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Sarod master reimagines the raga

Amjad Ali Khan.

Suvo Das

Amjad Ali Khan.

Indian classical music is ancient, codified, rigorous, and refined, yet its spirit dwells in the inspiration and personality of individuals. Because ragas are at once systematic — each is built on a signature ascending and descending scale — and improvised, every performance adds to the body of knowledge, yet no two are alike.

The great vocalists and instrumentalists are ones who bring grace, soul, and even surprise to this system, in a pursuit that can last a lifetime. Amjad Ali Khan, who plays the Berklee Performance Center Sunday night, is one of them. (He also leads a public workshop at the New England Conservatory on Sept. 16.)

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Many consider Khan today’s most important living player of the sarod, a fretless lute with a metal fingerboard that is one of the main Hindustani, or north Indian, classical instruments. At 67 and seemingly in top health — at least judging from the broad smile he seems to always wear — he has plenty of years ahead. But he is one of the maestros one should be sure to hear perform live, at least once.

Like most of the greats, Khan — Indians call him Khansaheb or Amjad-ji, using honorifics — started in childhood, tutored by his father, Hafiz Ali Khan, and has spent most of his career playing purely Indian music, until recently feeling little desire to cross genre boundaries. On the surface, his approach to a raga follows the form, with the slow exposition called the alap, followed by the rhythmic development and fast-paced finale.

Beyond the basics, however, Khan emphasizes the melodic aspects of a raga in a way that gives his playing a certain sweetness. This puts him in a different school than musicians who emphasize pure improvisation. Ragas have room for composed passages — think of them as mini-songs — that appear at suitable moments, so long as they honor the raga’s scale. Some of these have roots in folk or religious music. Some are originals.

“Every raga has various compositions,” Khan says by phone from his home in Delhi. “In my family — my father, myself, and my children — we give more importance to the compositions.”

His son Ayaan elaborates: “For my father, compositions were made to preserve a raga. Unfortunately today, this is overtaken by excessive improvisation. Indian classical music isn’t a written tradition so there are no rules to speak of; however for a sense of proportion, the compositions are an integral part.”

‘Every raga has various compositions. In my family — my father, myself, and my children — we give more importance to the compositions.’

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This philosophy has the benefit of making Khan’s music more accessible to Western ears, since there are fewer abstract-seeming passages and more melodies to connect with. This is in no way a compromise. When Khan performs in the United States, the experience is the same as the one he would give an Indian audience. “No difference!” Ayaan says. “Maybe a few words about the sarod, but that’s it.”

A humanistic current runs in the Hindustani music world, perhaps because the music formed at the confluence of Muslim court and Hindu temple cultures, grew during British rule, and flowered in independent India. Khan, who is Muslim and married to Subhalakshmi Barooah, a Hindu and classical dancer, is no exception. Now an elder statesman, he writes a newspaper column in which he advocates social progress.

This year, he has spoken out on violence against women, a topic that has reached the boiling point as gruesome cases and data on rape, domestic violence, and other scourges come to light. “We talk of Bharat Mata” — Mother India. “It’s such a big word. But women don’t feel safe in our country. We can’t just blame the government for everything. It’s the duty of every individual to feel responsible.

“People boast about education,” Khan goes on. “But terrible scandals and crimes are committed by educated people. Nine-eleven was planned by educated people. I believe every child should have one class in school about the values of love and compassion.”

Another cause Khan has taken on is the commemoration of classical musicians of the past whom history is at the edge of forgetting, starting with his own father, about whom he recently wrote a book. “He was a very kind and compassionate being,” Khan says. “But I am talking not just about him, but about all his contemporaries.”

In recent years, Ayaan and brother Amaan, who have long studied with their father, have emerged as leading young artists. When accompanying their father, they will supply a drone background, fill and repeat phrases, and trade passages with him in call-and-response during the fast rhythmic section.

Khan himself has begun to collaborate outside Indian music, composing what may be the first concerto for sarod with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and performing with other European classical ensembles.

But the ragas he has performed many thousands of times retain, for him, all their richness and intimidating mystery.

“Every time I play, I am worried,” he says. “It’s not just a scale and a skeleton, mastering the discipline of ascending and descending the scale. My father often said, a raga is an entity, it has a soul. Every time, it’s a new discovery.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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