While entering the elevator to meet the musical duo, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, I was in for a surprise when one of the two brothers was in there too looking dapper in denims and tees. It was an instant connection. Amaan didn’t need an introduction, but of course. He won my heart with his humble nature, a rare to find virtue in today’s times. Seated at The Leela lounge, was the younger of the two brothers, Ayaan (in a white tee and a denims jacket), demure and calm, with an aura that surrounds only saints and other glorified souls. Sarod virtuosos Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash come from a legacy that is seven generations deep, including their revered father and grandfather, Amjad Ali Khan and Haafiz Ali Khan. Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash represent the seventh generation of a musical lineage, as sons and disciples of the sarod icon, Amjad Ali Khan and Subhalakshmi. With him they have performed across the globe, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Smithsonian, and WOMAD festivals in many continents.
They have also collaborated with guitarist Derek Trucks, of the Allman Brothers Band, Guitarist Sharon Isbin, Chicago Philharmonic orchestra, Avignon symphony orchestra among others, and established themselves as a duo, carrying forward their musical legacy in sync with both tradition and contemporary times. They performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert 2014 in Oslo and also won the Gold Medal at the Global Music Awards in LA for their new album Peace Worshippers. They have also performed their father’s Concerto Samaagam with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Xian Zhang, Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Bronx Arts Ensemble. The UN Day Concert 2018 featured Sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash, Ayaan Ali Bangash and the Refugee Orchestra Project conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, Conductor themed on “Traditions of Peace and Non-violence” in the presence of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations.
Here are excerpts an exclusive interview, a few hours before their performance for the Icons of India evening at The Leela Palace Bengaluru.
Being sons and disciples of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, was it a natural progression when you took to music?
Amaan: When you’re born in a family of musicians it’s like you’re born in an ocean and you have to swim. For us it was a realisation that we are born as sons and disciples of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and it was a realisation that kept growing and from realisation it turned into a responsibility. I chose music as I saw in the initial years how it my father smile more. So, my biggest goal was that I want to make my parents happy to start with and then I started enjoying music myself. It’s been a beautiful journey ever since.
Ayaan: The atmosphere at home was always extremely musically charged. The music was the language spoken, the air we were breathing, the food we were eating. There was music all over everywhere all the time. Even when my father was travelling and was away, when we much younger, there was always someone or the other, some student or someone else, practicing or playing in the music room. So, we grew up in that environment, so the ethos was that music wasn’t looked at as a profession, it was a way of life. For us, it was as normal as having water and food and playing. Before we knew it, we were already on stage performing and playing. It’s a long journey and the learning never stops. You’re as good as your last concert, so that’s the life of a musician, you have to keep renovating and reinventing yourself.
What are the earliest memories you have when you first picked up the sarod or was it some other instrument that you started out with?
Amaan: We picked up the sarod when we were kids, but it was a smaller sarod. We were told that I was five and Ayaan was three when we first picked it up. It started with singing first. We were taken to the music room and with the harmonium we were to replicate the sur. Our sarod is an instrument that imitates a human voice. You sing with it. That’s how it started. We gave our first physical music concert when I was eight and Ayaan was six in Gwalior, when my grandmother was sitting in front of us. We didn’t have the opportunity to meet our grandfather, but she was very happy to see us perform.
Ayaan: That and then soon after that there was an orchestra our father had made for the UNICEF’s 40th anniversary at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi in 1986. We were again the two youngest performers in that group. In essence, we were around music when we got back from the hospital to our homes and my father always sang in our ears and the training started then itself.
Tell us more about the relationship you both share with your father.
Ayaan: It’s a dual relationship we have with our father. He’s a guru and also a father. The switch between a guru-son and a father-son is very effortless. It keeps changing. It’s been like that for many years and remains even today.
Amaan: It’s complex but it is how it is. It’s beautiful yet complex in many ways, but we have adapted to it and learnt so much.
Have there been times when you felt you wanted to do something else or you both were fine with continuing the family legacy?
Amaan: It is a part of growing up for any kid. It’s not about being rebellious, but yes, obviously, we wanted to do many things. I wanted to be a commercial air pilot, or a cricketer or even an actor at one point of time. But that’s when you’re growing up and you’re not sure and want to put your hands everywhere. But if you’re blessed with a sane mind and the right knowledge, you start realising what works best for you and that’s what happened in my case. I realised that music will be the best bet for me. It’s our music that has taught us to be humble and spiritual. Parents somewhere don’t want to push their kids if they know that this is not right for them. So, my father would not have introduced music to my brother and me if he saw no positivity in the art and its evolution. He could see that these kids can perform and they have it in them, that’s why he encouraged us into this field and I’m thankful to him for doing that. We were told that music was our greatest wealth and it was the only thing that we inherited. It’s a beautiful industry to be in.
Ayaan: I think, any field, especially if it’s a creative one, you have to take that leap of faith. I took the leap of faith, knowing that I’m no Mozart or Beethoven or anything. I still have to work my way into what I have to do to be here. One has to take that decision. Obviously, you have those moments, when you question is this the right thing to do. I don’t think I really reached that point of questioning so much. I just kind of knew, that this is what I can do and where I should be. I don’t think I thought that I could have done anything else and I’m happy I made this decision.
Your names are taken in the same breath by many. Are you both the hyphenated siblings you’re perceived to be or are you both different from each other? Have there been disagreements, fist fights, so to say or was it all smooth sailing?
Amaan: It’s all a part of growing. Even now there are times when we agree to disagree. It happens, but it’s not because I’m trying to impose my musical or other views onto him or he to me, but we are doing for the betterment of the whole product, to improve the package, so to say. You go through that journey when as a young boy, you want to be outstanding and it’s not wrong. It happens, because Indian music or any creative line, is about being an individual first and also about individuality. But then, it’s a greater challenge to share the stage with the other person. So, then it’s not only about you, it’s about each other. That also educates you to be more humble and it’s a mix of a lot of things.
Ayaan: Collectively, the intention is to do something brilliant and to present something that excels in what it is. That’s why I think, if there’s a relationship with no disagreements then there’s a problem in the relationship. Obviously, we have upgraded our fist fights to just arguments after so many years of being together.
So, who’s the more aggressive and who’s the more submissive one?
Amaan: What do you think? Isn’t it so evident (he laughs admitting that he’s clearly the more aggressive amongst the two brothers)?
Ayaan: Well, yes, but it’s ok, when we’re on stage, the idea is to try and out a bouquet of flowers together collectively, so that it looks beautiful aesthetically.
Apart from performing together on stage, what are the other collaborations you have done together?
Ayaan: Apart from doing a lot of our concerts together, we have done a whole lot of collaborations. We have collaborated on a lot of recording projects together, we have written books together, we have done television together and a lot of things have happened together. So, we know each other’s minds now and we know our spaces. It’s more easier to work together today, than it was maybe 20 years ago, as we understand each other better today, more than we ever did before.
Before a concert or even otherwise how many hours of rigorous riyaaz do you put in?
Amaan: There’s always this feeling that it’s not enough. The more you want to dig deeper, the more water you’ll get out of the well. We should be practicing more is what I feel sometimes. But we have never cheated with our space with work. If I have a concert, everything else is secondary. Music is God and it has to be perfect. The opportunity of taking to a stage should never be taken for granted. There are thousands of people who never get a chance to be where we are. So, when you get an opportunity you should aim to excel. It’s a blessed moment for you, to get out there and perform on that coveted stage for a sought-after audience. A lot of people have platforms, but no audience, or the way around, so when it’s a moment when you have both, you must give your 100 per cent. We have never been disloyal to our work. They say if you’re disloyal to your work, your work will be disloyal to you. So, it’s a relationship with your hard work, your dedication, your audience – everything put together. Collaborations have been plenty for us. Even our collaboration with The Leela is like a mirror. We see ourselves in this – the humility, the lineage and the tradition that we both are associated with is so similar.
Ayaan: The world today has become a global village and we have been very fortunate to have worked with a lot of diverse artists. Some of the memorable projects and collaborations have been with a lot of diverse artists. It will be a long list if I name them all, but some of them include the one with guitarist Derek Trucks, from the Allman Brothers Band, brilliant classical guitarist Sharon Isbin that we released last year, Strings of Peace and then we were also very fortunate to be a part of our project with my father and Joe Walsh (one of the finest rock-and-roll guitarists of James Gang and Eagles fame, who has taken a fancy to the sarod) called Prayers, besides others. Right now, Amaan and I are working on a music awareness for Kailash Satyarthiji’s foundation. We have also collaborated with American folk singer Carrie Newcomer, Grammy nominated violinist Elmira Darvarova and Indian-American musician Karsh Kale. Also, at the 2014 Nobel concert, I remember jamming backstage, with the likes of Queen Latifah, Will Smith and Steven Tyler. We have performed at prestigious venues like the Sydney Opera House, London’s St James’s Palace, the Carnegie Hall in New York, and at events like the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Logan Hall in London and so many more.
We had come out with an album Rabab To Sarod, tracing the journey of the sarod from rebab, as the sarod was initially modified from the rebab. This came first from Central Asia to Madhya Pradesh, which we conveyed through our music with Daud Khan Sadozai, a brilliant rebab player from Afghanistan, now in Germany. There are a whole lot of events opening up across the world, starting this evening. This association with The Leela has been extremely wonderful and it’s been a very creatively uplifting process recording the albums New Delhi and Raaga for The Leela, which was made recently. The sky is the limit, as the 12 notes of music, bind the world together. No one could make a 13th note yet.
How was the time spent during the lockdown phase when you were not travelling for your concerts?
We were watching movies, Netflix, listening to music, trying out a lot of food and doing things that everyone was doing. Earlier, since we were travelling so much and there were projects one after the other, personal life was such a challenge, but now it was more about introspection on many levels and connecting with oneself. We were also recording during this phase and practicing on our music as well.
What are the collaborations you done in the South of India?
There have been many collaborations in the south India. We have had the honour of sharing the stage with the great Vidwan Vikku Vinayakramji, Sivamani and many other big musicians. We also collaborated with Shobhana ji, the dancer and had the opportunity to meet the golden MS Subbalakshmi ji, Mahalingam ji and many other stalwarts from the south of India, during the course of all our collaborations.
What are your other hobbies and passions, besides music?
Amaan: I used to play a lot of tennis and also do horse riding. I spend a lot of time in the gym as well. But I feel 95% of the time outside the gym is also important which includes your food habits, sleeping patterns, commitment to yourself and being disciplined.
Ayaan: I used to paint a lot and also do a lot of sketches, specially Ganesha sketches. I also play different instruments. Since we are seated for such long times during practice and performances, it is important that we keep ourselves active otherwise. Mental and physical wellness is equally important. We also do a lot of gymming. With lot of travel and concerts getting over late, we have to be very careful on how we plan our sleep patterns and diets. I have nine-year old twin boys who are already learning the sarod and are good at it. I like to spend time with them continuing the family tradition and it’s a great feeling.
What is your take on social media?
Amaan: Social media is like monopoly’s money. It’s there but it’s not there. I don’t take it that seriously, as I like to stay in the real world.
Ayaan: It’s a great platform from work perspective and to convey who you are as a person. In our field it has its limitations. But it has worked for so many and has changed many lives. One has to find a good balance in today’s times. We do look into our social media ourselves, but it’s all project based. It depends on the project we are collaborating with at that point of time.
Any crazy fan comments that you can recall?
Amaan: I see them as a blessing. It’s beautiful that somebody out there likes you or your work a lot. There are many things that have happened but all of them have been good. There have been instances of some fans coming to the airport with a big bouquet and we didn’t even know them. Also, someone came and gifted us a painting of ours. It’s always a great feeling to receive so much love.
Ayaan: I had someone who used to send me my pictures and paintings on canvasses and paint my face black for some reason. This was the only one which was a little crazy and I still don’t know who it was and why. But otherwise, it has been all really good fan moments and comments and we feel truly blessed.
How hectic was it earlier when you were travelling all the time for your concerts and how are things lined up for the days ahead?
Amaan: Earlier every second or third day we were travelling for our concerts. We are a close-knit family, so after work we would just come back home and spend time together. I’m very close to Ayaan Bhai’s twin boys. I’m the older one but I’m not married yet. Ayaan and I live very close to each other’s homes, but we function together as a unit. We are always together. I feel guilty sometimes if I take a holiday alone and feel it’s not fair. What gives me a high is the performance itself, rather than simply going to a beach resort and sitting around. If we are anyway going to an exotic place to perform, we usually have to reach a day or two before and we stay a day or two after as well. That is enough time for us for a holiday.
Ayaan: I also enjoy vacations more with family after a concert. After our performance is over, we sometimes stay on and spend some time together. We don’t really take off purely for a holiday. It’s always a guilt feeling when we just take out time to chill. When we are out on work, we don’t mind unwinding or exploring a place, but only after the work is over. Work is always our first priority. It’s mostly all work and only some play for us.
Do you plan your performances and the magic that emanates out of it each time?
Amaan: When we are performing we try to be formless and shapeless. The moment you have a form and you’re aware, you’re very far away from creating something unique. To be there in your true form, you have to be mindless and shapeless, only then can you give your best.
Ayaan: This classical music is not a written script, it’s an oral tradition and the quotient of extempore moments is very high with us. Sometimes we go on stage thinking something and something different may happen and people love it. A lot of times unknowingly things happen on stage, which we didn’t expect to happen and you realise it later. It’s a spiritual experience on stage and we are living in a world of vibrations. So, it’s also important to know the person you’re performing with. Telepathy and things like that don’t have a rule book, so that’s what probably helps create the magic that people talk about and love from our performance as we understand each other so well. We are presenting a few pieces for our performance at The Leela and some elements we created for India’s 75th year of Independence.
What are you currently busy with and what’s in the pipeline for the days ahead?
Ayaan: The concert scene is opening up now, so we have some shows lined up in the US next month and also some shows in India after that. Let’s hope the world opens up completely. I don’t want to continue seeing kids and people wearing masks all the time and hope that we are all back to our normal lives. We are celebrating Diwali at home with family and soon after that we are starting with our US tour.
Amaan: Soon after Diwali in the first week of November, our US tour begins. Infact, we had recently done a US tour in August this year as well, which went very well.