Indian Legend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Sons Perform in NYC

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was the place to be last week as maestro Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan performed in a sarod symphony like none other. As His Holiness Dalai Lama has said, "When Ali Khan performs, he carries with him a deep human spirit, a warm feeling and as sense of caring."

I first encountered this musical genius at his concert two years ago in the Indian Consulate a few blocks from the Met and wrote about that encounter here. This time he played with his deeply talented two sons and I was able to join them all for dinner afterwards.

Maestro Amjad Ali Khan performing classical Indian music solo at the Metropolitan Museum.

Having spent many summers in rural Appalachia -- Kentucky and West Virginia -- I have heard the sweet notes of the dulcimer and banjo time and time again. As I sat in the Metropolitan Museum, listening to the great Ali Khan playing ancient Indian classical music with his sons -- I felt suspended between two worlds, two cultures, and two faiths. The message for me was the commonalty of humankind, with the arts transcending global suffering for the evening.


Amjad Ali Khan spoke throughout his performance and with me afterwards. Concerning our city he said:

It is indeed a matter of great joy and honor for me to present my music at the Metropolitan Museum for the music lovers of New York. New York holds a very special place in my heart, and my association with this city goes back nearly 48 years. My first concert here was in 1963 for Asia Society. Today, I feel so happy to see the awareness and love that Indian music has generated over the period of time, especially in this part of the world.

The evening's concert was in three segments. The first half featured a sarod solo by Amjad Ali Khan. After a brief intermission, there was a sarod duet by Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan. The final segment was a sarod trio, where Amjad Ali Khan was assisted by two sarods, played by his sons. This segment was an example of the living tradition that has been passed on from father to son for generations. The older Khan took turns to interact with both the young artists.

Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan performed their sarod duet at the Metropolitan Museum.

The trio performed a raga from the South Indian system of classical music. Along with sarods and tablas (Indian drums), there was also a tanpura on stage, which is a drone instrument. I was fascinated to learn that India is the only country that has two systems of classical music -- one from India's North and one from the South.

Amjad Ali Khan was all of 6 years old when he gave his first recital of sarod. It was the beginning of yet another glorious chapter in the history of Indian classical music. Taught by his father Haafiz Ali Khan, Amjad Ali Khan was born to the illustrious Bangash lineage rooted in the Senia Bangash school of music. Today, he shoulders the sixth generation inheritance of this legendary lineage.


After his debut, the career graph of this musical legend took the speed of light, and on its way, the Indian classical music scene was witness to regular and scintillating bursts of raga supernovas. And thus, the world saw the sarod being given a new and yet timeless interpretation by Amjad Ali Khan. Khan is one of the few maestros who considers his audience to be the soul of his motivation.

Ali Khan once said, "There is no essential difference between classical and popular music. Music is music. I want to communicate with the listener who finds Indian classical music remote."

In the matter of awards, Amjad Ali Khan has the privilege of winning the kind of honors and citations at his relatively young age, which for many other artists would have taken a lifetime. He is a recipient of the UNESCO Award, Padma Vibhushan (India's highest civilian award), UNICEF's National Ambassadorship, and The Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum.


In 1995, Ali Khan was awarded the Gandhi UNESCO Medal in Paris for his composition Bapukauns. In 2003, the maestro received "Commander of the Order of Arts and letters" by the French Government and the Fukuoka Cultural grand prize in Japan in 2004. In 1999, he inaugurated the World Festival of Sacred Music with the Dalai Lama. One year before that, Ali Khan composed the signature tune for the 48th International Film Festival. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Amjad Ali Khan gave a peace concert at the United Nations in New York in the presence of the U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon.

Sujata Thakur (l) and Indian Consul General Prabhu Dayal (middle) with the Ali Khan family.

He has been a regular performer at Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, the Kennedy Center, Sanctuary Hall (where he was the first Indian performer), the House of Commons, Theater Dela ville, Musee Guimet, Esplanade in Singapore, Victoria Hall in Geneva, Chicago Symphony Center, Palais Beaux-Arts, Mozart Hall in Frankfurt, St. James Palace, and the Opera House in Australia.

In his case, the term 'beauty of the ragas' acquires a special meaning as he has to his credit the distinction of having created many new ragas. It is love for music and his belief in his music that have enabled him to interpret traditional notions of music for a new refreshing way, reiterating the challenge of innovation and yet respecting the timelessness of tradition.

Indo-American Arts Council's Aroon Shivdasani (r) and Incredible India's Sujata Thakur (l) spoke.

Two books have been written on him: The World of Amjad Ali Khan by UBS Publishers in 1995 and Abba-God's Greatest Gift to Us by his sons, Amaan and Ayaan published by Roli Books-Lustre Publications in 2002. A documentary on the maestro called Strings for Freedom won the Bengal Film Journalist Association Award and was also screened at the Ankara Film Festival in 1996.

The maestro's two sons, Amaan and Ayaan are well known names in the music scene and are the seventh generation of musicians in the family. The New York Times has called them "Coming Masters." Amjad Ali Khan's wife Subhalakshmi Khan has been a great exponent of the Indian classical dance, Bharatnatyam, which I was sad but impressed that she sacrificed to raise her family.

The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie attended the performance with his family.

The Khans in Concert at the Met was presented by my friends at Incredible India, in collaboration with Indo-American Arts Council and India Abroad. I am a particular fan on the Arts Council's Aroon Shivdasani and have introduced her in The Huffington Post before.

My new friend Sujata Thakur, regional director of Incredible India, told me, "We are immensely pleased to be showcasing the talents of sarod Maestro Amjad Ali Khan and his sons in New York City. The Khans are a shining gem in the classical music crown of our country, and we hope New Yorkers will be as mesmerized by their performance as Indians have been over the years."

The author with the maestro, Aroon Shivdasani and her husband, John Lee, and son Ayaan.

The concert reinforces for me the idea that the arts are necessary to remind us of the heights humanity is capable of. Working often with the world's most unfortunate, the arts give me the strength to carry on. Looking around me in the Metropolitan Museum, surrounded by ambassadors and CEOs, socialites and aficionados all equally entranced, I realized I was far from alone in this sentiment. The Ali Khan family's gift to humanity is living proof that goodness will somehow prevail.


All photos by Shwetha Pandit courtesy of Jingomedia.

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