You don’t need to know music to appreciate it (Special)

May 28th, 2008 - 11:39 am ICT by admin  

By Amjad Ali Khan
I cannot remember a particular day that I was initiated into the world of music. It was a part of me from as early as I can remember. Indeed, I cannot think of a moment when music has been separated from my life. My father, the legendary sarod maestro, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Saheb of Gwalior, lived for music. Today, a wise man does not allow his son to become a classical musician because of the uncertainty and insecurity of a livelihood. That is why in the past, only Sufi saints and faqirs could dedicate their lives to music or to god. For my father, though, there was no question of a life outside music. Life itself was music. And music was life. And so I came to inherit from him the legacy of five generations of musicians as naturally as a bird taking to air.

What is music? There may be any number of scientific explanations about pitch and vibrations but it is difficult to explain how ’sound’ becomes ‘music’. It has more to do with human nature. Music is a unique and precious gift of god to mankind. Music is a celebration of life. The wonderful truth is any music, from anywhere in the world, is based on the same seven, beautiful musical notes: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni or Do Re Me Fa So La Ti.

These seven notes are the ‘alphabet’ of a universal ‘language’. Of the seven notes, the first and the fifth are fixed while the remaining notes have sharps and flats, making a total of 12 notes. Music has been in practice for at least 5,000 years, yet we have not been able to discover a 13th note!

Musicians and listeners of music have been communicating with each other across all barriers through this ‘language’ from time immemorial. As we use flowers in worship, welcoming, honouring, departure and celebration, no matter what our race, origin, religion or language, we similarly arrange musical notes into ‘bouquets’ or compositions that display all our human feelings and emotions.

Musical vibrations can convey moods and emotions and have the ability to mould and shape our consciousness. Different types of music can have different effects on the mind -both positive and negative. Our mind is like any living organism. It must be nurtured and needs stimulation to develop and grow. Music is one of the most important ‘foods’ for the intellect. Each musical note is connected to this most important part of our minds.

Music has many faces. Conversation, recitation, chanting and singing are all part of music. Music can be either vocal or instrumental. Vocal music appeals to most of us because of its poetical or lyrical content. Instrumental music, on the other hand, such as what I play on the sarod, is pure sound. It needs to be experienced and felt. Since there are no lyrics, there is no language barrier between the performer and the listener, and that is why instrumental music transcends all barriers.

A wonderful and strange mystery of Indian classical music is the fact that one can spend a lifetime trying to attain knowledge and perfection and still feel that one has only touched a mere drop in an ocean. Along the journey of searching and discovering, the learning never stops. Its understanding changes with every year a musician lives. This is true sadhana. Some of the greatest sadhaks in Indian classical music were Swami Haridas, Swami Tyagaraja, Swami Muttuswamy Dikshitar, Swami Shyama Shastri, Purandara Dasa, Swati Tirunal, Baiju Bawra and Miyan Tansen (from where my family gets its musical lineage). They are responsible for the solid foundation of the art in both north and south India.

Classical music has basically two traditions - Western classical and Indian classical. Indian classical music is a result of a refinement of folk music and developed into its highly sophisticated form over more than 5,000 years. As the name suggests, classical music represents the concentrated essence of Indian music in its richest forms. India has two classical traditions - the north Indian and the south Indian.

There is an old saying, “Swara hi eshwar hai”. In every culture, music has its roots in spirituality. Music has always been an internal part of the worship of god. That is why hymns, carols, bhajans, shabads, kirtans, etc., are all forms of prayer. Through music we can convey our innermost feelings. From childhood it has been my aim to be able to sing through my instruments, whether it is Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri or folk. When I’m performing, in search of perfection and excellence with eyes closed, I feel connected to a cosmic power from where I receive the messages which my audiences experience. When I am able to get across to my audience, when I can get them involved, I find that my listeners always give me the inspiration to create that special atmosphere, the ambience where music, the musician and the audience become One.

Music is essential for mind and body. Pure music like the sarod, violin, etc., listened to with concentration restores the subtle mental imbalances that crop up in today’s modern lifestyle. People today need more than ever to cope with tensions, distress, depression and struggle to find peace and relaxation. Sound pollution is also a daily hazard. Music helps to retune one’s system. That is why eminent doctors and psychologists are prescribing certain type of music as a form of therapy and treatment for stress disorders. Noisy music on the other hand can be damaging to human mind and body. Music, like the sarod, needs to be heard at moderate volume and with concentration to avail of its positive effects.

A great deal of importance is given to tradition in Indian classical music. In fact, tradition and spirituality are the backbone of classical music, whether in the form of the teaching system or the structure of ragas and talas. Great musicians or gurus have been likened to pujaris or priests who perform upasana. That is why we touch their feet. It is not an act of subservience but an elevating and liberating action. It is a unique custom that truly belongs only to our culture. It is understandable to adopt or adapt to a modern way of life and merely seek to achieve technical virtuosity but this does not mean that we forget the most essential values of our tradition and culture.

In western classical music, a composer scores a composition that is read and sung or played by the vocalists or musicians. In the Indian classical system, there is no written or scored music. It would be extremely difficult to record and subsequently interpret the subtle nuances on paper. We therefore follow an ‘oral’ tradition. Music and musicality is passed on from guru to shishya directly through the guru-shishya parampara. In this manner, music has been handed down from generation to generation. For musicians, classical music thus becomes a way of life.

Music is the greatest wealth that I inherited from my forefathers. One that I am constantly sharing with my disciples. It was a great moment in my wife Subhalakshmi’s and my life when my two sons, representing the seventh generation of musicians in my family, began to play the sarod. Considering today’s distractions and musical pollution, if Amaan and Ayaan are playing today it only shows the wish of god that this tradition should be carried forward.

My other inheritance was the house of my birth in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, which was the birthplace of four generations of my family. Today, with the aid of the central and state governments, it houses ‘Sarod Ghar’, a museum of musical heritage; a tribute to my guru and to all our great musicians of the past. It houses, apart from the instruments of my ancestors, the instruments and artefacts of great musicians from all over the country. Should you find yourself in the vicinity of Agra, you are most welcome to visit this humble house of music in the neighbouring town of Gwalior.

(Amjad Ali Khan is a renowned sarod maestro. He can be reached at music@sarod.com)

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