The Enchanting age old Sarangi and the young Maestro Kamal Sabri.
Press Clippings     

March 11, 2001
Playing by Cuticles

Iinvited by Safia Beyg of Sampurna to see the musical performance of a sarangi nawaz from India, I walked into the Alliance Francaise auditorium bang in the middle of Kamal Sabri's performance. He was rather dazzling but then again it was the first time I heard the samngi played live. And of course, since there are a handful of sarangi players left in the world, one does, there is hardly a yardstick to measure the performances by. However, 1 guess one can trust their ears and here is what mine told me.

Kamal Sabri knew what he was doing, as he moved from one mag to another, the mood of room would change. From the ebb and flow beauty of Raag Malkaus to the joyous verve and super fast wizardry of a tappa, Kamal Sabri played his heart out. The only impediment in his path was a rather old tabla player who obviously did not know what he was doing. I don't know what he was doing' wrong, I only know that it didn't sound right. When I went home that noight I put on a CD of sarangi nawaz Ustad Sultan Khan with tabla whiz Zakir Hussain and listened to two musicians who managed to be in sunc even as they conflicted. And who managed to come together in that joyous climax that is unique to sub-continental classical music. Kamal Sabri and the old but incompetent tabla player were unable to climax, but Kamal was impressive. His playing managed to give me goosebumps like the Thoughts and Beats CD of Sultan Khan and Zakir Hussain. Kamal is an interesting subject for scrutiny. He's young, 25 years old to be exact, he comes from the Sainia Gharana of music and is seventh in line of a family tree that shows sarangi players from top to bottom. He has a rather modern outlook because of his age, but at the same time tradition is very close to his heart. He learnt under the tutelage of his father, Ustad Sabri Khan, who is a progressive sarangi player and has won the Padmashree award in India. Homegrown, but open to ideas, Ustad Sabri Khan has played with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin from the classical lot and with The Beatles and even with (surprise, surprise) Blind Melon, the great band from Seattle with the ill-fated singer who did a lot of drugs and died young. Such incidents do not plague classical musicians whose music is such a high for them that they rarely indulge in substance abuse.

Kamal started training at the age of six, so he is a veteran with twenty years of playing behind him. "My father tells me that when I was a toddler and he was playing at home, I would crawl over and touch the gaz (bow). He knew then that this instrument fascinated me. My grandfather gave me a small sarangi when I was five. I tried it on my own and the noises it made were so scary that I put it down," recalls Kamal with a laugh. The sarangi is evocative when it is tuned and sounds horrific when it is not. It has the power to make you cry and it can make you happy. The sarangi is probably the most difficult instrument to master in the world. "My father says that this life is not enough for me to learn the sarangi and anyway, the day a musician thinks that he knows it all is the day he dies," says Kamal, touching his instrument with reverence.


Kamal maintains that music is worship to him. "Ustad ho kaamil, shagird ho aamil aur Khuda ho shaamil" (the teacher should be able, the student should be capable of following his instruction and God must be part of the proceedings) is a saying that he has heard since he was a child. So he is scandalised when he hears that music is deemed by some to be haraam in the land of the pure. "As a classical musician, I can't jump around on stage to attract the attention of the audience. The only thing about me that can appeal to them is the quality of the raag I am playing. I always pray to God to keep my music pure and true," says Kamal simply. He talks about the necessity of taseer in music. It is necessary for music to affect the listener. If it doesn't, then the musician might as well not play.

Kamal's values are derived from the Indian guru-shishya parampara that in Pakistan is the ustad-shagird dastoor. That in English may be translated as the teacher-student relationship, but that would be simplifying matters a bit. Kamal was lucky to be born with a musical silver spoon in his mouth into a gharana with a father who could teach him. He says that even I can go to Delhi to learn from his father. All I have to do is express the urge to learn from him. He will then tie a thread around my right hand to signify the bond that has been forged and all I give in return is some cloth or a box of sweets perhaps. Then, the ustad is encumbent to teach me as much as he knows subject only to what I can learn. "It is not like the West, where you pay for an education and even if you are not willing to learn, you go to class, doze for a while and come back. There is no room for laziness in an ustad-shagird relationship. All you have to have is a zeal to learn," says Kamal who endorses this mode of education for music.

This is the tradition that Kamal comes from and is upholding. He, like his father, has taken his art to the West and has dabbled in fusion music with a host of musicians from places like Sweden, Finland and Barbados. While purists may feel that fusion mutates classical music, Kamal knows that the only way to save the sarangi from extinction is to popularise it. He wants to do for the sarangi what Pandit Ravi Shankar did for the sitar and Zakir Hussain did for the tabla. Only by going to the West is the worth of these instruments realised in the East. What Kamal has in his favour is that he is based in India and not in Pakistan, where his art might just have withered away and died.

India remains a land of opportunity for classical musicians. There, music is promoted and musicians sent abroad. Kamal's father performs often enough in the West and goes off periodically to teach classical music at the UCLA. Wjile here, the fate of excellent classical musicians like Bashir Khan Kalia, Tafu, Kader Baksh Pakhawaji, Ustad Shaggan and many unsung but singing maestros hangs in balance. Not so for Kamal Sabri, a Muslim musician in India who might not be as talented as the aforementioned people but he has so much more scope.

"There is more opportunity in the West partly because there is hardly any classical music there and partly because nowadays they have an obsession with all things Indian," laughs Kamal who is making waves there while the sunshines. His proudest moment was playing with Zakir Hussain at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That not the half of it. After all, Kamal Sabri has only just begun.



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