Musicologist in his own right

Musicologist in his own right

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That evening, the Ustad played Malkauns, a raga believed to have been created by Goddess Parvati to calm down Lord Shiva from the vehemence of tandava.

That evening was also my beginning to slowly grasp Asad Ali Khan’s intrinsic celebration of Shiva. But more of it later. First thing first.

In the melee of genres of music permeating the air waves, I am afraid that we as a generation have not yet fathomed the loss we have suffered in the passing away of a frail looking musician whose name most outside the ardent classical circle have never heard of before last month.



For, Asad Ali Khan was not a celebrity in that sense. For, Asad Ali Khan has taken away with him a whole civilisation of music. It is a Greek tragedy not yet written.

Ustad Asad Ali Khan was in the lineage of Jaipur Beenkar gharana who played in the tradition of Khandar Bani of dhrupad music. At this point, let me put in a few words on the Beenkars as a lineage and Khandar as a bani that would put Asad Ali Khan in the perspective of his musical ancestry.

The legendary Tansen’s sons took to rabab as the principal musical instrument. Their descendants came to be known as rababis. Tansen’s daughter Saraswati was married to the son of Rajput king Raja Samukhan Singh, who was a virtuoso veena player. Saraswati’s descendants played the veena, also known as the been. Thus the Beenkars.  
There are different interpretations of the name Khandar as one of the four banis of dhrupad. According to what musicologist Hakim Mohammad wrote in his book Madnul Musiqi, Raja Samokhan Singh was the inhabitant of Khandar, and thus the name of the bani.  

It is said that Lord Shiva created the musical instrument where the nuances of swaras and shrutis can be emphatically illustrated. So, rudra veena bears Shiva’s name — Rudra. Young Asad Ali took up this instrument as the seventh generation of his illustrious family which includes his legendary great grandfather Ustad Rajab Ali Khan.

At a concert, Asad Ali Khan would often veer to teaching, illustrating, for instance, on his rudra veena how the same swara (note), Komal Gandhar, should be played in different shrutis (semi-tones) while playing different ragas like Malkauns and Darbari Kanada.

He would play in meed — by lateral stretching of the string — the Komal Gandhar of Malkauns and then the Komal Gandhar of Darbari Kanada and make the audience understand that minute semi-tonal difference. And when the awed silence was all pervading, the Ustad would break into a gentle smile and say — kya karoon, teacher hoon nah, aadat se majboor hoon. 

No wonder, classical musicians thronged his concerts. It is from his concerts that I first came to know of playing, not with the standard 12 notes, but with the 22 shrutis of Indian classical music system. For, Asad Ali Khan remained true to Shiva’s wish with shrutis. This Shiva consciousness is manifest in the way Asad Ali Khan had interpreted both his instrument and his music.

A Shia Muslim who remained engaged in his religion, his rigid practice of yoga for posture and breath control was legendary. For, rudra veena requires the player to sit in vajrasana for hours while playing the 10 kg heavy instrument. And, according to the Ustad, if the player does not have control over his breath, the right tonal quality cannot be produced from the instrument, let alone the semi-tonal shrutis.  

In his music too, Asad Ali Khan adhered to the purest form of elucidation of a raga. His uncompromising adherence to the true nature of his instrument and music did not get him hordes of disciples. For 17 long years as a faculty of music in Delhi University, no one came to learn the rudra veena from him. He taught theory to the students of sitar.   

Asad Ali Khan straddled the fault line of religions and in his dialectic between faith and music synthesised an awareness that transcended narrow definitions. He became a philosophy in himself.

I have this nagging sensation which borders on certainty over my two decades of following his music, that, while alive, Ustad Asad Ali Khan always played to the creator of rudra veena. And there, his life and his music are immortal.

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