Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is among the world’s foremost players of the sarod, an Indian string instrument similar to but smaller than the sitar. Born into a family of classical musicians and tutored by his father, Khan has built a global audience for the sarod and also mentored his sons, Amaan Ali and Ayaan Ali, to follow in his footsteps. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton during the recent Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia, Khan discussed his views on innovation, improvisation and collaboration in music and business, among other topics.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
India Knowledge at Wharton: It is a great honor, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, to have you with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan: Thank you. It is a great honor for me to be here at Wharton. It is the first time I am here. I have visited most universities in the US; 1963 was my first tour abroad. It was straight from India to America. I was in a group of musicians and dancers, which included Birju Maharaj, the great Kathak dancer. He used to play the tabla with me. And I used to play the sarod with his dance. That was my first foreign tour. For two months I traveled. Most of my concert tour was on university campuses.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You have been performing on the sarod, I hear, from the age of six.
Khan: Yes. Fortunately, I was born in a family of musicians. So my sons are the 7th generation who are playing music from father to son. I was not a child prodigy. I had to work hard and struggle. It was the custom of a musician’s family that the child should be put on stage to face the world and to face the audience. In our life of classical musicians I don’t think I have any message to give to the business world because my life is not based on calculation and planning.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What is it based on?
Khan: In my life two plus two is not always four. It could be zero. It could be 100. In our family, all my forefathers, we surrendered ourselves to God and grew. We never knew what was going to happen tomorrow. Tomorrow was always in the hands of God. We didn’t try to calculate. I didn’t even plan my career — “What should I do?” — because [during] the last 10 years of [the life of] my father, who was my guru, he was slowly deteriorating health wise. He was 95 when he passed away in 1972. So I was looking after my father and going for performances. So by serving him, I think my career was planned by his blessings. So I am slightly different than the rest of the world, especially people who are into business. Now everybody wants to plan their life and career.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How has the music business changed from the time when you first started performing and the way it is today? What do you find are the main differences?
Khan: Earlier, as you know, every creative man was patronized by the ruler and kings and queens. Sometimes, or most of the time, it used to be a great punishment for musicians to entertain somebody who didn’t understand any technicalities. After the patronization, the music came in public and there used to be music festivals all over our country. Bengal was a very big center. When I was 12 years old people started inviting me. So I traveled [across] the whole country. I had no management behind me. I didn’t have a manager. It was just out of love and reverence that people invite you. And then you have to write what you want as a fee, what you would charge.
So I began my career from Rs150 [US$3] and gradually I started asking for Rs300 and then Rs500 and then Rs1,000 — gradually — and by the grace of God. Today, the whole system has changed. I think the corporate world is playing a very important role, especially corporate people who understand and realize the value of tradition, culture, and our heritage. They sponsor classical concerts.
But there are very few music festivals left now in India. Like Bengal, in Calcutta itself there used to be 30 to 40 music festivals. But today the oldest festival is called the Dover Lane Music Festival, which takes place every end-January. [It is] about four whole-night sessions. And it’s all ticketed concerts. So that is a very good sign. I think South India is more organized. Every organization has lots of –thousands of — members. I feel that mathematics plays a very important role in South India. Mathematics connects all of us to a disciplined life. I feel South Indians are more disciplined compared to the rest of the country. The realization of God, realization of mathematics, discipline — I think the South is much ahead. Otherwise, for North Indian music, Bengal and Maharashtra are very big centers and so [have] many great musicians. In our family, the meaning of education was only music.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What has music meant to you?
Khan: In India, it is a historical saying that sound connects you to God. And if you analyze every religion through music only, they are conveying their thoughts — carols, hymns, and all those things. When my children were small, I composed a song — I made a cassette of how to entertain children. It’s called Amjad Ali Khan Sarod Sings with the Children produced by HMV at that time. Now it [HMV] is Sa Re Ga Ma. It is available now. I composed a song for my children — Amaan and Ayaan — when they were four or five years old to teach them the unity and diversity of our country [sings the song]. I feel music is the most precious gift of God, because music does not belong to any religion. Besides music I admire flowers, color, air, fire. They don’t belong to any religion.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You have this approach — a very spiritual approach — to music. And thank you for sharing your wonderful song with us. At the same time you also find that music is a big global industry.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Have you ever found a contradiction between your approach to music and the compulsions of how you remain a successful musician in this global marketplace?
Khan: Every musician has a different mission and a different approach to music. I often feel — or I always feel — that I should not be the cause of humiliation of Indian classical music because I must always know when to end. That’s very important. [A] raga does not always mean two hours or three hours. Yes, I might have played [for two or three hours] because there is no end to improvisation. But my life is dedicated to perfection, excellence, and spirituality. Through music I have realized the presence of God.
But the Western world was always very organized as far as artists and management are concerned. In our country, our management was very weak. We have management now, but nothing in comparison to the Western world. I have management in Europe, but I am still looking for efficient management in America, although I have been performing all the time. European musicians are very fortunate. They are very lucky. They depend entirely on the management and the manager. But sometimes in our country, the people feel emotional; they feel humiliated if you don’t entertain them. So people write emails to my wife. My wife has been coordinating for me for many years. Subbalakshmi, my wife, comes from Assam. She was a great Bharatanatyam dancer and she was named after M.S. Subbulakshmi [a renowned Carnatic vocalist].
We need good management. Today we have very, very outstanding young talented musicians. Besides classical music — classical music is there still, everybody is listening to classical music — suddenly there is so much fusion music.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What is your view of these trends? Do you embrace them? Or do you think that it is better to be more of a purist to preserve the tradition?
Khan: Tradition allows innovation. It is a very thin line between tradition and convention. I feel that convention is a very unhealthy word. I don’t respect convention because convention imposes that you must do only like this. But from my childhood, I have [done] what I have felt right in my presentation. Recently I have worked with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I wrote, I composed for their orchestra. It is the first sarod concerto. I am playing with 40 to 50 musicians. Last year, I composed and we performed together in Glasgow and London. We have called this piece — it is about 45 minutes — Samaagam, the confluence of music. I hope I can bring it to the US one day. It is something different. It is collaboration. I feel that the world is interested more in collaboration. I always admire European classical music because they listen to Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. But they are still involved in collaboration.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Although you say that this is your first time at Wharton, you are using terms like innovation and collaboration, which so many companies invest a lot of money in. Could you say a few words about your approach to innovation in your music? And what can companies learn from your approach to innovation?
Khan: For the world, education is book knowledge. But in my family, in my life, I did not learn anything from books. This was the oral tradition. Our music is oral tradition. My father, my guru, strongly believed that one person cannot do everything in one lifetime, whether you spend your life in books or you spend in your life in sound. There are two worlds — the very rich world of sound and the world of words. I thank God I belong to the world of sound. Ordinary people cannot understand what sound is. But sound is as rich as any book. Sound has connected the whole world.
As I said, I admire European classical music. I admire 150 musicians [coming] together. They collectively produce a beautiful piece of music. Maybe I am slightly later than my fellow musicians. But because of my long legacy and lineage, I took time to collaborate with European music. I am enjoying it. I feel that the whole world is merging. Companies are merging. People are realizing their strength of togetherness, strength of merger and collaboration. My father often used to say that you have to become a complete musician and I didn’t understand what he meant. Perhaps now I understand. The person who can be called a complete musician [is one who] can see good points in every system of music and appreciate the good points in every system of music.
In our country, lots of youngsters grew up listening to me while they were in school or college. Tycoons today have heard me while they were in college. So we have a very good relationship. This goodwill doesn’t happen quickly. In our family we feel connected with every religion, with every soul in the world, with every song of the world.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Music has been transformed so much by technology in recent times. What has that meant to your music and the way you view music?
Khan: Technology is very important. In music we have musicologists. They are great. They are knowledgeable. But they are not great performers. They want to perform. They want to sing. They want to do everything. But there will be always a difference between [them and] somebody who has done it for hours, practiced.
Technology is important, I think. Technique is important. But technology and tradition have to be friends. This is my humble message to business and all the students who are learning here. Their technology and tradition have to be friends. And I am sorry but I have realized that, with all due respect to education, a lot of people boast about education and PhDs and MBAs and double this and double that. Education could not create compassion and kindness in a human being.
All these destructive activities after 9/11, they are all very highly educated people behind this. Today’s human beings [are] are the achievements of education and finance and business tycoons. But what I realize is that successful men become symbols of arrogance and destructive elements.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What would you like your legacy to be in the world of music?
Khan: Creative people in every field sometime become very arrogant also. A lot of creative people don’t behave in a normal way. We have to be normal. I personally wish I had been born 100 years earlier. Technology is becoming so advanced and so sophisticated day-by-day that man is going to need only machines. A machine will check you in. A machine will fly you. A machine will do this. But at the same time I feel proud to see the achievements of mankind — like the cell phone, fax machine, iPod, and the keyboard. The keyboard is the shortcut of music. A lot of youngsters are entertained and I think it’s a very great invention. Hats off to the Japanese, who created [the] keyboard, I think. Now children play with the Casio keyboard and [so do] a lot of music directors. But I feel sad that because of this keyboard a lot of musicians have lost their jobs in the orchestras in Bombay and [elsewhere] in India especially because a keyboard can produce the sound of a flute and a violin and a cello. Thank God there is no sarod sound in the keyboard. But certain keyboard sounds are very jarring for me. I’m sure there are outstanding keyboard players also. In our country we have Louis Banks, a great keyboard player. And I’m sure there are many more. Behind every instrument there has to be somebody whose music is appealing. That is most important.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Well, it has been a great honor and a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much.
Khan: Thank you.