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Heart strings

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s father refused overseas concerts because he was scared he would have a cardiac arrest on a plane, writes Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: Aug 02, 2007 23:57 IST
Kumkum Chadha

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s father Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan had a mortal fear of flying. He refused overseas concerts because he was scared he would have a “heart fail” (cardiac arrest) on a “hawai jahaz”. Worse, he was paranoid about son Amjad taking flights. Had his friends and family not prevailed upon the senior Khan, Amjad would probably be confined to performances in India. Amjad played to a full house in the US as a teenager. More than the accolades he received, it was his safe return that dominated his father’s joy. While Amjad was desperate to share the story of his success, his father’s main concern was the condition of his heart.

While Amjad’s posed no medical problems, there were enough emotional ones. His looks, which his sons describe as “boyish and well sculpted” were enough to kill. At 21, he fell in love with someone ten years his senior — the relationship lasted eight years. Later, he married a distant relative and had a daughter who stayed with him even after his wife left. There were other women but the one who “leashed” him was danseuse Subhalakshmi Borooah. Their marriage broke many hearts. Say Amjad’s friends that a prominent Delhi girl was desperate enough to stalk the couple. The story goes that she would pour sugar or salt into their car’s petrol tank. None of this worried Subhalakshmi, smug in the knowledge that she “remote controls” the maestro. Today, Subhalakshmi decides even the colour of his clothes. It took some years for Amjad to come to terms with changing between performances at a concert: “I would watch him stand under the fan to dry his sweaty kurta in the interval. It took him a while to accept that changing was an easier option” Subhalakshmi recalls.

“Amjee” to Subhalakshmi, his parents had originally named him Masoom Ali Khan. A saffron-robed fakir said when he heard the 7-year-old playing the sarod, “Aaj se yeh Amjad”. And so he has remained.

For someone who grew up hearing his father give “aazaan” simply because the priest who did, croaked, Amjad was often called in to pray during thunderstorms. Their ancestral house being in a dilapidated condition, his mother feared that it would collapse. Amjad was pressed into service to woo the gods. A “namaazi” (one who offers namaaz), Amjad says that “God is my PR (public relations manager) and it is God who I love”.

In his younger days, the prefix ‘Ustad’ cost him heavily. Often he would be given a go-by with his hosts searching for a serious, aged ‘Ustad’. In Allahabad he slept hungry because the waiter took back his food on grounds of ‘mistaken identity’; in Barabanki, he hitched a ride because his coordinator could not “find him” in the station.