Individualistic music of Ali Akbar Khan
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Economic Times, December 24, 1989
What is it that makes most of us hail Ali Akbar Khan as the greatest living instrumental maestro in the Hindustani tradition? What is it that makes his music so individualistic?
Having heard the maestro for more than three decades, I am firmly convinced that it is the subjective element of intuition or, rather the moving humanistic faculty that inspires and fashions all great creations – which breath life into them – that makes his music great.
That these rare virtues still rule supreme in Ali Akbar’s art, at 67, was once again resoundingly brought home to the audience that heard him at the Nehru Centre last week. What may well be the last major event of 1989 was sponsored by RPG Enterprises.
Despite a tragedy that had befallen him some three weeks ago, when his fond mother died of old age, the maestro showed himself in the characteristic, contemplative mood and threw into his recital the massive weight of his musical personality from the very start.
Indeed, it looked as if the sense of loss caused by his bereavement only served to lend added pathos and pensive melancholy, eloquently expressed in his very opening item in Chandranandan, universally acclaimed as a masterpiece of his artistic creativity. Played in alap jod and jhala and then in two gats in slow and fast tempi, both in teentaal, was unforgettable. It is pointless to attempt a summation of such a marvel in music in terms of the authenticity of technique and presentation for which the Ustad is so famous. For one full hour, the audience sat spell-bound.
In deference to the Ustad’s wishes, there came a fairly long interval. He looked refreshed when he resumed playing after the intermission. The fare comprised two items, the first of which was a half-hour bandish in gat, played to jhampaktaal, a rare rhythmic cycle consisting of 8½ beats. The chosen raga was his favourite Durgeshwari, which embodies in ingenious fusion of melodies as varied as Durga, Jhinjhoti, Goud Malhar and Kukubh Bilaval.
The depiction was in tune with the character of the melody and also the mood of the maestro, which was no longer one of despondency, but of renewed hope. And when it comes to unfolding his forte, the Ustad has few equals.
The element of respectful admiration that came from the young percussion virtuoso, Swapan Choudhari, in his sangat was something out of the world. The way the two celebrities anticipated, supplemented and complemented each other spoke of their mutual admiration and deep comradeship. There was no indulgence in superfast bravado, nor any attempt to play to the gallery by resorting to gimmicks like sawal-jawab and such other needless tricks of style.
In the succeeding and final presentation of the performance, which was also a gat composition in Jilha-Kafi, played to teentaal in vilambit and madhyalaya, the Ustad seemed to be overcome by strange feeling of pensive melancholy. Here, again, he depicted the raga’s mood with a spontaneity all his own. There were a few sequences of other well-chosen melodies to give the main melody the appearance of a ragamala. Like Chandrananadan, it triggered bitter-sweet feelings in our minds.
Ali Akbar Khan lives in America and his admirers at home feel starved of his music, because his rare visits to India. When, therefore, the audiences craved for more of his music, the Ustad, with his typical modesty, disclosed that he was not in the right mood because of his bereavement and went on further to express his regret if he did not play to the expectation of his audience. Indeed, such public expression of humility can come only from those who are truly great.