Just as Diwali was round the corner, India got news that threw fresh light on its northern region’s festively hybrid heritage. An Afghanistan rabab master is among the seven winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Music Awards. The eponymous Geneva-based foundation chose to honour Kabul-born Daud Khan Sadozai for his “exceptional creativity, promise and enterprise” against a traditional background. The artistes share a $500,000 prize fund for the triennial recognition which the jury announced from 400 nominations worldwide, with a focus on societies with significant Islamic presence.
In fact, two of the seven awardees are integrally Indian. One is Mumbai-raised tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, who lives in the US. The other is sarod player Soumik Datta, a Bengali groomed in London. Yet, for those in Punjab plains and Kashmir valley, Sadozai can perhaps strike a closer chord. True, the 67-year-old instrumentalist has been residing in Germany for four decades. Even so, the strings he plucks produce notes that often sound Hindustani despite the rabab’s origin in Central Asia.
This is primarily for two reasons, both historical. The lute-like rabab, brought in by immigrants, lent itself to modifications in the courts of maharajas across the Gangetic belt two centuries ago. The result was an organic evolution of the sarod, which would go on to generate major resonance in the subcontinent’s classical idiom. The archetypal rabab maintained a parallel rustic run, intertwining with the streams of Islam and Sikh religions upcountry. The stringed instrument enriches night-long Sufi mehfils across the mountain stretches above Jammu, just as it would add to the devotional fervour of Sikh kirtani renditions. The latter has a crucial subtext: Guru Nanak Dev’s song-laced speeches praising God used to enjoy a rabab accompaniment by the Guru’s close companion, Bhai Mardana, (1459-1534), a Mirasi.
“Sarod I can teach you,
rabab I don’t know,” Daud Khan Sadozai quotes Amjad Ali Khan as having told him during their interaction in the 1980s.
Cut to the contemporary world, and there is another factor why Sadozai enjoys his fair share of love from Indians. Four decades ago, the musician reached Delhi to learn under sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. That eastward travel was an uncanny repetition of Amjad Ali’s Afghan forefathers, who invented the sarod and passed its dynamics down to his (sixth) generation. Sadozai was warmly co-opted as a student; just that the guru would hold only the sarod at the classes. The dedicated pupil translated the patterns into his rabab, imbibing the subtleties of ragas and rhythms of the Dhrupad style.
“Sarod I can teach you, rabab I don’t know,” Sadozai quotes Khan saheb as having told him in their initial interaction in the early 1980s. “See, taleem (practice) and ilm (knowledge) are two things essential to musicianship. For that, you need a respectful guru. He’d ensure you won’t be frivolous,” the rababi noted recently during a Covid-era virtual interaction, piecing together ideas in functional Hindi he grasped during the exercises under Amjad Ali. “Each time I land in India, I feel this is my mulk (land). Language barriers simply melt.”
Sadozai had, in youthful days as a promising musician, left Kabul for Germany to pursue engineering, only to find himself pining for advanced studies in music. This, despite the long lessons from compatriot Mohammad Omar (1905-80), celebrated as the sultan of rabab. Thus, Sadozai, into his late 20s, came to Amjad Ali.
If the sarod tutorials enabled Sadozai to incorporate Hindustani classical nuances into the rabab, credit also goes to his first master back in Afghanistan. “Omar was the pioneer in solo concerts on the rabab, which was otherwise part of ensembles,” pointed out scholar Bhai Baldeep Singh in the May 2020 dialogue hosted as part of Anad Foundation’s series coinciding with Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. The late instrumentalist crisscrossed the arid plateaus between Helmand and Kandahar provinces, “interpreting folk melodies and bringing them into mainstream”, adds vocalist-percussionist Singh, who chairs the forum that promotes traditional arts and documents devotional music.
A long association with the Academy of Indian Music at Cologne has made Sadozai a resident of the Central European nation for 40 years. The artiste isn’t keen to return to a Taliban-ruled Kabul — a far cry from his placid childhood memories. His music methods stick to the conventional Afghan spirit. For instance, Sadozai would use the Farsi word shakal for alaap (the façade of an expansive melody), naming the subsequent chapters as asthayi, antara, palta and sanchari before winding up a rendition with abhog. A decade-old concert the Ustad gave with his Spanish student Efren Lopez in a Valencian town exemplifies this sequence while delineating the calm raga Yaman.
Tabla genius Zakir Hussain is only four years older to Sadozai, but has accompanied rabab legend Omar. That was in 1974 at the University of Washington. This weekend, Zakir and Sadozai are poised to be conferred with an international honour at Muscat. It’s a full circle now.
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