By Teed Rockwell
Overlooking us all is a stained glass window of the goddess Saraswati, playing a Vina with two of her four hands, surrounded by photographs and drawings of venerable Indian musician-sages. The floor is covered with Sitars, Sarods, an occasional Esraj or Sarangi, sometimes even a western instrument or two — and a bewildering spiderweb of student-owned extension chords, tape recorders and microphones.The school sound system, with its two huge speakers and microphones for the teacher and his tabla player, looms over the sitting students as impressively as the images of Goddesses and Gurus.The sound of tuning strings reiterates like rainfall. When Ali Akbar Khansahib steps towards the front of the room, there is a respectful silence and everyone stands. When he sits on the low rug covered platform, everyone sits. He lights the first of many cigarettes, and someone brings him a cup of tea. And for the next two hours, he performs an act of musical virtuosity made no less remarkable by the fact that he has repeated it several times a week for over twenty years.
By either singing or playing sarod, He makes up a melody, repeating it until several of the best students in the room can play it on their instruments. He then makes up a variation and plays both the melody and its variation. The first variation is followed by a second, and then the melody returns again. In this way, layer upon layer is added, and yet he remembers it all, playing it exactly the same way every time, down to the smallest microtonal sruti. By the end of the class, his best students, some of whom have studied with him for decades, have the entire melody already stored in their heads. They are quietly singing the lesson to themselves so that they can write it down in the unique musical notation invented by Ali Akbar’s Father, Baba Allaudin Khan. The rest of us go home, clutching our tape recordings of the class and our xeroxed copies of the notation, and spend the rest of the week trying to learn the lesson, marveling at the intricacies that sprung so effortlessly from the fountainhead of Khansahib’s genius. Next week he will play it all again, note for note, and for two hours will add even more variations to this magnificent structure.
Each week it grows, revealing as much depth and profundity in a single line of music—played against a single unchanging chord—as Wagner or Beethoven could produce, only with an entire orchestra. And yet this composition will never be performed for an audience. It is an only a kind of musical scratchpad; an exercise and a training device to teach us to improvise. When Khansahib actually performs a raga, there will be much less repetition, and these variations will go by so fast they will dazzle even our newly trained ears.
Khansahib rarely talks during class, but there is no question that he takes an active (and interactive) role while teaching. He always listens carefully to the classes progress and repeats any section of the lesson if it has not been learned properly. He also gives individual attention, even to classes of more than twenty people. Once, when I decided to try a different hand position for playing trills on my Chapman Stick (an instrument he had never seen before the term had started), he indicated with a single precise gesture that my first hand position was better (while continuing to sing a new variation for the rest of the class). Another time he told a student that he was playing one note in a raga a little bit out of tune. When the student failed to correct himself properly, Khansahib then played the note exactly as out of tune as the student had played it, and then with an imperceptible shift of one finger played the note correctly. When he does talk, his words are more like poetry than traditional instruction.
“When you are out of tune, it is as if your beloved is beautiful, but her breath smells very bad,” or, “When you play that ornament, you sound like a crow trying to walk like a peacock,” or, “This raga is a spring raga, it brings life and health and can even cure a sickness of the skin”— (The day he said this, I noticed that a dark spot that had been on his face the previous week was now almost completely gone). I think the words I will remember most, however, were the following: “When you play music, it is not just for the people who hear it. It goes out into the air all over the world, and out into space throughout the universe. That is why the music we play benefits all living things everywhere.”
Allaudin Khan, who revolutionized Indian Music in the early twentieth century, was known to be a strict disciplinarian. But he was also capable of combining his high musical standards with acts of compassionate charity. His son, the great sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, tells a story of a beggar who was playing a drum on the streets of their hometown of Maihar. Allaudin was apparently equally appalled by the man’s poverty and his poor musicianship. Allaudin took the drum from him, sat down in the dirt beside him, and proceeded to play it brilliantly. Whenever a passerby asked, “Baba, what are you doing?” Allaudin said only, “give me money for my playing.” After an hour or so of this, Allaudin had acquired a huge pile of rupee notes, which he gave to the beggar, saying, “Can you live on this money for a year?”— “Yes, Baba,” said the beggar. “Then go somewhere and practice privately until you can play properly,” said Allaudin. “If I see you playing in public before then, I will break both of your legs.”
There is often an element of naïve hero worship for the first musician who taught you a particular style, but introduction to other musicians often cools that initial enthusiasm. Although I still greatly admire fusion guitarist John Mclaughlin, most of what I thought he had created was simply Indian rhythms transposed to electric western instruments. This was an impressive accomplishment, but not the revolutionary step I had thought it was. I was similarly dazzled when I began to study with Ali Akbar Khan (or Khansahib, as he was respectfully addressed when he was with us). There was, however, no such disillusion with Khansahib when I studied other Hindustani musicians. On the contrary, other musicians made me fully understand for the first time just how revolutionary Khansahib was. Every other Hindustani musician I listened to or studied with seemed to be following the same underlying patterns, and the more Hindustani musicians I listened to, the clearer those patterns became. Khansahib, in contrast, was stretching these pattern up to, and sometimes beyond, their breaking points, then rearranging them into new patterns that made perfect sense. It was, however, impossible for me to hear the patterns that he was breaking until I had heard dozens of other musicians keeping them. It reminded me of something that Zen master D.T. Suzuki had said to his American Beatnik students: “You need to learn a teaching before you can throw it away.”
First published in India Currents, and reprinted in The Cowboy and the Yogi.