Chasing melodies and memories with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan at the Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan reflects on his musical journey and sheds light on the lasting influence of  the late Rukmini  Devi, ahead of Kalakshetra’s tribute festival to the legend of classical dance

Karan Pillai Published :  06th March 2020 02:56 PM   |   Published :   |  06th March 2020 02:56 PM
Ustad Amjad Ali Kjan

Ustad Amjad Ali Kjan

For the latest edition of the Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival, Kalakshetra couldn’t have found a more apt headliner than sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who will present a jugalbandi with his sons Amaan and Ayaan at the event next week. The virtuoso shares a unique connection with Rukmini Dev Arundale, one that goes a long way, right back to the days when the Ustad’s father used to be a guru to Padmanabham, who was the brother of Rukmini, the legendary bharatanatyam dancer who co-founded Kalakshetra. 

Rewinding to those days when bharatanatyam was enjoying a renaissance of sorts, the Ustad recalls, “Padmanabham was a great admirer of my father, Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan, and used to learn vocal music from him. In a dramatic coincidence, my wife, Subhalakshmi, would learn bharatanatyam from Rukmini in the years to come, who along with Bala Saraswati, was responsible for the revival of the dance form in that era.” 

Fast forward to now, and the Ustad will be sharing the stage with his sons as a part of the dance institute’s flagship festival, which is held every year as a tribute to Rukmini’s legacy. “It has rendered pioneering service in nurturing the dance form and training several generations of dancers. My wife trained there for nearly 15 years and was Rukmini’s blue-eyed student! Kalakshetra continues to be the most important institution teaching bharatanatyam in India today,” acknowledges the veteran musician, who is also working on a new project with the Grammy-winning American classical guitarist Sharon Isbin. 

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (centre) with his sons, Ayaan and Amaan

Ahead of his Chennai concert at the festival — which will also feature a Carnatic performance by vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan besides other shows hosted by the Foundation —, the Ustad elaborated on his working relationship with his sons, the key role played by his wife in his career, and the unexplored possibilities with regards to the sarod. Excerpts: 

What are some of the fondest memories you have from the period when you were training your sons?
From the day they came into the world, they were both drawn to music. Since that is the only wealth I inherited from my forefathers, I wanted to share it equally with both of them. In the course of Amaan and Ayaan’s training, which is an ongoing process for a classical musician, I never encouraged them to copy my style. As they matured as musicians, I was relieved to see that both of them were developing an approach that was distinctive and rather different from what they were taught. However, when they were around 11 or 12 years old, there was an occasion when they came to me for a serious discussion and said they needed my opinion. ‘Which of us should stop playing the sarod?’ they asked. I was shocked. I told them that I am just a guru, not God. Since both had shown an interest, and I had seen talent, involvement and determination in them, I felt compelled to guide and teach them.

Could you describe the working relationship that the three of you share?
From the beginning, Amaan has been a protective older brother to Ayaan. And Ayaan has always given him respect and love, due to him being an older brother. For a lot of young people, they have become role models. I feel I too have learnt a lot while teaching them. Today, Amaan is also the khalifah (older son of a guru who holds the position next to the guru) of our gharana.

The late Rukmini Devi and Subhalakshmi

What’s the biggest impact that your wife has had on your career, and the professional growth of your sons?
Ever since we got married, my wife has taken the complete responsibility of Sarod Ghar and the Haafiz Ali Khan Memorial Trust. She has completely dedicated herself to my gurus and our children. From coordinating and managing our Indian and overseas concerts to designing our kurtas, she does it all. It is only a mother who can multi-task at various levels, and still have the time to devote and love to share with the family, without feeling tired. I don’t know how mothers do this, but they do! Moreover, 
she is from Assam, a state where the inner beauty of the people and their warmth is obvious when one interacts with them. They are extremely loving, caring and are simple at heart. The same is the case with Subhalakshmi. 

As the world’s foremost sarod player, do you think there are unchartered avenues or unfulfilled goals for you, with regard to the instrument’s musical capacities?
My sarod concert aims to preserve the essence of both Indian and Western traditions, so that they can flow into each other, without artistic compromise. The aim is to joyfully explore the common musical DNA of both traditions. Since my childhood, I always wanted the sarod to be able to express the entire range of human emotions. It has been a long journey so far and the sarod has become far more expressive than it was 25 years ago. Those moments are a profound reminder of the blessing that it is to be in the position of loving — and living — your life’s work.

February 26, 6.30 pm onwards. Tickets available online.