Interview with Ustad Aashish Khan

By Rachna Nivas

Ustad Aashish Khan is one of the stalwarts of Hindustani Classical Sarode.  He was initially trained by his grandfather, Ustad Alauddin Khan, who established the ‘Senia Maihar’ style of Hindustani Classical music.  He was later trained under his father, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and helped establish the Ali Akbar College of Music in Northern California.  Ustad Aashish Khan was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2006 in the ‘Best World Music’ category for his album “Golden Strings of the Sarode.”  A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Ustad Aashish Khan is an accomplished performer, composer, conductor, and professor.  He is an adjunct professor of Indian Classical music at the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Few people have the rare opportunity to study directly under Ustad Allaudin Khan Sahib.  Can you speak about the training you received from your grandfather and your early history?
When I was 5 years old, I was given a baby sarod and was initiated into my study.  I was very fortunate to study with my grandfather.  We first learned singing as it is very important when studying classical Indian music to establish that foundation of music.   During that time, we had to practice a minimum of 12 hours a day.  When I began learning compositions, I was not allowed to leave the room each day until I had completely memorized the composition.

I also had the opportunity from a young age to be with my grandfather in performance settings.   When I was 13, I had my debut with my grandfather on All India Radio’s National Program and that same year I performed at the Tansen Music Conference  in Calcutta with both my father and grandfather.  It was then that I began to perform all over India and had the honor to be alongside the greatest Gurus and legends of Indian classical music, such as Pandit Shanta Prasadji, Pandit Kishan Maharaji, Pandit Shankar Ghoshji, Pandit Ravi Shankarji and many more.

As I understand it, you were instrumental in pioneering the genre of music that is now referred to as “World Music.”  Please describe your experiences and what your thoughts are about fusion music today.
After I came to the U.S. in the 1960s, I wanted to learn more about western music and really admired many of the top artists of that time – especially the Beatles, whose music will always be legendary in my mind. With Ustad Zakir Hussain, we created the first Indo-American music group, called “Shanti” and we started to get the attention of many great western artists who were watching us carefully.  John McLaughlin, in particular became very interested in our music and we began to work and collaborate with him.  From there, I had the opportunity over the years to collaborate with such artists like Santana, John Barham, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Charles Lloyd, John Handy and also jazz artists in New Orleans.   These artists were highly accomplished in their own genres and we had a lot of mutual respect for the other’s discipline.   The exchange that we had led to high-level collaborations.

What has happened today with fusion music is very sad.  People try and experiment without even knowing their own field yet.  It’s like not knowing your language and trying to learn a new language.  It doesn’t go anywhere.  A lot of artists today grow quickly and die just as quickly – like weeds growing in the garden.  There is no depth.  It requires a lot more patience and investment of time to be well-versed in your own field before you can begin to understand another genre and culture

In the early seventies, you composed the music for a dance-drama with Pandit Chitresh Das at the Ali Akbar College of Music.  What is your experience collaborating with dance?
Luckily I had the chance to be around the great Uday Shankarji and to watch and learn from him how to accompany dance.  This came very naturally to me and is quite enjoyable.  I learned how to watch dancers and to match my music to their expression. I recently worked with the Chinese opera and I have also played with the Philadephia string quartet.  I would love to do more of this and incorporate an entire orchestra of musicians for a dance drama. 

How do you think the guru-shishya relationship has changed since you trained under your Guru to the present day, when you train your own students?
Well, I try to keep the relationship the same as how I was taught.    I give a lot of love and affection to my students and treat them like my own children.    I also do my best to help them become better artists.   But, this relationship has to go both ways  – I expect just as much from my students as I give to them.   I teach students in both India and the U.S. and I uphold this same standard wherever I teach. 

Do you have any advice to the future generations carrying forth classical Indian music?
First find the right guru – don’t rush.  One thing I will say is that what students do today is that they try to copy from recordings and are trying to grasp something from these musicians who are already accomplished.   They don’t take the time to develop. You cannot just become a Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan overnight. Do not perform too soon – you should study 10 years before going on stage.  You must invest your time in long practice and faithfully follow your Guru’s teachings.

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the Chitresh Das Dance Company & Chhandam School of Kathak are honoring Ustad Aashish Khan for his exceptional contributions to the field of classical Indian art in India, in the West and worldwide.  Recognition conferred on October 10, 2010
at the closing night performance of Traditions Engaged, REDCAT, Los Angeles.