However hard you try, you can never penetrate an artist’s mind. But if you spend some time in an artist’s creative room, you may return with something of a clue about what makes him or her tick.
The ibadat gah with a deity
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan
It’s where the Ustad and his two sons, Amaan and Ayaan, discuss music, practice music and create new, sublime sounds. It’s their sacred space.
A sculpture of Goddess Saraswati rests in a corner. The deity’s veena overlooks an Afghani rabab, an ancient import into the Hindustani music repertoire from the Arab region, kept like a revered relic in this room that belongs to Sunni Muslim musician Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The Ustad’s riyaz room, a space where he practices with his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, stirs up the most immaculate images of the pious and secular merging of cultures and thoughts that Hindustani music reflects, propagates and thrives on.
The veena is a symbol of a mythical motherly presence and a spiritual, artistic, academic quest. The rabab is the grand masculine symbol of the undying belief in tehzeeb, the undefined spiritual code of artistic conduct, mannerisms and practice.
"This rabab has been part of the family since the very beginning," says Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. "It was there at my father’s (the late Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Sahib) home, the Sarod Ghar in Gwalior. It is the only instrument we have not donated to the museum for musical instruments that is the Sarod Ghar today."
Into the deep
It is in this riyaz room that the guru melts into fatherhood. "For a musician, a room is just a physical space where he imparts lessons and meditates, but our lessons travel with Abba," says Amaan. "We learn and talk about music anywhere – on a plane, during a walk, in a car. But this room is sacred, it’s important to us."
The maestro adds: "We spend a lot of time here, tuning our instruments, improvising, discussing musical aesthetics. Then we all depart into our own corners of the house. The boys do their own stuff and I do mine." It is in the riyaz room that the Ustad’s two sons, worthy seventh generation inheritors of the Senia Bangash gharana of Gwalior, display their own different perceptions of a raga, a lesson, a strum, their guru and their father.
At concerts, Ayaan smiles, gesticulates and interacts with his brother Amaan. Here, he is thoughtful, absorbing everything. Amaan, on the other hand, is more expressive and seeks his guru’s views on everything. "See Abba," he says, as he strums his instrument. "I grew this nail and I get a new interesting sound."
The Khans’ riyaz room is free of the ostentations that mark Amaan and Ayaan’s lifestyle. "We wanted this room to look straight and simple," says Ayaan. "The only thing we were careful about was sound. Owing to the wooden floor, sound stays within the room. When we strum, we can hear the sounds minutely. It works as a monitor. We could have decorated it with Swarovski, but it’s a riyaz room. It has to be simple."
The maestro adds: "Music should be about a gradual growth. Our initial years in Delhi were a struggle. The most we could afford was a tape recorder. So we did not turn this into a studio. We are happy like this."
There are pictures of the musicians in the family on the walls. You see Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan performing at a Khairagarh University concert. In another picture, shot in the ’80s, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan swings Ayaan over his shoulder and Amaan poses with a small version of the instrument that was specially made for the brothers. Today, that small sarod is kept in a glass box, safe from dusting and rusting.
For Indian musicians, humility comes with offering art and awards to the elders, the gurus and the Almighty. In Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s riyaz room, Padma Awards citations are displayed on the walls.
"For a musician, the biggest honour is a packed auditorium," says the Ustad. "But the Padma Awards are very special to me. I always get the feeling that I am offering them to my guru and father, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan."
One award is missing, however. The biggest of them all – the Bharat Ratna. "We hope to make space for it, Inshallah," say Amaan and Ayaan, smiling.
Inside the riyaz room
An Afghani rahab that has been with the family right from the star
Photos of the celebrated family down three generations
Citations on the walls of all the Padma awards the Ustad has received
The idiosyncratic workshop
Artist Subodh Gupta
When he’s in Delhi, the artist goes there every day, even if it’s only to de-stress. The terrace is for comfortable chatting and there’s a small cooking corner too.
Their hands are unfaltering as they pick up steel bowls, tumblers and lunch boxes, placing them in a sequence that they know best. But they are not workers arranging steelware on shop shelves. These are the assistants without whom artist Subodh Gupta could not compose his installations.
“Art today has become what it was 500 years ago when an artist was someone who supervised others who created his work,” says Gupta. “A lot of my work is done at foundries in Europe, I do not physically make it myself. Art today is about art history and art practice at the same time.”
In Gupta’s Gurgaon studio, you’ll find a dramatic combination of inanimate objects and human idiosyncrasies. The paperweight on his table is a cobbler’s iron foot; the spoons and tongs serve as Gupta’s brushes and spatula; and a stodgy bucket with a note that says ‘I am dustbin’ looks so much like it ought to be a dustbin that you’re fooled into believing it’s part of an art installation. (It really is a dustbin!) And there are skulls and gas masks.
This studio is Gupta’s first own work space. “I have been here for two years,” he says. “Previously, I worked in rented spaces in Delhi. Here, no one can tell me what to do and what not to do.”
Gupta is a star of the Indian art scene. He doesn’t like being called a star. But events like the SaffronArt auction last year, where he floats in slots occupied by the likes of MF Husain, SH Raza and FN Souza, don’t lie. At this auction, Gupta’s Idol Thief went for Rs.1.08 crores.
It wasn’t always this way. Gupta moved to Delhi in 1988, after graduating in art from Patna University, carrying a lota and a lumpy throat for Ma, home, his mother’s kitchen and its objects. The Capital wasn’t impressed. So Gupta turned to the West and shaped his own success, making installation art, paintings and sculpture out of objects and material from his mother’s kitchen.
His studio is more chaotic than backstage at a theatre and more structured than a recording studio, It is what he is and what his art is. It is also his great escape from the stresses of life.
“If I am in Delhi I come here every day at 11.30 am,” he says. “It is my practice space. But even if I don’t do anything, I just want to be here, doing my own thing. It’s a great feeling. At times I listen to music – Hindi film songs and jazz.”
Not a corner looks drab. There is a shelf of small utensils, visually therapeutic. His airy terrace is where he spends evenings discussing art. There is a corner where he can cook, bottles of herbs lined neatly on a shelf. There are canvasses with pencil drawings of plates and food leftovers – a project he did for Peter Nagy of Nature Morte. Food is important to Gupta, an avid cook, who clicks pictures of food at stopovers around the world and swears by his crab and spaghetti.
The proof of the pudding spills over in the digital images Gupta has taken on his trips around the world. Many of these are piled on his studio tables, waiting to be drawn on canvas and painted by his assistants. “I carry my sketchbook with me wherever I go,” says Gupta. “Plus, I depend a lot on my phone. When ideas strike me, I store them in my phone.”
Inside the studio
A paperweight made of a cobbler’s iron foot
Spoons and tongs that serve as Gupta’s brushes and spatula
A dustbin that looks so like a dustbin, you think it’s part of an art installation
From HT Brunch, Januray 23
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