Ustad Amjad Ali Khan once said, "There is no essential difference between classical and popular music. Music is music. I want to communicate with the listener who finds Indian classical music remote." His Holiness the Dalai Lama says "When Amjad Ali Khan performs, he carries with him a deep human spirit, a warm feeling and a sense of caring". The famous Songlines World Music Magazine, UK 2003 recognized Amjad Ali as "one of the 20th century's greatest masters of the Sarod".
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is perhaps the most well-known of musical celebrities in national and international musical circuits, after greats like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan. Amjad Ali Khan is the son of the celebrated sarod player Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan of the Gwalior sarod gharana. Hafiz Ali Khan was trained under no less an instrumentalist than Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur. Hafiz Ali, however, was not content with adopting dhrupad gayaki into the sarod. Under the influence of a harmonium player Bhaiyya Ganapat Rao of Gwalior, he also introduced aspects of thumri into his style. Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan enjoyed the same fame and prestige as his guru-bhai and contemporary, Ustad Allauddin Khan. Only that Hafiz Ali was a sarod wizard of great genius, whereas Allauddin Khan was an innovator and teacher of rare genius. In fact, he was hailed as 'Sarod Mohan' during his time by connoisseurs. Amjad inherits his genius as a performer from his father. Originating from Afghanistan, Amjad boldly flaunts his Afghan blood as also his rababi ancestry in music.
Hafiz Ali trained all his three sons in the sarod. Of the three, it was Amjad and older brother Rehmat Khan, who settled in Bhopal, who pursued their legacy earnestly. Amjad was born to Hafiz Ali, when he was almost 65. Yet the battle-marred veteran and his youngest progeny shared a fine guru-shishya relationship. Being the child of his sunset years, Hafiz Ali showered all his affection on his son in private. Yet, when he donned the mantle of the guru, he was as severe and unbending as the guru of yesteryears when it came to teaching and riyaz. It was these years of toil that moulded Amjad into a concert artist even before he was into his twenties. Amjad also learnt vocal music from none less than the Gwalior stalwart Pt. Krishna Rao Shankar Pandit. During his early teens, his finicky father found him skilled enough to accompany him on stage. At the age of 25, the world of music gladly greeted Amjad both as an Ustad as also as the finest of the young sarodiyas to emerge in the post-Independence era. Fame came to him early in life and Goddess Fortune smiled benevolently on him ever since the time he ascended the concert platform.
But Amjad was no imitator or blind upholder of the great legacy he inherited. He went on to revise and expand his inheritance in substantial ways. It was Amjad who introduced the gayaki-ang into the sarod. This idea came to him at the time Ustad Vilayat Khan was conquering all of North India with his 'speaking sitar'. Hafiz Ali, who had been successful in instilling aspects of thumri gayaki into his style, doubted whether it was possible to transpose the khayal-ang onto the existing sarod, given it numerous limitations. In order to make the sarod workable enough to take on the subtleties of vocal music, Amjad went ahead and made necessary modifications over a period of time through a trial-and-error process, until he obtained the elastic tonality he so desired. There are two schools of sarod playing - one in which the strings are stopped by the fingertips and the other in which the strings are stopped by the fingernails of the left hand (as practised by Amjad Ali Khan). This is what makes the clear ringing sound and is one of the things that make it so difficult to play. Thus was born the 'Singing Sarod' as also its versatile progenitor who was justly hailed as the 'Magician of the Strings'.
Amjad Ali Khan has developed compositions based on vocal music, the technical ability to play highly complex phrases (ekhara taans), at times with ascending or descending volume scales on the sarod, spanning three octaves, with equal emphasis on the composition with his unique style of playing the sarod. These constitute the key innovations in his style. Amjad Ali Khan places much emphasis on percussive right-hand plectrum work in his playings, which is the characteristic of the Afghan rabab-based idiom of the early sarod players.
What is striking about Amjad Khan's recitals is his dazzling technique and his sprightly imagination. The combination of phenomenal agility, enviable flexibility and outstanding technique, make him the greatest of performers to emerge after Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In his alaaps he evokes the dhrupadic elements so characteristic of the Seniya Beenkar gharana, whereas his gats are bathed with the vibrant colours and shades of khayal gayaki. His style is exceedingly demanding in terms of execution. Sensuously enamouring meends, dumbfounding gamaks, scintillating taans, breathtaking rhythmic play and thundering high-speed climaxes make him the country's masterful sarodiya. His laya-kari is comparable to Ali Akbar's and Ravi Shankar's, even if their rhythmic structurings are different. Amjad Khan's recitals rarely disappoint the average concert-goer, because few contemporary sarodiyas can match his adaptability and versatility.
Many of the commercial recordings Amjad has made maintain precise to excellent standards. His Mian Malhar can rightly be termed as an event in recording history. Fine lyrical feeling, lucidity of presentation, superb technique and a sense of melodic completeness marks his recording as one of the most aesthetically pleasing presentations of this time-honoured raaga. Amjad's ability to switch from dhammar-ang to gayaki-ang with great ease is clearly seen in this rendition. Similarly, one can see him evoke the leisurely stateliness of Darbari in his early HMV recording. The impact of Ustad Amir Khan's gayaki is evidently seen in the gat section. Among his other recordings, Shuddh Sarang, Bhimpalas, Shree, Durga, Sahana and Bageshri are outstanding in terms of technique and feeling. In the series brought out recently by Music Today, one can get a clear glimpse of his amazing raag-daari, wholly devoid of showmanship in his live recording of Ramkali, which he rendered at the Dover Lane Music Festival in Calcutta in 1980. Equally bewitching is the way he renders the renowned composition Un Sangh laagi re, immortalized by Ustad Faiyaz Khan in the madhya laya section.
Amjad is second to none of his contemporary instrumentalists when it comes to creation of raagas. For a while it was an annual ritual with Amjad Khan to come out with a raaga to immortalize some illustrious personage in the world on Indian politics or music. Thus came Jawahar Malhar, Priyadarshini and Kamalshree to commemorate the 'First' family of the country. Bapukauns came along as a respectful offering to the Father of the Nation, Subbalakshmi as a tribute to his loving spouse amd Amiri Todi dedicated to the memory of Ustad Amir Khan. When he made a pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the Ayyappa shrine in Kerala, in the 1990s came the raaga called Sabarimala. Other raagas like Kiranranjini and Swar Sameer too are progeny of his prolific musical brain. According to the maestro, in these dozen or so commemorative 'creations', he has captured something of the aura and contributions of these illustrious personages.
Amjad Khan has also trained some gifted disciples like Biswajit Roychowdhry, Abheek Sarkar, Mukesh Sharma and Debjyoti Ghosh. Whether his sons, Aman Ali and Ayaan Ali Bangash will continue the rich legacy of their grandfather and father, remains to be seen. Ustad has achieved immense popularity in India as well as abroad. He has the distinction of being the first north Indian artist to have performed in honour of Thyagaraja at the saint musician's Thiruvaiyur shrine. He has travelled widely and performed in several international music festivals in Pakistan, China, New Zealand, London, Rome, USA, Moscow, Germany, and Japan etc. He has performed at the WOMAD Festival in Adelaide and New Plymouth, Taranaki in New Zealand, WOMAD Rivermead Festival in UK, Edinburgh Music Festival, World Beat Festival in Brisbane, Summer Arts Festival in Seattle, BBC Proms, International Poets Festival in Rome, Shiraz Festival, UNESCO, Hong Kong Arts Festival, Adelaide Music Festival, 1200 Years celebration of Frankfurt and Schonbrunn in Vienna. A regular performer at the famous halls such as Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Kennedy Center, Santury Hall (First Indian performer), House of Commons, Theater Dela Ville, ESPLANADE in Singapore, Mozart Hall in Frankfurt, Chicago Symphony Center, St. James Palace and the Opera House in Australia, the master has received Hon'ry Citizenship to the States of Texas, Massachusetts, Tennessee and the city of Atlanta.
Over 40 years Amjad Ali Khan had a successful career span and continues to be one of the busiest classical musicians in India. He was awarded India's second highest civilian award, the "Padma Vibhushan" in 2001. And he was awarded the "Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize" in 2004.
On April 8, 2007, he received international recognition too. He was honoured with the Key to the City award by Kathy Taylor Mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma state, for his long-standing contribution to the Indian Classical Music.
Other notable honours conferred upon him are given below:
In 1977, he founded the Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Memorial Society, which organizes music festivals in different parts of India. He has contributed in propagating and creating music for children. In Gwalior, the family house where Amjad Ali Khan was born has been converted into Sarod Ghar (the 'Home of the Sarod') a teaching centre and museum of his family and the sarod, with an impressive collection of instruments including his ancestor's rababs. The great master remains devoted to Sarod and popularising his music throughout the world.