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Asad Ali Khan - A Life for the Rudra Veena

Obituary by Carsten Wicke
(August 2011)

On June 14th North Indian classical music has lost one of its great personalities and the greatest contemporary master of traditional rudra veena with the death of Ustad Asad Ali Khan. He was born and raised in a traditional family of veena players and represented the khandarbani dhrupad style of the Jaipur beenkar gharana. Whether as a musician, teacher, or human being - Khansahib's biography was an example of how much alive the rudra veena can still be today. Nevertheless, the subtle sound of his veena and his lifelong dedication and self discipline often seemed like a memory from a long gone past already in his lifetime. Strict musical grammar combined with aesthetic refinement and artistic greatness were the wings on which the music flowed from his veena like a prayer. Although a devout Muslim it seemed completely natural to him to articulate his longing for God through the sounds of Hindu-based dhrupad music.

In spite of Khansahib's uncompromising strictness in the formal design of his raga presentations, the fragrance of bhakti rasa, the call for divine love, pervaded every note of his music. The "colouring of the mind", ideal of every raga interpretation, could be experienced in a unique depth in the singing of his veena. Although he was able to characterize a vast number of ragas with a few distinctive melodic phrases, he preferred a small range of ragas for his concerts, whose effects unfolded particularly beautifully on the rudra veena. Amongst them was his incomparably sublime yet intense darbari, magical and hypnotic ragas like lalit, todi, multani, marwa, shri, puriya and chandrakauns, but also lyrical interpretations of yaman, bihag, bageshri or khamaj. In his typical combination of cool external precision and passionate internal devotion, his veena performances often resulted in a jor-jhala, that combined the quietness of a single note in perfection with the simultaneous stride along the horizons of melody and rhythm.

For Khansahib music was first and foremost a way of life that required the artist's unconditional willingness to develop his own personality. In his eyes, the music of the veena could evolve only from a mature character. He was aware that the decades-long study of an old, almost extinct instrument could not offer a promising perspective to young Indian musicians in view of the economy-oriented development of modern India, barely existing funding structures and uncertain career prospects. From the 1960s to the 1980s Khansahib taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra New Delhi and Delhi University, but for lack of veena students he mainly gave classes in music theory and sitar in veena style. His private rudra veena students were almost exclusively foreigners. In an interview, he expressed the fear that in a few decades his Western students would have to return to India to pass on the tradition of the rudra veena to future Indian generations.

Studying with Ustad Asad Ali Khan meant, above all, a training in patience and perseverance. When I started to learn from him in the mid 1990s , he told me that the traditional training required vocal lessons for several years and after that additional years of practice on the sitar, before one would start with playing the rudra veena. Although he accepted that we started directly with vocal and veena, he did not compromise his quality standards in any way: we spent the first teaching years with perfecting the intonation of the basic note Shadja. Khansahib's focus on detail and his rigorous perfectionism could have been reasons, why none of his veena students has established himself as a performer yet. It is to be hoped that his nephew Zaki Haider, trained on the veena, will continue the family tradition and the traditional rudra veena can continue to resound for a worldwide audience.

Although Ustad Asad Ali Khan's life's work was acknowledged with the hight state award Padma Bhushan by the Indian government in 2008, only relatively few publications of his music have been published so far. Given the uniqueness of his instrument's repertoire and tradition it is to be hoped that further recordings from private and institutional archives will be made accessible. In 2009 the Indian director Renuka George, after years of efforts, succeeded in realizing a documentary with Ustad Asad Ali Khan. This moving portrait of a musician is soon to be released on DVD.

* Carsten Wicke was a rudra veena student of Ustad Asad Ali Khan. He now lives in Calcutta. In addition to further studies in dhrupad, he is dedicated to the development and construction of new rudra veenas. His documentary "Music Masala" features, amongst others, Ustad Asad Ali Khan in classes and concerts and is available from India Instruments.