“When music is the soul, rhythm is the heartbeat…” – In conversation with Ustad Sabir Khan

Ustad Sabir Khan, one of the finest exponents of Tabla and the present Khalifa of the legendary Farukkabad Gharana is the 33rd descendant of an unbroken lineage. Ustadji received his initial training in Tabla from his grandfather Ustad Masit Khan and was later groomed by his father Ustad Keramatullah Khan. An explicit Ghazal singer and composer himself, Ustadji has been dedicated to the promotion and propagation of Indian Classical music in the nooks and corners of the country. His able successors and disciples, his sons Arif Khan, Asif Khan and Ameen Khan, the 34th generation, are fine performers and the future flag bearers of this age-old legacy.

The following excerpt has tried to capture the position of Indian Classical Music in the present scenario through an intimate and extremely precious conversation between Ustad Sabir Khan and his son Asif Khan.

Asif Khan: I have heard many a times from you but can you please brief for the readers about the origin of Tabla and the creation of the 900yr old lineage?

Ustad Sabir Khan: It was during 1132. In vocal music, Dhrupad was rendered more than often in different forms. It was performed as Bhajans in temples, during Pujas of Shivji or Ganeshji and was mostly accompanied by Pakhwaj in simple Taals like Sultal, Lakshmitaal, Dhamar or Chautaal. Even today, Pakhawaj is the main accompaniment of Bhajans. Later beautiful renditions of Dhrupad started being performed in programmes too. Thereafter came the era of Khayal. The Persian word, Khayal, means imagination in one hand and also, more simply and colloquially – to look after somebody, as we say, ‘kisika khayal rakhna’. In Indian classical music, Khayal came as ‘imagination’ and very beautiful ones too, written in Brij Bhasa, composed on various classical raagas. When this form started to become popular amongst the audience, there arose the requirement of such an instrument which can suit the mood of Khayal, a softer instrument. This is when the Tabla was introduced.

Now the question is, how was the Tabla made? There is a story behind this too. A person named Mir Akasa, belonging to the Rajput Akasa family, experimentally divided the Pakhawaj into two halves – the Treble was made the Tabla and the Bass half was made the Bayan. He used black powder, shiyai, on top to make the Bass and accordingly tuned the instrument. Now, Khayal was sung by both Male and Female singers. Hence he put a method of adjustment in Tabla which could be tuned in accordance with the scale, be it low for female singers or high for their male counterparts. A lot of thought process was involved in making the Tabla which reformed over the years. It was primarily designed as an accompanying instrument which with time emerged as a solo instrument also, performed by various artists and numerous compositions were created thus. What I feel is, in these 850-900 years, no other instrument in the world has undergone such a wide range of research. And the credit for most of the premium researches perhaps belongs to the Farukkabad Gharana. Reforms were initiated in every aspect of Tabla, in the style of ‘Gat’, ‘Rela’, ‘Peshkar’ or ‘Chalan’.

Asif Khan: Very beautifully said. But how did classical music, more precisely, Tabla came to Bengal? And how did it influence the other genres of Music like Rabindrasangeet, Nazrulgeeti and the likes?

Ustadji: The history I was discussing till now let me steer that towards Bengal. In Northern parts of India, more precisely UP, lots of works and practices were happening with Tabla and different Gharanas came into being depending on the distinctive style of a place, the major ones of which were Farukkabad, Punjab, Lucknow, Delhi. Then some Ustads and Pandits from Delhi went to Meerut and form the Ajrara Gharana or Pandit Ramji Sahai and Viru Sahai from Lucknow went to Banaras to give birth to the lovely Banaras Gharana. Most of these Gharanas found patrons in the Nawabs, Raja, Maharaja, Zamindars. Wazir Khan, one of the grandsons of Tansen, was one such court musician of the Nawab of Rampur Hamid Ali Khan and later his son Nawab Raza Ali Khan, who had the finest classical musicians in his Darbar like the Navratan Sabha of Akbar. Wazir Khan Sahab had under him his disciples in the likes of Ustad Allauddin Khan(Sitar) from Comilla, Ustad Mushtaq Hossain Khan(Vocal), Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (Sarod) and all of them joined him as Court musicians too with others like Pandit Balaji, my grandfather, Ustad Masit Khan, Gauharjaan who later came down to Kolkata and Malkajaan. Actually, Rampur was among the last kingdoms taken over by the Government as the Nawab here was very close to Queen Victoria who loved him as her son. Hence with all the royal facilities and support on his side, the Nawab was able to patronize music with grandeur. It was Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, who first moved to Kolkata. There was a Zamindar family in the then Kolkata, the Boral family who had three sons. Elder son Jagu Boral was the Commissioner of Kolkata and in his interest, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan started teaching him Sarod. The middle son was a student of Ustad Mushtaq Hossain Khan and the younger brother, Raichand Boral expressed his wish to learn Tabla. At that time, Tabla was not there in Kolkata. Performers like Pandit Viru Sahaji, Pandit Kantha Maharaj used to come for programmes and went back. Seeing them performing the instrument, an urge developed amongst Kolkatans to learn the instrument. Knowing Raichand’s wish, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan informed him that the best teacher he could have was his friend Ustad Masit Khan, though he was not sure whether he would leave the Nawab’s court and come down to Kolkata. Ustad Masit Khan finally agreed to come down to Kolkata owing to his two close friends Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan and Ustad Mushtaq Hossain Khan. Ustad Masit Khan, on arriving in Kolkata started teaching Tabla to Pandit Raichand Boral. Later he had as his disciples Gyan Babu – Pandit Gyan Prakash Ghosh, Pandit Kanai Dutta and of course his son Ustad Keramatullah Khan. In this way Tabla entered Bengal and spread in its music zone.

Slowly, it spread its wings on other genres of music too. Rabindrasangeet where previously only Khol was the accompaniment, Nazrulgeeti, Modern songs, Ragpradhan all genres started embracing this beautiful instrument and a new horizon opened in the entire music performance scenario altogether. This way Tabla became all the more popular among the people in Kolkata.

Asif Khan: Scenarios and conditions have never been the same. In your musical journey, you have seen both the eras – the era of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab and the era of Ustad Rashid Khan. What difference do you see in the perspective of artists and the perspective of the audience also? How do you differentiate the two eras?

Ustadji: The foremost difference between old and new artists, if you take the likes of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, there was a soul in their music. You can name anyone, Ustad Amir Khan Sahab, Pandit D V Paluskar, Pandit Bhismadeb Chatterjee, Pandit Onkarnathji, Ustad Mushtaq Hossain Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Gopi Kishanji – I am talking of all the disciplines. Now the classical musicians of the newer generation have not been able to add any ‘eighth sur’ in the notation. Whatever they have inherited from their Gurus or Gharana, maybe in Dance, Tabla or Raaga, they are presenting the same. There are no notable innovations. For example, like flowers in different gardens smell differently, Raaga Yaman differs in presentation between Gharanas. Likewise, each singer presents a song with distinct thoughts, as I said Khayal means imagination; singers imagine the same Raaga in different flavours, but previously, what the common thought of all was the betterment of Indian Classical Music, to take it to a newer height. The maestros in Tabla, Ustad Masit Khan, Ustad Keramatullah Khan, Pandit Santa Prasad, Pandit Kantha Maharaj, Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ustad Thirakwa Khan Sahab, Pandit Anokhelal Misra – all played with their soul, honesty and conviction.

In older times these musicians used to worship through their ‘Sur’ and Rhythm, now musicians only perform.

Another factor of difference is Money. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan actually took 5-6 years to ponder whether to take remuneration worth Rs 3000. Ustad Amir Khan took a couple of years to increase his remuneration even by Rs 500. The present generation counts its popularity in terms of money and media. Now corporate-sponsored and ticketed programmes are more and artists have to give in to the mindless demands of the not-so-musical sponsors. Previously it was only publicity of mouth and love of the audience that used to make artists popular and get programmes in the stature of Dover Lane Music conference and accolades. The connoisseurs of music and music conferences were real music ‘samajhdar’s.

Asif Khan: There’s a basic study which states that listening to Indian Classical Music or performing Indian Classical Music releases a certain chemical in mind that actually makes people fight depression or mental anxieties. I would like to request you to please talk about the importance of Classical Music in day to day life.

Ustadji: Indian Classical Music plays a huge role in our life. We, Indian Classical musicians, are so complete in ourselves as we have our own movement(chaal) called ‘Lay’, own speech(boli) called ‘Bol’, own ‘Bhasa’, language and own ‘soch’ or imagination. All these are related to Love and Loyalty and most importantly, the soul – the one which encompasses all the elements of fire, wind, water and earth. When an instrument plays, hand, mind, legs, body of the listener sways in the rhythm as the elements of nature unite with one’s body through it. The soul vibrates on listening to the perfect ‘sur’. And when this connectivity of nature with your body is established, there is no place for depression. When you ask, what impact music can have on our minds, the answer lies in listening to music. The restlessness of mind, lack of concentration and imagination for whatever reasons, all the wrongs happened with you, if you listen to and grow a habit of listening to Indian Classical Music, stress is bound to leave you. You just need to do and see the result. Classical Music is that powerful. Music is connected with the soul, Rhythm with the body. It is like the perfectly balanced heartbeat which pulses between 72 to 110-120. This balanced combination of soul and rhythmic cycle uplifts you to a serene and peaceful world, you feel alive. It assures you. Without this Rhythm and the vibration of the soul, which is the ‘Sur’, you are a dead person. This is the fact of life. In whatever sectors you work, you can relax through Indian Classical Music not any Pop or Western music. This is the basic difference between Indian Classical Music and other forms.

Asif Khan: Classical Music has witnessed an increase in the artist repertoire. More and more musicians, more and more young students are inclined in learning Indian classical music and performing it. During the pandemic, there has been a global rise in live concert series and Face book itself has announced that during the 1st week of the pandemic there had been a 1000% rise in the live concerts. What we would like to know is how is performing a live digital concert in a digital space? How is it essential for the young generation and how is it better for them to achieve a better future?

Ustadji: This series of Facebook, more precisely internet, I am not in favour of, frankly speaking, because each person here tries to show-off or teach something not to learn. If you sow a seed today, it will grow into a plant in let’s say two years, flowers and leaves in another 5 months, proper fruits will come in overall 4 years, maybe. Same with Indian Classical Music. But in the internet era, people want overnight success. It’s possible with film songs or Western songs. You go through the lyrics and notation, with minimum voice quality you can perform. With Indian Classical Music, it’s different. You need to have a combination of ‘Sur’ and ‘Lay’ and then practice it very hard and the deep repeated practice or ‘Sadhna’ can bring out that perfect balance which made the legendary Classical musicians. When you pray to God, purity is necessary and along with it is important how you pray. Both these elements were present in the ‘Sadhna’ of the legends – you name anybody – Pdt Onkarnath ji, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Masit Khan, Pdt Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Bismillah Khan – people identify the ‘Shehnai’ instrument with Ustad Bismillah Khan. When we used to travel abroad for performing, people would see a sitar and would say, ‘Pandit Ravi Shankar’. In America, I remember, seeing the Tabla, people would ask of Ustad Alla Rakha Khan Sahab. Such is their vastness, impact on human minds. Their names will be there as long as the Universe is there. The half an hour, 1-hour presence in an internet live show cannot give this. I know the time is bad. But this phase will pass. There had been worse times earlier also which have passed and this will too, very soon. So don’t get accustomed to social media. It is of course a good thing in the short run, your stress is released and you are relieved of the frustration. I say, if you perform for 1 hour at least the next 24 hours you will be mentally good. But your aim should be to perform in front of the audience and not camera like film actors. The audience feedback you get at a concert is of the foremost importance. Here you not only get appreciations, but people come and tell you when your performance was not up to the standard expectation. This makes a musician. We are superior to the actors as we have three distinct and unique things in us – We are givers, we are worshippers of music, we are performers.

Asif Khan: In the present condition, the Indian economy has suffered a lot of blows and these blows have been seen in different spheres of the economy. All jobs, all professions have suffered. And the biggest blow has been faced by the Classical music industry. Many NGOs, certain Non-governmental organisations have come up to help the Indian Classical Music including your own, Ustad Keramatullah Khan Memorial Music Society. How are the underprivileged Classical musicians surviving and how can society help them?

Ustadji: A bitter truth I am going to tell you today is that, we, the Indian Classical Musicians represent India, we are in one sense the Ambassadors of India. There may be countries around the world with the economy better than us. The European nations, the USA or even China have bigger economies, advanced technologies and lifestyles similar to each other. But not a single country in the world is comparable to India and the reason is Indian Classical Music. Today several enthusiasts from different countries come to India to learn music. They give money to Indian Classical Music for studying music thus bringing revenue to the country. This is our power. In the time of the world recession today, our economy may be poorer but there is one advantage that is of the Indian Classical Music. Our Government, Central or state have taken up so many schemes of late in order to fight the Pandemic threat on economy for different sections of the society. I only wish they think of something for us, musicians too. The fact is if our musicians, not so privileged monetarily, do not have to worry about the two meals of the day, they could have spent their time more productively and creatively towards music. The stress of the Lockdowns and now, the unlock 1 and then 2 would not hamper their concentration and practice. I would request the Government with folded hands as you are thinking of all, for considering the provision of small benefits in terms of subsidies in food, medicine and health or any little financial help, whatever possible, for the underprivileged musicians. There are several Government scholarships but those are not reaching the persons who are in actual need of them. The requirement was already there in the past which had aggravated during this Pandemic. This is the appeal I can do to the authorities.

Asif Khan: As a final note, in this beautiful session and this informative interview, we would request you to share a few inspirational words for the young and budding musicians of this field and all the other fields like semi-classical, adhunik geet, Rabindrasangeet, those who are trying to build their names, with a lot of efforts & practice, what would be your message for them?

Ustadji: The message is very simple. I am very happy with the young musicians. They are very talented. They are finding their own way. They as it is are very passionate about what they do. If music and musical instruments are ‘Laila’, our youngsters are ‘Majnu’. They love the art form passionately and trying to achieve something through it and are getting success too. Like Farhad had cut through the mountain, these young Indian Classical Musicians are achieving similar impossible heights through their continuous ‘riyaz’ and ‘sadhana’. At times they even practice for 10-12-14 hours at a stretch, such is their dedication and talent. No wonder that they are making India proud in world arena of music. I salute the Gurus who are guiding the young generation through the right track. My appeal to all the social and print media platforms out there is to extend your hand of support towards them, publicise their works, give them adequate media coverage which will motivate and encourage these young musicians. This, I think, is your responsibility towards Indian Classical music. I Hope, I am not wanting a lot from you. Thank you.

Asif Khan: Thank you so much. To conclude, any message for Kothabriksha?

Ustadji: My namaskar to all the readers of Kothabriksha. This web magazine is doing a very good job in the social, economic and cultural sections and I am very thankful to the team of editors, who are doing a good job for the magazine. I wish them all the best for the future.

Ustad Sabir Khan, Image source: http://www.ustadsabirkhan.com

We thank Mr. Asif Khan for helping us with this interview. Paraphrased by Srabanti Sen.

Copyright © Kothabriksha 2020, All Rights Reserved.

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