Sound of the sarod

The spectacular summer continues here in England. The almost endless light, the picture perfect square fields of gold and green create the illusion of being in a period drama – where heroines in flowing empire cut dresses glow as they stop for breath as they walk the grounds of Pemberley…

In this most English fantasy – we can easily forget how incredibly diverse the cultural landscape of this country really is. While visiting London a few days ago, I realised that it is the mishmash of cultures that is part of the jigsaw that is now Britain. Snatches of Arabic disco music, a dozen different Eastern European languages spoken on the streets, the Persephone bookshop (that publishes women’s writing that’s gone out of print) and then an almost establishment feel to the concert I was attending at Wigmore Hall – Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the sarod maestro.

My association with his music goes back to my student days in Chennai. The organisation SPICMACAY (Indians love acronyms – Society for the Promotion of Classical Music Among Youth) brought artists whom we had only seen as shadowy middle-aged black and white figures in late-night concerts on TV to universities across the country. For someone exposed to just Carnatic music, this was an opportunity to understand the Hindustani tradition of the north of the country. I heard Amjad Ali Khan in a ramshackle college auditorium for the first time. Even then, what was so amazing about him was his eagerness to engage and share generously with his audience.

The sarod is a many stringed instrument with goatskin on the resonator and a steel fingerboard with no frets. Persian in its appearance, it is said that Amjad Ali Khan’s ancestors invented it. In the Victorian setting of Wigmore Hall, the ustad gave us a snapshot of his life spent in playing the sarod. At the mention of Gwalior, the palaces of Rajasthan were evoked in an instant – he too hailed from the place where Mia Tansen lived – the musician who played in the court of Emperor Akbar who invented the Raag Malhar for the rain. When Tansen sang it, it is supposed to have poured. When the ustad plays, face thrown back, utterly absorbed in his world of melody, we are transported to another world of desert fortresses where only the sound of the sarod is heard for miles across the sands. And when he flashes his generous smile at the tabla player, effortlessly hitting phenomenal speeds, he charms us in classic rock-star style.

Halfway through the concert, the ustad filed his nails. He joked that it wasn’t a quick beauty treatment but to be able to play the instrument with the tips of his nails. He demonstrated how it would sound if he played it like the violin or the guitar with his fingertips – it sounded flat and devoid of melody. The sarod was even more of a difficult instrument than I thought.

I was hoping to be immersed in the beauty of his music for a lot longer – instead his alaaps were too brief and the crescendos reached all too quickly. Our emotional response to nature, to art, poetry, prose or music is a sort of jigsaw puzzle in our heads – an attempt at creating a pleasing narrative that is seemingly endless.

The trouble is the story is rarely coherent and most of the time a little bit unfulfilling…

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