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Soaring Strings, Magic Hands

Maestro Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain in Concert

By Sonali Mukherjee

Ali Akbar Khan

Kresge Auditorium

Friday, Sept. 27, 7:30

A classical Indian concert is not for those who impatiently seek instant musical gratification. In an age of three-minute pop songs, it almost seems impossible that anyone would even think about listening to a performance that could sometimes be more than three hours in length. With the expedient elevation to stardom virtually guaranteed for “American Idols,” some people might consider it absurd that musicians would spend twenty to thirty years studying only one instrument before considering themselves fit to perform publicly.

However, the diligence and appreciation for Indian music still exists as strong as ever, as evidenced by the throng of audience members who eagerly packed a sold-out Kresge Auditorium last Friday night to hear the amazing Ustad (Maestro) Ali Akbar Khan perform in concert. A virtuoso sarod player, Ustad Khan was accompanied by the renowned performer Zakir Hussain on tabla. In addition, his two teenage sons, Alam and Manik Khan, played sarod and tanpura respectively, and George Ruckert, a professor in the Music Department at MIT, played both the sarod and tanpura.

Deepti Nijhawan, president of MITHAS (MIT Heritage of the Arts of South Asia), began the evening by promising the audience that regardless of whether they were novice listeners or a well-seasoned arts patrons, everyone was about to be treated to an evening of “pure magic.”

The instruments that are used in an Indian instrumental concert contribute to the unique sound that characterizes Indian music. The sarod, which was first invented in the sixteenth century and later reinvented by Khansahib’s father, Padmavibhusan Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan, is an instrument containing 25 metal strings on a fretless steel fingerboard.

The tabla is a set of drums used in North Indian classical music that is played by the tips, sides, fingers, and heels of the hand to create a tonic tuned to soloist as well as a bass. The tanpura is a four-stringed drone instrument that plays the tonic and the dominant of the scale. The tanpura creates a jawari, or buzzing, that often lends to the well-recognized background of Indian classical music.

Melodies in classical Indian music are known as rags (a “male” melody) and raginis (a “female” melody). Ustad Khan (who is also affectionately known as Khansahib) began the concert by introducing the first melody of the evening as Ragini Madhumalati, which translates to “song of a flowering creeper.” The first movement of a rag is known as alap, and is characterized by a very loose, abstract rhythm.

The alap of a classical rag contributes to the ethereality of Indian music because it essentially introduces every note in the rag in an anibaddh (non-metrical) fashion. The only instruments in the alap were the sarod, which was played by Khansahib and Khan, and the tanpura -- the tabla was silent during this movement. The alap, in all its abstractness, is actually considered by some to be the most important part of a performance because it indicates the maturity of the performer. Khansahib, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, exhibited an overwhelmingly delicate, yet powerful presence during his performance of the alap. Using his sarod, he demonstrated his skill by gradually unfolding every note of the rag with extreme thought, care, and concentration.

The rag then moves into the jor, a movement within the alap that begins to introduce a feeling of nibaddh, or meter. The tabla still remains silent during this time, but the sarod begins to create a pulse that still has no definable meter. Khan contributed to the momentum of the jor by playing lovely octave jumps on his sarod that were overlaid by more intricate, increasingly metrical patterns by his father’s sarod.

The gat, or fixed composition of the rag, began approximately thirty minutes into the rag and was signaled by the beginning Hussain’s tabla accompaniment. The gat was played using a ten-beat tal (meter) known as jhaptal. Not only did Hussain keep the rhythm, but he also contributed many distinctive ornaments to the performance, such as a repetitive three-part compositions known as tihais. Hussain also amazed the audience time and again with the lightning-quick speed with which he played his tabla, all the while keeping full control of the tal.

Khansahib’s style included improvisation, which he often exhibited by playing a quick scale-wise melody known as a tan and then challenging his son to repeat the melody on his own sarod, which Alam Khan did with fantastic flourish. A very interesting improvisation in the gat was an octave separation between the two sarod players. Regardless of whether Alam Khan was deferring to his father’s sarod, or whether Khansahib had more amplification than his son, the net effect when the two sarods merged was the creation of a haunting overtone that resounded throughout the auditorium.

Alam Khan was not the only performer with whom Khansahib had fun. Much to the delight of the audience, the Ustad would often unexpectedly change the emphasis of his melody, thus challenging Hussain to keep up and accurately place the sam, or downbeat, on the tabla. The rag ended in a jhala, or “sparkling” movement in which both tabla and sarod were played with increasingly accelerating speed. This movement brought the melody swinging forward with full force to its rousing conclusion, a skillfully executed tihais that brought the audience to their feet in a standing ovation.

Khansahib selected a light classical piece known as Rag Pahari Jhinjoti as the final melody of the performance. A combination of two different rags, this melody derives from a mountain folk song. It was performed as a trio of sarods played by Khansahib, Alam Khan, and Professor Ruckert. The tabla entered very early in the piece, in a speed of sixteen beats known as tintal. The trio of sarods took turns performing, with each performer skillfully lending a slow beauty to the music that even made notes going down a scale lovely and significant. A motif that reoccurred in the piece was a very simple scale that ascended stepwise from the tonic sa (or do in Western notation) to the subdominant ma (fa) and then descended one step down, ending on the mediant ga (mi).

Suddenly, the impossibly fast rhythms created by Hussain and the quick, repetitive chikari stringing of the sarods created a melody rich with rhythm and color that completely surprised the audience out of the peaceful mood initially created by the rag. One of the most moving parts of the performance was the call and answer improvisation in which Khansahib would suddenly create a melody and Hussain, Ruckert, and Alam Khan would simultaneously repeat the melody and the rhythm, all the while shaking their heads in amazement at the Ustad’s talent.

Ruckert played with such passion that one of the strings on his sarod broke and needed to be replaced. Khansahib quietly settled the rag down until Ruckert was ready to play again, and then brought up the intensity level of the piece once more, continually playing increasingly accelerating tans. He kept the audience in delightful suspense about which tihais was going to end the performance, and by the time he did reach the end of the jhala, everyone in Kresge was already clapping in thunderous appreciation.

Many audience members agreed that the evening was a stellar success. Anoop V. Rao G, president of Sangam MIT’s Indian Student Association, put it most simply: “The five-minute standing ovation and applause for the octogenarian Khansahib after the concert concluded said it all.”

Rupak Bhattacharya, a sophomore at Harvard, described the concert as phenomenal. “I think the interplay of music between the two generations was absolutely amazing,” he explained enthusiastically.

Like Bhattacharya, many people commented not only on the talent of Khansahib, but also gave praise to the prodigy of his two handsome sons, sixteen-year old Manik and twenty-year old Alam.

“It’s an honor to be able to go on tour with my father and my brother,” said a friendly Manik Khan, exhibiting great humility even while giving his autograph to an excited mother for her teenage daughter. Manik, who is a senior at Drake High in San Anselmo, California, has been studying sarod since he was twelve, and only recently started playing the tanpura.

His older brother, Alam Khan, is a full-time student at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, California, which his father founded in 1967. Alam, who has been studying the sarod for eleven years, described his father as “a legendary musical performer for his time.” When asked about what he thought about the quality of the performance, Alam responded very positively, also giving tribute to the concertgoers: “It’s also wonderful to have a nice, responsive audience.”

Ruckert commented on Khansahib’s music as “traditional, but with a new take on the rag.” During the first rag, “Khansahib performed in chhadra style, a style you don’t hear often nowadays. And he stayed in that style for the entire rag!” he said. Ruckert, who serves as the Artistic Director of MITHAS, was also pleased with the success of the performance for MITHAS and Sangam, the two organizations that bring Indian classical music to MIT. Among the successes was the auction of the tabla that Hussain played that evening for $3700.

Naveen Goela ’03, who won the 2002 Peter Eloranta Fellowship to study jawari at the California branch of the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music over the summer, spoke of his experiences and his thoughts about the skill and effort required to become a renowned classical performer.

“Khansahib is a great person,” he said, explaining how the Ustad would go about greeting every single one of his students at the school. “Khansahib is eighty years old ... some musicians will take twenty to thirty years to perform in public ... [and] fifty years to become a teacher. He would tell [the students] ‘How long do you think it will take to please God?’”

In pleasing the audience last Friday evening with his talent, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has done more than leave his mark on the classical Indian music scene at MIT -- he has emblazoned it for many generations, both young and old, to remember.