Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Abdul Lateef Khan --“When I accompany a vocalist, I merge my personality into his”

The life and times of Abdul Lateef Khan, as narrated to Deepak Raja on March 5, 2000 and March 21, 2001

I was born in a village called Guhad in the Gwalior state either in 1924 or 1925. In our times, people were not very precise about dates of birth. Mine is the fifth consecutive generation of Sarangi players in the family. We have been residents of Gwalior for several generations -- my ancestors were in the service of the princely state.

My parents had eleven daughters before I was born. When my father died at the age of seventy, I was just twelve years old. In those days, music was taught almost exclusively within the family; so my training would have been a major problem for my mother. Fortunately, one of my sisters had married Sikandar Khan, a well-known Sarangi player. He trained me for eight years. When I was about twenty, Ustad Sikandar Khan died.

This was a major crisis in my life, and the future looked very grim. At that stage, an uncle took me to a famous Sarangi player in Delhi – a gentleman I shall not name – and placed me under his tutelage. For a whole year, this great Ustad submitted me to unimaginable exploitation, verging on slavery, without giving me a single lesson. I could not take it any longer, and quit.

I was then introduced to Ustad Ghulam Sabri Khan Ambalewale, also based in Delhi. He accepted me as a disciple, treated me like a son, and gave me excellent training for three years. Things were too good to last. Fate intervened again. Those were days of great tension between Hindus and Moslems in Delhi. There was a communal riot in our locality, during which the Ustad disappeared without a trace. Nobody knows what happened to him. All enquiries in all quarters drew a blank. His disappearance is still a mystery.

I was heart-broken. I had no option but to return to the security of the extended family in Gwalior and start earning. Entry into the profession was difficult. I eked out a living, initially, in the dancing halls, accompanying Tawaifs [courtesans] on the tabla and the harmonium. If you think the status of the Sarangi player was low in those days, you cannot imagine how much lower that of tabla and harmonium accompanists was.

During that period, a sarangi player of some stature taunted me about my credentials as a sarangi player. This hurt not only my professional pride, but also my family pride. My moment of truth had arrived. That day, I decided that I would never set my hands on any instrument other than a sarangi. For the next two years, I practiced sixteen to eighteen hours a day, and faced starvation frequently. I emerged from the experience as a polished sarangi player, and mature human being.

Self-discovery and technique
During this period of self-discovery, I developed a technical relationship with the instrument, which differs from the techniques in vogue in my youth.

I have adopted a fixed-pitch tuning for my instrument. My sarangi is permanently tuned to the pitch of C sharp, irrespective of whether I am playing a solo, or accompanying a male vocalist, or a female vocalist. Depending on the requirement, I adjust the scale-base for the purpose of fingering, and retune the sympathetic strings. My melodic strings are always tuned to C sharp as the tonic.

This is far more difficult than it seems, and takes a lot of practice. But, I have found it necessary for getting a response of stable acoustic quality [timbre] from my instrument. Instability in this aspect of the music is not acceptable to my ears, even if it is acceptable to audiences.

My fingering technique probably developed in response to this peculiar tuning practise. I use the first finger for S,R,G, the second finger for M, P, and the third finger for D, N, S, and the higher octave. The last finger is used only for “kans” [fleeting/ summary intonation].

In the profession
Thereafter, I qualified for full-time employment with All India Radio, which I served for over thirty years, until retirement. In addition to giving me economic security, the radio station gave my art the exposure that elicited invitations to accompany some of the greatest vocalists of the century on the concert platform and on commercial recordings. Amongst the modern greats I have accompanied, I have enjoyed a special relationship with Mallikarjun Mansoor [the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana maestro]. He commissioned me to perform frequently in various parts of the country.

When I accompany a vocalist, I have to merge my musical personality totally into his. My job is to provide support to him, and not to compete with him, or to teach him on the stage. In an extreme case, I am obliged to save his face, even if his music is outrageous in some respect. No matter what he does, I cannot do anything that exposes his weaknesses. Such occurrences can be frequent, and especially frustrating on the radio, where I cannot choose whom I accompany. But, that is a price I pay for the economic security of a job.

Irrespective of the stature of the vocalist to be accompanied, the task of an accompanist is infinitely more challenging than that of a soloist. In addition to the self-control and emotional maturity that he requires, performing with great vocalists tests his competence and versatility as a musician. At short notice, without any rehearsals, I can be asked to accompany a vocalist performing any genre of music – Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumree. I have encountered situations when I have been engaged to accompany a series of singers from different gharanas [stylistic traditions] in the same music festival, one after another. In any kind of situation, I have to deliver a competent accompaniment.

In over 50 years of performing, I have acquitted myself honourably as an accompanist. But, it can often be very disorienting. If my basic training had not been strong, an accompanist’s life could well have left me with no musical idea that I can call my own. This is why I believe that a Sarangi player must have a very sound basic training in the vocalist’s art, along with his own art. And, this training should give him insights into the specialities of the different gharanas. If, for some reason, he gets indoctrinated into any particular gharana, he could become a very clumsy accompanist for vocalists of other gharanas.

I admit that, for a Sarangi player, it is not easy to keep his vision intact while earning a living as an accompanist. But, it is not impossible. If his basic training is sound, he can make the mental switch between the different approaches to performing.

Approach to solo performance
As a soloist, I have to recognise the limitations of my ability to hold audience attention. I don’t have the advantage of the human voice; and I don’t have recourse to poetry. I have, therefore, to pay special attention to the structure of my presentation – but within the established Khayal or Thumree genres.

The sarangi was designed to replicate the human voice. The vocal genres of Khayal, Thumree, Tarana etc. are the natural territory of the Sarangi. These genres also equip the Sarangi player with a vast resource of musical ideas and expressions. I therefore have little sympathy with Sarangi players who are trying to look outside the vocal idiom for their musical material for solos. Technically, anything can be attempted on the sarangi, or any other instrument; but to what purpose?

The legacy
One of my sons is now an accomplished Sarangi player, and employed with All India Radio. So, the future of the Sarangi in my family has been secured for yet another generation. I am now training my 18-year old grandson, the seventh generation in the family. For him, the radio does not look like a viable solution; but other avenues have opened up for Sarangi players. He is getting the best training I can give him. I would like to live long enough to see him well settled.

(c) Deepak S. Raja

The finest solo recordings of Abdul Lateef Khan have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. IndiaArcMu@aol.com.

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