When not travelling for concerts, Ustad Asad Ali Khan’s rudra veena would be carefully placed on one side of his queen-sized bed in his Asiad Village home in the Capital. In 2010, when filmmaker Renuka George was making a documentary, Ustad Asad Ali Khan – A Portrait, she was intrigued. In jest, she asked him, “Khan sahab, why does your veena sleep on the bed next to you?” He earnestly replied, “When I sleep on the bed, how can my veena be on the floor.” George recalls this conversation as a striking example of the musician’s devotion to his instrument.
Khan’s son Ali Zaki Hader remembers his father’s fastidiousness differently. Besides transporting it with utmost care for concerts, Khan was also particular about the veena while he accepted stage honours, got photographed or made speeches. He’d make sure that Hader did not move away from the veena. “I had to wait upon the instrument till he returned. No one was allowed to touch it. I had to guard it with my life,” says Hader, 45.
For Khan, one of the most significant players of the rudra veena, who passed away at 73 in the summer of 2011, the instrument was his inheritance, his prayer, his vocation, and the only commitment in life. Towards the end of George’s film, a visibly emotional Khan says, “Many contemporaries said, no one will hear this, (that the) rudra veena belongs to a bygone age. But, this is an instrument that can contain all else within it. Its purity is unequalled. If there is an instrument, the notes of which have reached god’s dwelling, this is one, and the only one.”
On October 26, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted that the export of Indian classical instruments had increased 3.5 times in the first six months of this fiscal year. The appreciation in the sale, which was attributed to COVID-19 and people aspiring to learn new pursuits, was also noticed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who retweeted Goyal, adding, “With Indian music gaining popularity worldwide, there is a great opportunity to further grow in this sector.”
Only miles away in the Capital, Hader was busy organising a distress sale for his father’s instruments, including his life’s most significant equity — the rudra veena.
Eleven years after his death, Hader has put up Khan’s rudra veena for sale on Vintagesitars.com, a website that “acquires and restores ancient & vintage instruments to preserve them for future generations”. The price is available on request. But the cost of the instrument is estimated to be about Rs 70 lakh. Along with Khan’s rudra veena, which is a piece built in the ’80s by Murari Adhikari of the famed Kanailal and Brother in Kolkata, Hader has also made Khan’s sitar and surbahar, both manufactured by the popular Kolkata makers, available for acquisition. “It’s now a bid to survive,” says Hader. There are stories, among the musicians, of him running a small tiffin service to make ends meet, though Hader does not mention it.
“With the rudra veena on auction, we’ll lose Asad Ali Khan’s lineage of thought. This veena is likely to end up in a museum abroad and we will lose an original Kanailal piece. Years later, we’ll ask for it back, like the diamond (Kohinoor),” says Mumbai-based rudra veena player Mohi Bahauddin Dagar.
Hader hopes Khan’s veena will get him food on the table and a roof above his head. He has been living in Khan’s Asiad Village residence, which was allotted to him in the ’80s under the government’s eminent artists’ quota. However, in 2014, the central government decided to phase out all the quotas for artistes, journalists and sportspersons and refused extensions on these homes. The houses were earmarked for central government employees. Many artistes, Hader’s neighbours in Bakhtawar Singh block, have been evicted in April and May, including dhrupad vocalist Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, Kathak guru Geetanjali Lal and painter-sculptor Jatin Das.
Hader has been appealing for a transfer of allotment since he is a practising musician and continues a rare tradition of his father. The extension that he got earlier expired on Saturday. “I don’t know what is to be done. I have approached the Nirman Bhawan to allow me 10 more days to find a rented accommodation,” says Hader, sitting in a crumbling living room with an overpowering odour of dampness. Paint and plaster have peeled off the walls and a large part of the house is in disrepair.
Khan would not have approved. An “extremely exacting musician”, he was always particular about how his house was kept. “I held on to the instrument for over a decade for emotional reasons. But when things got worse, no concerts and hardly any students to learn the art, I was left with no choice. In my current state, I am not capable of thinking of ragas or notes and their structures,” says Hader, who lives with his sister Shazia. He has two students, who are supporting the family. One is a lawyer, who is also managing the court hearings and the paperwork for the case.
The veena now sits in a case under the living room diwan, to protect it from the dampness and plaster falling off the ceiling.
Going by Hindu mythology, lord Shiva wanted to measure five notes that emerged from his mouth, for which he created the rudra veena, a micrometre. He was inspired by Parvati, who was resting with her arms across her breasts. The rudra veena “an instrument that looks like the upper body of a woman” also finds mentions in the Sama Veda. In earlier centuries, the rudra veena was a chamber instrument, played only in Diwan-e-Khas (hall of private audiences). At the turn of the 20th century, while the sitar and sarod grew popular, the rudra veena, once the king of instruments known for a certain universal purity of tone, lost its sheen. “It’s a difficult instrument to play as well as listen to. One has to be brilliant to even be heard,” says George.
Khan came from the Jaipur-beenkar (veena performers) gharana of the dhrupad tradition that was founded in the 18th century. His was an illustrious family of rudra veena players, beginning with his great-grandfather — the well-known Rajab Ali Khan, his granduncle Musharraf Khan and his father Sadiq Ali Khan — all royal musicians in the Alwar, Jaipur and Rampur courts. Even in the ’50s and ’60s, when his father was teaching the instrument, it didn’t find many takers. Mainly because it was heavy (about 10 kg), expensive (a veena costs about a lakh), and had to be customised to the player so that it fit the body, while playing which made it tougher than the sitar and sarod. Rudra veena is the only instrument that straddles the human body, when played. “This is an instrument that you wear; you bear the entire weight of it,” Khan would often say.
“For the maestro that he was, Khan wasn’t playing at important concerts like the Dover Lane Music Conference or at other big classical festivals. It was mostly the smaller concerts,” says Carsten Wicke, a Kolkata-based German musician who learnt from Khan. In 1965, on cultural impresario Sumitra Charatram’s request, Khan took up an assignment at Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi, to teach the rudra veena. After a long and hard search, he found two students, who also didn’t pursue the form. He relinquished the position three years later. In 1971, Delhi University also attempted a revival, but Khan ended up teaching the sitar there. “It takes years to master the rudra veena. It begins with learning vocal music, then the sitar, followed by the rudra veena. I still remember the excitement the day my rudra veena arrived. I could not sit still,” says Hader, who was in his teens then.
Khan was often called arrogant for not taking in students. He’d retort that students can’t even sit in vajrasan — the seated-kneeling posture — for a few hours at a stretch. “It requires everything that other Indian classical instruments do, and then some,” he’d say.
Hader, who is actually Khan’s sister’s son, was legally adopted by Khan soon after he was born. He learnt sina-ba-sina (one-on-one in an oral tradition) from Khan, which meant that he imbibed a way of living, not just the art of playing. But not many opportunities came his way after Khan’s passing. Like many other young artistes, Hader didn’t find opportunities through Sangeet Natak Akademi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, or All India Radio. “Probably because either they don’t care about the rudra veena or they were concerned about the lack of audiences,” says Hader.
George feels that the reason is that Khan didn’t promote Hader as much. “I wish Khan sahab had spoken about him or allowed him to play on stage as an accompanying artiste. That would have helped,” says George. Dagar sees a spark in Hader and has been speaking to organisers to help him get concerts. “He needs to hone his skill. That will happen when he gets smaller concerts, which will not only help him sustain himself but also give a certain confidence to try and carry the burden of a very difficult legacy. Also, he is teaching Khan sahab’s music, but now he is so disenchanted that he wants to leave it,” says Dagar, who always believes that music must be learnt without the pressure of a career for the magic to unfold. But in Hader’s case, the practice needed to find the magic is lacking mainly because life took unexpected turns. “One was Khan’s untimely death and Hader not being ready for the stage at the time. Even I wasn’t. But being from the West, probably I could be slightly bolder and take steps in learning more and promoting the rudra veena,” says Wicke, who also learned from Bhopal-based dhrupad vocalist Ashish Sankrityayan and now manufactures rudra veenas, in collaboration with local craftspeople, in Kolkata.
After Khan’s death, Hader moved to Pakistan for a couple of years to live with his family. In the last decade, while Hader did perform sporadically, after-COVID everything dried up. Hader was not ready to do online concerts, nor did he want to approach the organisers. “My father gave me this knowledge, this heart of his, with so much love. I don’t want to go down on my knees and ask for work, to those who don’t know anything about the form,” says Hader.
Wicke believes that as a musician in the present day and age, one can’t dismiss self-marketing. “Times have changed. Khan sahab provided us with this rich training in this complex artform, but he wasn’t training us to live in the real world to make that music heard. For him, the matter of success was orthodox — it was settled if you could master one raga in a lifetime, and that’s beautiful, even manageable financially in those days with few concerts. But the generation after needs to evolve in order to survive, to go along with the tradition without letting go of the integrity of the music and yet keep a foot in the real world,” says Wicke, and adds that even artistes such as Anisuddin and Nafisuddin Dagar, Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar’s sons, who were trained in dhrupad by their famed father, are unable to find space in many festivals today for similar reasons.
Currently, Hader is hoping for an extension from the court to stay in his father’s house. “Since the government has decided to not value our worth, giving away my father’s instruments is my only option. Music can only happen when you don’t have to worry about a home and basic amenities,” says Hader.
While the situation raises questions about the preservation of the artiste’s legacy, there are also issues of not attempting to understand entrepreneurship and the unwillingness to adapt to the times. Hader was also against online concerts and refused to put up YouTube videos, too. While teaching Hader, Khan would often say that he was the last one to play this style, “And I am not proud of it.”