Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers

By PREETI SINGH | | 20 February, 2016
(From left to right) Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan performing with violinist Elmira Darvarova at a recent concert in Delhi.
Veteran sarod players Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan come from a distinguished musical family, but their journey from protégés to professional musicians was by no means a cakewalk. They speak to Preeti Singh about the everyday hardships and challenges that mark a musician’s life.

Q. You share such an illustrious musical lineage, and come from a family of established professional musicians. Could you talk us briefly through your childhood? When did your musical education begin?

Amaan: For as long as I can remember, music was seeped into every brick of our house. Before I knew it, I was into it. My father sang into my ear when my brother and I were born. I guess in essence the training started that day itself. Children are like water: they take the shape of the vessel. In my case too, I was perhaps in a world of music as naturally as a bird takes to flying. It was the atmosphere. Students of my father were also visiting the house all the time.

Ayaan: Some people had said to me, “We heard your grandfather, your father and now you have to play”. So the standard was already set before I even ventured out. I also wanted to be a musician. Though, there was a point in life soon after school where I had a few worries about taking up a creative field, because of the uncertainties surrounding it. But I guess you should always listen to your heart and leave the rest to the heavens. By god’s grace, in my case, the dream came true.

Q.  Would you say that it was easier for you to find your feet as musicians, given your background?

Amaan: It was not easy. My brother and I were the only two in school whose father did not go to work at an office! Therefore, if your courage of conviction isn’t strong as a student, you feel like the odd one out. We, however, managed very well. Most of my friends understood what I was doing and valued my aim and journey. Your friends, especially in school, encouraging you to pursue what you want to do in life makes all the difference. I was also very blessed to have some teachers who understood what I was doing and what my ambition was. It wasn’t easy taking out the number of hours that one wanted to for practicing music, keeping academics in mind, but once I got done with school, there was no looking back.

Ayaan: I was very clear as to what I wanted to do and become in life. I was no child prodigy, no genius, I had to practice and work my way up. Even today, you are as good as your last concert. Every day is a new beginning. I think that I was a good child. I did have my idiosyncrasies but I don’t think that I really had a rebel phase as such. That’s also why I didn’t have many girlfriends, as I wasn’t a “bad boy”.

Q. When did you perform live for the first time? How young did you both begin?

Amaan: My first solo concert was at the age of eight. My mother had put hair spray on my head to make me look “decent”. This was way back in 1988. At that age, you just enjoy the attention and adulation. The responsibility bit of it, or the pressure it exerts on you, grows only later in life. But my first appearance on stage was in an orchestra that my father had composed for UNICEF’s 40th anniversary, back in 1986. I was the youngest participant in that orchestra and that made me get away with murder during rehearsals. I must also say that my father has been very old-school in our grooming and teaching. He never “announced” our arrival or never took out advertisements of his concerts stating, “Introducing Amaan Ali Khan or Ayaan Ali Khan”. It was a gradual journey. The first mantra taught by my father, and, in my case, my guru as well was to be a good human being and to be a symbol of good etiquette and manners. In spite of being the monumental icon of music that he is, he continues to be an individual full of humility, and a complete simpleton. My father is a man of his principles and says that god watches every individual in this world and takes care of everything.

Ayaan: We have also played many solo concerts this season. In fact, we both started out as soloists, but it’s just that more offers come to us for duets. Earlier, we turned those down but we realized that at the end of the day, getting inspired by each other is what is healthy and one should only compete with oneself. Life isn’t a race. We are not in a Derby. Music is our life. From the time we were born the language spoken was music, the air that we were breathing was music. Over the years, we have tried our best to make the sarod reach out to a new audience, to listeners who perhaps would not be at a classical concert. Still, many presenters call us only for solo recitals. And it’s very inspiring!

“Sarod is a very difficult instrument to do justice to. A lifetime is not enough to master or rather understand what the instrument wants to say. We press the strings with the edge of our nails and not with the fingertip as with most stringed instruments. There are no frets like the sitar or guitar.”

Q. Did you ever play the guitar or any other instrument? What appeals to you most about the sarod?

Amaan: Sarod is a very difficult instrument to do justice to. A lifetime is not enough to master or rather understand what the instrument wants to say. We press the strings with the edge of our nails and not with the fingertip as with most stringed instruments. There are no frets like the sitar or guitar.

Ayaan: You are pretty much walking on the edge at all times with the sarod. Therefore there is no room for another instrument in our lives. However, in a lighter moment, one can play around with the tabla, sitar or even the guitar!

Q. Do you think that younger generations today don’t find classical music as attractive? And do youngsters lack the patience required to enjoy or take up classical forms?

Amaan: Today, classical concerts sell out all over the world. We need to understand that this has been a very intimate art form, initially not meant for the masses. It was only post the aristocratic era that it opened its doors to the masses. Like one can’t compare cricket and chess, you cannot compare Bollywood to classical music. It’s like comparing sushi and chicken tikka! Today there are maximum numbers of youngsters learning music and also performing at all levels, including showcasing their performances on YouTube.  There is crazy amount of talent out there but at some level, everyone is in a rush to be an instant coffee. This generation is very fortunate to be able to enjoy the hard work and methods of the great legends, who have made technique and thought available all over, readymade!

Ayaan: Yes, we have been fortunate to have played all over the world at some great venues. The ones I love include the Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Wigmore Hall, the Sydney Opera House and so many others in Europe. The Nobel Peace Prize concert was really a very big moment for us. 

Q. How was your experience performing with the Grammy-nominated violinist Elmira Darvarova, at your recent concert Soul Strings, at The Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi?

Amaan: The Taj Mahal Hotel is a very inspiring venue for us. Apart from the fact that it’s such a legendary property, we have so many memories attached to this magnificent hotel from over the past two decades. Ayaan and I have performed with our father, Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan at the hotel. With Elmira, it has been a very unique collaboration. We first performed together at New York’s Symphony Space last February, following which we recorded Soul Strings. Over the last year, we have grown more into each other’s music and also developed a comfort level as individuals, which is very important as your nature reflects in your music all the way! This collaboration represents a uniquely joyful meeting and cross-fertilisation at both the cellular and cosmic levels of two classical musical traditions, which are often held to be radically different – too different to meet without a bridge of some sort. We come together in the spirit of sharing the great unique treasures of our own artistic traditions as well as finding common ground between ragas and medieval modes.

Ayaan: Indian classical music allows for innovation. Our father believes in tradition but not convention. We have played new compositions that have been written for Soul Strings. However, there was room for all of us to improvise and give our interpretation and musicality to the pieces. The amalgamation has been very “outside the box”, because collaboration between a bow instrument and a pluck instrument is very unusual and often not attempted. Elmira has had a very unique musical career, too. Apart from being the Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and the first and only woman Concertmaster in the MET’s history, she performs worldwide to great acclaim and is a Grammy-nominated recording Artist. Her attention to perfection and detail has truly been one of the most inspiring aspects of working with her. In terms of caliber and genius, she is truly unparalleled. She has undoubtedly one of the fastest fingers in the business. In fact, we are already working on a new project together.

Q. Tell us about some of your collaborations with international musicians, and about your projects lined up for the near future. 

Amaan: Our new album, Infinite Hope, with Grammy-nominated Iraqi master of the oud, Rahim AlHaj, has just released in the United States. We have a US concert tour with our father where we perform at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. We also have a sequel to Soul Strings lined up for release.

Ayaan: The main mantra is that we have never taken any concert for granted. You are as old as your last concert and every concert is the first concert of your life. We have collaborated in the past with the Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks, American folk song writer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy-nominated oud player Rahim Alhaj and also performed with the London Philharmonica, Avignon Symphony Orchestra, Welsh National Opera and National Youth Orchestra of the United Kingdom.


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