the word “invoked”. Most classical ragas, he says, were created on paper with the help of mathematics but aesthetics is the key. “A few years ago I was humming something constantly” – and he demonstrates by singing a long, involuted melody. “And I asked myself, ‘What am I singing?’ As I couldn’t say, that meant it was something new. It had come from some cosmic power, or from nature, and I had conceived it. In this situation, a melody asks me, ‘Do you know me?’ And I say ‘No, I don’t, but I’m very happy that you have come to me.’ Then the melody says, ‘Will you accept me, or should I go?’ And I say, ‘No, how can I let you go? I will accept you as a blessing in my life.’”

When Khan composed a sarod concerto for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra recently, he sang his ideas for that too, with western musicians writing them down for him. How does he see the difference between the respective classical worlds? “What amazed me with the SCO,” he says, “was that a hundred musicians could collectively produce such beautiful music, taking their discipline from the conductor. And while playing they were reading from the score. That’s something we can’t do. That is why in India we could never produce an orchestra of international repute – we don’t have the discipline. Indian musicians are all soloists – nobody wants to play second fiddle. It’s like in politics, where everybody wants to be prime minister.”

On the other hand, the artistry required of Indian classical musicians demands skills at which their western counterparts are stumbling beginners, whether in phenomenal accuracy with microtones or in an ability to react musically both to other players and to the audience. That is what Khan and his sons – plus a tabla player, a singer and a dancer – will purvey during their residency at the Wigmore Hall.

“We have a tiny little stage,” says Gilhooly. “But it can accommodate big ideas, and this is one. There should be no essential difference between what we call classical chamber music, and music from the other traditions.”

Amjad Ali Khan’s residency at the Wigmore Hall begins on October 4. ‘Amjad Ali Khan: Indian Classical Ragas’ is released this week on the Wigmore Live label

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