On the second day of ‘Antaranga’ at the 67th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav on Thursday, famous sarod player Ken Zuckerman shared how he entered the realm of Hindustani classical music and his time under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, among other things.
In a conversation with Amarendra Dhaneshwar, Zuckerman traced his journey from an unsuccessful attempt at the piano and learning the guitar before picking up the sarod. He said he was raised in the United States and belongs to a mixed lineage of German, Polish and Latvian. He also said he was always interested in music and composition and, despite a failed attempt on the keys, he learned the guitar and performed various Western styles of music.
“In my late teens, when I was a student at a university, I saw an advertisement for a concert of Indian music on the campus. It was a name I could hardly pronounce back then: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. I did not know who he was. At the time Ustad Khan saab had opened a college in San Francisco and he had travelled to Iowa for a performance with Shankar Ghosh and one of his students on the tanpura. I went to his concert out of curiosity and despite being interested in music, I had no idea about Hindustani classical music. What better introduction to Indian music than Ustad Ali Akbar Khan?”
When asked about what drew him to Hindustani classical music, Zuckerman said, “In the first performance I witnessed in Iowa, there were several impressions and the first one was during the alap. It was very mellow, and once in a while, when Ustad Ali Akbar Khan played something, the accompanying tanpura and tabla players shook their heads. I thought I didn’t hear a mistake but maybe he is making a mistake and that they are showing their disapproval. That is rather impolite. Since the alap was slow, I fell asleep briefly and when I woke up, I saw him play this instrument with such vigour and that made an impression on me. I felt that he could do anything but there was something so grounded in a tradition and culture I knew nothing about.”
Zuckerman said that when he enrolled, he picked up a sarod and played it as people would play the guitar. “I picked up the sarod and tried to play it. The sound that came out of the sarod was very dull and I wondered why. I did not know then that one needs to use the fingernails to produce the required sound. I spent a year learning the sitar instead, but the sound of the sarod was attractive for me,” he said. He also said Ustad Ali Akbar Khan emphasised on vocals so that one could sing by playing the sarod.
Zuckerman also shared with the audience his rendezvous with renowned vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, “I have met him many times over the years and I was always enthralled by his performance. I used to travel with Khan saab and visit Pandit Joshi in Pune. We also had the honour to have him perform at Switzerland for Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s 70th birthday. After one of my trips to Pune, he told me that he read about my performance and that he wants me to perform at his festival. I was honoured and scared at the same time.”