Voyaging on the ‘Good Ship’ Sarod 1979 to 2018

Amjad Ali Khan in the late seventies
Amjad Ali Khan in the late seventies

Amjad Ali Khan’s Outdoor Concert. Delhi, April 1979

I sit myself near the front in a massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folk eating, gossiping, taking care of noisy children and in between times paying attention to the music. I’m only here because a friend recommended that as a long-time guitarist, I shouldn’t miss it. Beyond a cursory look at a sitar here in Delhi and a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall by Ravi Shankar a few years previously, which had gone right over my head, I’ve no real interest in Indian classical music. She and I sit on carpets on the ground and the artists come and go for hours, and none of it means much at all to me. But at some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in white kurta, unveils this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument and knocks my socks off with his playing. The stage lights reflect multicoloured from it’s metallic fretboard and strings; it’s sound is clean and penetrating, the notes like silver arrows that seem to go straight into me. Dazed, I study the programme notes, which refer to lots of people whose names all seem to be Ali Khan. I make an effort to retain the name Amjad and the word sarod. Somehow inside me a decision has been made, as if a destiny has been suddenly announced: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play.

Fast forward to 1983 from that electrifying moment in Delhi when I first clapped eyes on the sarod. Now it’s Britain, spring of 1983, and at last after four years of playing along with sarod LPs on my guitar, (neither instrument nor teacher having shown up in my home town of London in the interval) I can find out what it’s like to hold one and to be taught to play it. Finally one has appeared in London’s ‘Little India’ of Southall, at Britain’s sole Indian instrument store, where I also learn that a sarod player will be visiting for the summer.

Looking back now over the thirty plus years since, I see my sarod as a wondrous vessel that has carried me over the deep ocean of Hindustani classical music, and repeatedly set me ashore on far-flung islands of adventure. Before I set forth to try to convey a little of those depths, or portray some of those islands, let me first:

Describe the Good Ship Sarod.

Like any Arab dhow, or British man o‘ war plying the Indian Ocean trade in the days of sail, her hull is Indian teak, from the forests above the Malabar coast that supplied durable shipbuilding timber to Arabs, Portugese and all other comers. Aged twenty years in the maker’s warehouse before being adzed into shape, I’m told – but that may be just one of the innumerable stories with which she is freighted. Her sails are goatskin, stretched tight to catch the faintest hint ruffled up by the ocean of sound below; she is rigged with high tension steel piano wires from her nineteen pegs; and decked with chrome plating to receive the pressure of fingernails onto strings. All in all a wonder of East-West technology, combining traditional Bengali craftmanship with the German industrial ingenuity which supplies the steel for her wires.

So then, as an instrument she must be a relatively modern invention? As stories begin to spill from her hold, who can say for sure? Her parentage is fabled to be in Afghanistan, where the gut-stringed rabab once spearheaded Pashtun armies as they marched into battle, and from where a khan, ancestor of todays Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, (whose concert so entranced me in Delhi that night) brought his rabab down to the plains of India a hundred and fifty years or so ago, to be refashioned into today’s sarod. Or not, if the treasurehouse of ancient fretless instruments in the Calcutta museum is to be taken account of, as many of them, much older, could have supplied a template for her. Her eight playing strings are struck by a plectrum made of coconut shell, and here is my Ustad’s first job: to show me how to make one.

Gurdev Singh, my teacher, is a Punjabi Sikh, and Ustad-ji is his honorary title as master and teacher. I fetch a nut from one of the many Asian grocers that line the main street in Southall, West London’s ‘Little India’, and bring it to the house nearby where he is visiting for the summer. We squat on the floor (there is no furniture in the rental house save a couple of beds) as he demonstrates, his sparse English smattered with Punjabi, liberally dashed with charming smiles. As with all of my lessons with him on his repeated visits over the ensuing four years, there are comings and goings – the front door is rarely locked – other students (although I am the only non-Indian), fellow musicians, supplicants, listeners, hangers on, bringers of food, home cooked in sympathetic local families homes – mostly male, all speaking Punjabi or slang-laden Hindi.

There are strict etiquettes to follow and abundant tales of musicians historical and contemporary to imbibe with the teaching. A sarod must never be disrespected by being touched with a foot, I learn; once I merely stepped over the instrument in passing, albeit without touching it, to general horror; mention of famous, or well-regarded fellow musicians should be accompanied by a respectful touch of the earlobe. I watch how Gurdev receives applause after a concert, holding the sarod up in front of his face, to allow the instrument to take the limelight. Lessons are frequently chaotic, interrupted, or take the form of simply listening to a fellow student or Gurdev himself play, or driving him, his friends, or visiting musicians around town for hours on shopping and social visits. But when he does give me his undivided attention I follow him as he dives into the ocean of music below.

sarod playing, showing fingernails pressing strings
sarod playing, showing fingernails pressing strings

We begin with raga Yaman Kalyan, considered by some the doyen of ragas, capable of expressing many of the moods that other ragas only touch individually. It is also one with the most demanding stretches for the left hand, as its rules determine that the intervals between the notes are maximal. As a long-time guitar player I can soon figure out that this is a Western major scale, but with a raised (sharp) fourth. The fifth as well as any note higher can only be played following that fourth. The tonic ‘Sa’ (Western do) is only approached by way of the seventh below it followed by the second above it (in Western notation the move must be ti-re-do). Naturally taking all this in is not a job of a single lesson, and I will have to come again and again merely to learn how to hold, tune and restring (including eleven unstruck ‘sympathetic’ resonating strings) the instrument, let alone play an accurate note on her. One of Gurdev’s visitors cheers me on by telling me how lucky I am that we are not living in the olden days, when students spent the first year or more solely learning how to intone Sa correctly.

Gurdev Singh with Latif Ahmed Khan
Gurdev Singh with Latif Ahmed Khan

More stories from the good ship’s hold: Ali Akbar Khan’s father the legendary Allauddin Khan (earnest touch of earlobes all round) taught him sixty years or so previously by tying his hair up to the branch of a tree, so that when being made to practice all night he couldn’t nod off. Haridas was guru to Mian Tansen, one of the jewels of Emperor Akbar’s renaissance Mughal court in Delhi and creator of many famous ragas. Haridas renounced playing in public, and had to be begged by the Emperor on his knees to perform at court (his conditions in agreeing, that the audience must sit without moving a muscle or making a sound, have a famous punch line – a fable for another day). Persian poet and Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau, who is said to have invented the tabla and brought the four-stringed setar (forerunner of the sitar) from his ancestral land to the early medieval Delhi Sultanate. He was a key figure in the creation of the extraordinary fusion of Persian, Arabic and Turkish elements with native Indian music that became what we call Hindustani classical.

As a complete newcomer to this musical culture, and aside from the difficulty of producing a note in tune on a fretless instrument, and keeping the nails on the two first fingers of the left hand from being ground away by the pressure on steel string and chrome plate, I found plenty of room for blunders. For example Gurdev helped me write down much of the music he taught me, using Roman notation for the Indian names of the twelve notes of the scale (perhaps a nod to my being non-Indian, as Hindustani classical is traditionally learned by ear). So when I first graduated from simple exercises and was presented with a gat or fixed melody and a set of variations or tans I wrote them all down carefully. But when after earnestly practicing these at home exactly as written, I played them all back to him, he laughed. The sample tans he had given me were in fact improvisations, meant to be performed alternately with repetitions of the gat. On the other hand I received a supreme compliment one day from a senior musician. Putting his head round the door to a back room at Gurdev’s house where I was furiously rehearsing, he commented to the effect that he couldn’t believe it wasn’t an Indian playing!

Blunders and wonders: the stories became part of the teaching. Osho also talked about Annapurna Devi, daughter of Allauddin Khan, who as a Muslim girl wasn’t permitted to present herself to the public. So while her brother, Ali Akbar Khan and Allauddin’s other notable disciple, Ravi Shankar, went off and made themselves world famous, she stayed home and was initiated into her father’s deepest musical secrets. She started performing in public only at the beginning of her ill-starred marriage to Ravi Shankar, which Allauddin arranged, changing her religion in the process. At some point Shankar extracted a vow from her that she would give it all up and hence no audience has heard her play these past fifty plus years. But her reputation endures and her select disciples it is said, including flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, still take the stairs up to her flat in Bombay to sit at her feet and learn.

I took my sarod everywhere in those early days, practicing in the back of my car, in forgotten corners of the foyers of convention centers to which my work took me, in little-frequented spots in airports. On reflection, as I’ve said, it was actually the sarod beginning to fulfill her dharma of conveying me to places I would never otherwise have gone.

Chinmaya 1988
Chinmaya 1988

She took me to islands –some bejeweled, some haunted – that I would never otherwise even have imagined. To Calcutta, where a new sarod was made for me in 1986 by the hands old Hemen Chandra Sen (with his scrubby white hair and worn-out shirt and dhoti he would often be mistaken as a simple helper rather than the world-famous master craftsman that he was) in his sawdust-filled shoebox of a shop on Rashbehari Avenue, and where two doomed love affairs with local women would consume much of the rest of my eighties in regret; to Maui, Hawai’i where I recorded with some of the world’s best know New Age composers; to becoming co-ordinator of the Music Department at Osho Commune in Pune and becoming part of the band in Buddha Hall playing for Osho ; to Paul McCartney’s wedding in Ireland in 2002, where he told me how one of my CDs had been on continuous play at his home for weeks; to play for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 for high-profile performances and the British Council as part of a band I formed with some of the city’s best professional fusion musicians. To balmy beach gigs in Goa……

From 2013 until 2018 my sarod and I cruised calmer waters: the islands of New Zealand were relatively un-bejewelled (the music scene there permitted me to be a big fish in a very tiny pond in a very unpretentious way). As a family man now, happily past the hormone-driven excesses of ambition. There she onducted me ever deeper into the ocean, no longer feeling any need to prove myself, or strive to impress the opposite sex, with dazzling displays of virtuosity. It took everything we learned together over those three decades both from both teachers and stories to (paraphrasing Miles Davis) keep ourselves from playing too many unnecessary notes, so that we could just play the beautiful ones.

Postscript 2022
Again life took me and my sarod in hand, this time to move us to the UK. The years since have seen an explosion of creativity, including involving my extraordinary instrument in the new territory of Electronic Dance Music.

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