Preview: Amjad Ali Khan, Royal Festival Hall, London

A tricky family business
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When the sarod-master Amjad Ali Khan - flanked by his sons Amaan and Ayaan - describes how his family became musicians, the story is archetypal.

When the sarod-master Amjad Ali Khan - flanked by his sons Amaan and Ayaan - describes how his family became musicians, the story is archetypal: "I learnt to play from my father. When my sons came into the world, we sang the traditional song into their ears... As my father had taught me to play - making me imitate on my sarod what he sang to me - so I did with my sons."

The sarod is a short-necked lute with an unfretted metal fingerboard, and it's singularly hard to play. Whereas Western violinists can resort to vibrato to cover their wonky intonation, no such refuge is on offer for sarodists, who must also deliver microtonal scales. And only when those scales are as accurate as Khan's do you qualify to be called "pakka" - the origin of our "pukka" - which is the Hindi description for seasoned sarod players.

When I ask Khan how he became pakka, he says he can't remember ever having difficulty with the sarod, even though he was not a prodigy. "When it came into my hands, my father, my uncles, and the other players who came to my house, they all taught me.

"But the sarod is painful, because we play it with the nails - not the back of them, as with many other Indian instruments, but with the rim, which is a particular torture." Ayaan shows me his customised plastic nails. "Without these, I wouldn't be a musician," he says ruefully.

The raga music they play has its roots in medieval times, and is extremely demanding. Each raga has a personality of its own, Amjad explains, and can relate to a deity, a season or an hour of the day; its performance demands a unique kind of controlled improvisation. He quotes King Nanyadeva of Mithila from the 11th century, on the difficulty of describing the character of a raga: "Just as the sweetness of sugar, treacle, or candy cannot be separately described, it must be experienced in itself."

Thursday (0870 401 8181); and Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333) Friday

Comments