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Classical Music From Across the World

Sarod Maestro Amjad Ali Khan Captivates Audience’s Senses

By Nadezhda Belova

North Indian Classical Sarod Concert

Amjad Ali Khan, sarod maestro

Amaan Ali Bangash, Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod Sandeep Das, tabla

Association for India’s Development

Kresge Auditorium

Sept. 25, 6:30 p.m.

Last Saturday, MIT had the pleasure of hosting the master sarod performer in the world, maestro Amjad Ali Khan, with his two sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, and Sandeep Das on the tabla. The concert was organized by the Association for India’s Development, and the proceeds from the concert were designated to directly benefit grass-roots development projects in India. AID is an international non-profit organization which aims to empower local Indian communities by funding initiatives targeted at improving health, education and general welfare.

Amjad Ali Khan is a direct descendent of Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash, who came to India from Afghanistan in the 1700s, introducing the rabab to India. His descendants consequently transformed the rabab into the sarod. The sarod -- whose name is derived from the Person word for melody -- has a smooth, polished, steel fingerboard which allows the musician to slide his fingers with ease. Its body is made from teak and the front is covered with goat skin. The melody is played with only 4 strings -- usually plucked with a coconut-shell plectrum -- and there are eleven additional sympathetic strings. The sarod’s voice is very reminiscent of a human voice: it can sing, yell from joy or pain, wail, laugh.

The first half of the concert was performed by Amjad Ali Khan with the tabla musician Sandeep Das. After expressing that it was a deep honor to play in support for AID’s great causes, the maestro tuned and then performed two or three ragas. A raga is one of the ancient traditional melodic patterns or modes in Indian music. The structures of the ragas vary, but they generally have three parts: a slow, lyrical first part, a rhythmically ambiguous second part, and a fast, powerful third part. The first few notes of the raga reminded me of the hills in midday heat as they slid between tones, never settling on a particular note. Perhaps Khan was attempting to describe the complexity of human life, exploring its emotions and its meanings. The solo introduction was joined by the essential rhythms of the tabla, filling Kresge with penetrating drumming, as though Das was revealing the thoughts of the earth. And although Sandeep Das played using only his hands, he produced at least three distinct sounds: clicking, beating and a deep traveling tone which reminded me of the displacement of the water on a surface of a lake.

As the raga developed, the audience was drawn into its tunes and rhythms, and a contemplative meditation descending upon both the audience and the players. As the raga progressed to its faster and more vibrant parts, I had to suppress my desire to want to dance. The raga is a perfect joining of rhythm and sound, a seamless interaction, where the rhythm are perfectly combined, neither overwhelming the other. It is not unusual for a raga to last for 50 minutes, and Khan did just so for this concert.

There was a twenty minute intermission during which the audience enjoyed Indian food, and others, like me ran to LaVerdes for nourishment. The intermission was the perfect time to look around. Most of the women were wearing very beautiful saris, and the atmosphere was very festive.

The second half of the concert began with a raga played by Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. The strength and beauty of the music was intensified by the two sarods, sounding together. Since raga is essentially an improvisation, the musicians could interact on the stage by challenging each other to repeat and ever increasingly complex rhythms. Amaan and Ayaan were joined by their father, Amjad, and then there were three sarods playing at the same time. All three and the tabla teased each other, challenging, exciting, and building up almost to a climax, and then relaxing, settling into a calmer melody. This continued in waves.

All the performers were very gifted and talented musicians who masterfully brought out the voices and souls of their instruments. With their music, they transformed daily life into an extraordinary experience. Although this was my first exposure to classical Indian music, I can say with certainty that it was one of the most cleansing and invigorating spiritual experiences of my life. I felt engaged, invigorated, alive, excited and at the same time very calm. At the end of the concert, I was not tired but in fact refreshed. Maybe the best way to describe sarod music is to quote the young man who sat next to me at the concert: “Listening to this music is like reaching Nirvana.”