10 July 2007

"We Are Here To Make Classical Music More Accessible"

Part of this interview appeared in 'M' Magazine, Jan-Feb 2007.

Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan interviewed at Olive, Mehrauli, New Delhi, 10 November 2006.

Hemant Sareen:You just launched Truth, an experimental album mixing Hindustani classical with electronica. How does your father, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, feel about your hanging out in nightclubs, and making music that would be fit to be played there?

Amaan: He feels there is nothing wrong. My father always says music does not know any barriers. As a kid I used to always feel very frustrated, thinking why is Indian classical music here, ghazal and Bollywood there, and hip-hop somewhere. Now I am happy that classical music has moved from auditoriums into lounges and nightclubs. Its a good thing. That’s how its sales and the popularity will go up. I could’ve been sitting on the other side of the river, playing classical music, happy with the select audience that I have. But I don’t want to waste my life just doing that. Basically, what we are here to do is to make classical music more accessible...

Ayaan: ...and in vogue.

Amaan: And bring it into fashion. Not many fashion designers or film stars have had a show or a concert in, say, the Carnegie hall..., or at the Lincoln Centre. But all this had been done by classical music as early as the 1940s.

HS:Was the burden of tradition too heavy that you wanted to take a breather from classical music?

Amaan: Ayaan and I have been very lucky. Bachpan se, bhai and I have been exposed to, and have lived and breathed classical music. So there is no question of our breaking away from classical music. I cannot break the rag because I have a responsibility to carry on what my grandfather made.

HS:So you do feel that responsibility?

Ayaan: Of course.

Amaan: Yes, and its good. Anyone who leaves his roots, can never again find a place for himself in this world.

Ayaan: See, in order to be contemporary, you don’t have to break to from tradition. You can be very traditional, and yet very contemporary.

Amaan: We are classical musician, but we didn’t come here in kurta-pyjama [they are dressed in jeans and dress shirts]. Its something that comes naturally to us.

Ayaan: And that doesn’t make us less serious classical musicians. However, having started quite early in music, over the years we’ve seen the transitions in classical music. And its a big challenge for us and other classical musicians of our generation, to maintain its purity and to live in a time of of remixes.

HS: What kind of transitions have you seen classical music undergo since you started performing?

Amaan: Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, or Bade Gulam Ali Khan sahib performed for 30 to 100 people maximum...

Ayaan: ...intimate gatherings...

Amaan: Then came a generation to which my father, Zakir Hussain, Pandit Ravi Shankarji, and Vilayat Khan Sahib belonged. From musicians, they transformed themselves into performers and brought in a new audience. Now you have Ayaan and me and all the other youngsters. Today you have a 3000-seater selling out. We played in Carnegie last year to an audience of 2,500.

Ayaan: I’ve been giving concerts since the mid-80s. That was the era of one channel. And now to have 3,000 people leaving 90-95 entertainment channels at home and coming for classical music concert, speaks volume about their dedication, their interest, and I completely value it. So, I feel very sad when I hear some senior musician, and even those of my own generation, comment, “Oh! Classical music is on its way out.’ Maybe for them, but not for all.

HS:Did you have a choice as far as taking up the sarod is concerned?

Amaan: Let’s say we didn’t, in a way.

Ayaan: May be my father voiced it and said, ‘You can always do something you want,’ but we knew he wanted us to [learn sarod].

Amaan: Its not that he had a stick in his hand, he used to beat us and say, ‘Play the sarod!’ Never. He was more like: ‘Let me do my part. Let me introduce the sarod to them. If they like it they will pick it up, or else [they could do] whatever they want.’

Ayaan: I always advise young musicians who want to take up sarod or classical music as a profession to finish their education, have a degree to fall back on. Because in any creative field, the future is so uncertain. Today, even being a big icon’s son I don’t know whether I’ll be having 20 concerts next month or 10...

Amaan: ...That’s the risk you take...

Ayaan: ...So you just keep going. But then, God forbid, if things don’t work out for you, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

HS:What was your father like as a teacher? What kind of training did he impart to you?

Ayaan: For my father, music has never been a profession. Its been a way of life. So, initially, just as we had a homework time or a playtime, we had a sarod-time as well. It was only in the years to come that we both found our calling. We both found our callings at separate ages. Eventually, we decided that classical music is not about sitting on the stage and playing and people saying, ‘O, you look so cute on stage.’ It was much more than that.

Amaan: And also the fact that being Ustad Ajmad Ali Khan Saab’s sons, people would always say, ‘Oh, they’ve had it so easy in life, they haven’t struggled.’ Fair enough. But being Khan saab’s son, is not very easy. Every time we sit holding a sarod on the stage, everything from our looks, music, clothes, personality...

Ayaan:... body language...

Amaan:...body language, is compared to our father’s. You can be anyone’s son, the audience is very cruel. They will not accept nonsense. You are not a shampoo or a sabun, that you keep on advertising and people keep buying. You have to prove your worth.
Abba seldom held a sarod in his hand when he taught us. And thank God, because he can be very short tempered if you can’t produce what he is asking you. That accounts for all the white hair we have given our father.

Ayaan: But he’s never reacted. He just leaves it be.

Amaan: Yeah, he is a very shaant, very blessed, gentle soul.

Ayaan: He is at peace.

Amaan: After a certain stage you achieve a power on your face, because music is the only language, I’m sorry to boast, but it’s true, which connects you to God.

HS:So when you or your father plays on the stage, is it with a spiritual feeling or is it a general, musical focus?

Amaan: Sadly, we live for music, and we live on music too. But then, you can’t be on the road with a bowl? When we get a concert, obviously we discuss the price. But, when you go on stage, you forget what you’re paid or not, and who is sitting in front of you. Because you're connected with a divine power.

Ayaan: You’re praying [when you ‘re performing]. Sometimes when you get on to the stage, certain things happen there, and you don’t realise how it happened. You feel connected to a cosmic power. Even as an audience: As a child sitting with my father in concert, when I saw him smile on stage, I sometimes wondered who this person was: whether I knew this gentleman at all! You just get awe-struck. That’s what music does to you.

HS:What are the economics of classical music? Does it pay well?

Amaan: In classical music there are people like Pandit Ravi Shankarji, and there are people performing in the restaurants. Classical music can pay you from five rupees to fifteen or twenty lakhs. So it depends on demand and supply. Whoever is earning money through music, I don’t know if they deserve it or not, but they’re blessed.

Ayaan: Yeah, after a point its karmic also. Some things don’t have an explanation. Why is Amitabh Bhachchan the only superstar of his generation? You can’t explain that. It’s not that Vinod Khanna or Nasseeruddin Shah are bad actors. Its karmic.

HS:When people see you on TV or on page 3 doing things other than classical music, they think you’re distracted. Are you?

Ayaan: That’s not right. They say that for cricketers too. That’s ridiculous!

Amaan: See, in India what the problem is that we get too personal into people’s lives. Today if you’re standing with a friend having a conversation. If she’s a girl and you happen to come close and say, ‘Achcha, I can’t hear you,’ they click your photograph and put it on the paper and say,’Khan saab’s son having fun.’

Ayaan: Its not that we take concerts for granted.

Amaan: There are lot of these people who say about us: ‘Arre, these guys are musicians , [yet] they go to these parties and all.’ Arre, being a musician is not a curse bhai. If I am a musician, I don't have to phaar my kurta and spit paan all over my body and sit in the house. I’m sorry, I’ve the right to live. I can have a glass of wine if I want to have a glass of wine. You know this hypocrisy in our industry is so bad...

Ayaan: You know, my father used to be criticised you know, ‘Ye to kurte bade achche pahen ke aate hain.’ Then, my father used to change his kurta in the second half of the concert, and why not? They criticised that too. They don’t realise for an artist a concert is a celebration.

Amaan: My question is, why not? If you want to look good, is that a problem?

Ayaan: ...as long as we’re not compromising in work.

Amaan: We don’t compromise.

HS:You are both individuals. Is there any compulsion to play together? Do you intend to have your own separate careers?

Amaan: We have never planned our lives, to be honest. We have always been focussed about our music.

HS:So it doesn’t matter whether you are playing together or separately?

Amaan: No it doesn’t matter. Playing separately is boring.

Ayaan: We started as soloists. There is no rule that we that we always have to be together, but then most of the concerts its easier from marketing point of view to have us together. But we are fine with it.

HS:We were talking about the future of classical music. How do you see it? And what’s going to be your role in it?

Ayaan: I think this is the best time for Indian classical music. Its never been better and its going to get bigger. And I hope I’m part of the growth.

Amaan: ...no, no, of the movement...
Ayaan: ...of the movement...

Amaan: Indian classical music would definitely grow. Today a person working in a restaurant can tell, ‘Arre, pata hai, ye sitaar, ya sarod, ya santoor bajate hain.’ See the visibility. Ye aaj se dus saal pehele no one could say. So, people should not be impatient and say, ye kharaab hai, wo kharaab hai. Nothing is kharaab, wait for the time, it’ll to come. Personally, I still feel, I am on the right track, and my time will become better because I’m working hard, I’m a good human being, I respect elders, I take care of the younger ones around me, why will I not get what I want? Keep a positive thinking and you’ll get things in life. Be humble, tolerant, down-to-earth, loving...

HS:...and a good musician.

Amaan: All this will make you a good human being. If you’re a bad human being, your music will stink. There are 20, 000 singers in Bombay today, why is that Himesh Reshmiya a hit. Whatever said and done, at the end of the day his songs are touching people’s hearts.

Ayaan: You can’t impose an artist or a music on any one. People like you for what you are, and they like you if you are good.

HS:Is it one of your father’s sayings?

Amaan: These are teachings of my mother and father ingrained in me and Ayaan. We live by these guidelines. We have them in our heads.

HS: Are you open to fusion?

Ayaan: I don’t like the word ‘fusion’ but yes experimental concerts.

Amaan: We have done so many collaborations, we have worked with Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers band, we have worked with Evelyn Glennie, who is a deaf drummer from Europe, Mathew Barley, a cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra. These were experiments. I wouldn’t use the word ‘fusion,’ because fusion has no boundaries. I am saying ‘experimented’, because you can only experiment with music and see [where its going] if its going somewhere. You cannot fuse music, its a disaster, its garbage. Then in India we have worked with Louis Sir (Louis Banks), Carl Peters, Sivamani, Taufiq Quereshi.

HS: What kind of music do you listen to?

Amaan: Qawaali, Trance, Electronica, like Karunesh, Bollywood music.

Ayaan: Apart from Hindustani classical music, I hear a lot of Western classical music. I love listening to symphonies and soloists, and from Anne-Sophie Mutter to Izak Stern and izak Perlman. Apart from that I like qawaali. I am a a great fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, we have dedicated one track in Truth to him. Then the usual: Elton John, Celine Dion, Moby, Coldplay. I think any kind of music makes you grow as a person and as a musician.

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