His Master’s Robab – Backstage with Daud Khan Sadozai

It’s around 7 p.m. on the 19th of October. Daud Khan Sadozai paces around the green room behind the main stage at Jodhpur Riff as he waits for the musicians who will be collaborating with him. The 58 year old Afghani is a master of the robab (a lute-like instrument originally from Central Afghanistan). He will be collaborating with 30 year old Dilshad Khan, on the classical Indian sarangi and 30 year old Joseph Tawadros, playing the Middle-Eastern Oud. This is the first time the three of them are working together. Sadozai and Tawadros met for the first time at the Delhi airport on their way to Jodhpur, while Khan was only told that he was performing with them this evening.  Both the robab and the oud come from a long tradition of Persian music. The classical sarangi, on the other hand, evolved from folk instruments in Rajasthan through the period of Islamic rule in India.

Sadozai was born in Kabul and now lives in Cologne, Germany, where he is the head of the Academy of Indian Music, founded by sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is one of the few artists who still play the robab, which he learnt under Ustad Muhammad Umar in Kabul.  He was also a student of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, whose ancestors are supposed to have brought the robab from Afghanistan to India, and developed the Sarod from it. His knowledge of Hindustani music makes it only natural that he will lead this collaboration. Tawadros was born in Cairo and moved to Australia when he was three. He currently lives in Sydney. He is an ARIA (Australian Record Industry Association) award winner who has collaborated extensively with other musicians, from various genres, on many of his albums. Notably, with jazz musicians John Abercrombie, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. Khan, who was born in Jodhpur, lives in Mumbai currently. He belongs to the Sikhar Gharana, that has produced several stalwarts of Indian classical music. He was tutored in the sarangi by his uncle, noted sarangi player and vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan and is seen as a promising talent. He has played with several luminaries of Indian classical music such as tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Pandit Ajay Pohankar and gazal singer Pankaj Udhas.

Tonight Sadozai is wearing a colourful skull cap and, despite the heat, has a tan coloured shawl draped over a white and silver Pathani suit. He seems quiet, almost contemplative, but one gets the sense there is more happening beneath the calm exterior. He occasionally speaks to his assistant, a young woman in a mustard yellow kurta, and the tabla player who will be accompanying him in his solo set.

A little while later Tawadros enters the green room, wearing a purple errand boy cap. He seems relaxed. He doesn’t interact with Sadozai, but sits quietly after keeping his Oud on a chair. A Rajasthani folk musician enters. He is over six feet tall, with a large salt and pepper mustache, wearing a colourful turban. He is accompanied by a slightly built older man with spectacles and a white mustache. He introduces his companion to Sadozai in Hindi. His name is Sakaram and he crafts kamaychas and sarangis. Sadozai greets him politely in chaste Hindi. He then sits down, his hands clasped in his lap, eyes shut. The usually talkative Tawadros leaves the green room to roam around backstage by himself.

Sadozai’s assistant reenters the green room after leaving to fetch his wristwatch. She bends down to speak to him but his eyes remain shut. He seems to have dozed off. She smiles to the tabla player and takes the seat opposite him, waiting for him to wake up. She joins in a quiet conversation with the tabla player. The folk musicians speak among themselves in hushed voices.

The silence is interrupted by the arrival of Dilshad Khan and his entourage, a group of chatty young men.  He is wearing a brown salwar suit and conversing animatedly with members of his party. The young sarangi maestro is introduced to Sakaram. He promptly discusses an order he has recently placed for sarangis and kamaychas. “Lekin Langa sarangi nahi, desi sarangi hai. (But it’s not a Langa sarangi, it’s an Indian—classical—sarangi),” he says. One of his companions removes Khan’s sarangi from its case and plays a bit. It produces a rich, mellow sound. He hands it over to Khan who invites Sakaram to inspect it.

Sadozai removes his robab. It has intricate Afghani inlaid work along its neck, possibly in mother of pearl. The white floral patterns stand out in contrast to the dark brown of the robab’s neck. Sakaram looks on appreciatively. Sadozai leaves to get on stage. The conversation continues.

Meanwhile Tawadros has returned. He picks up his oud which he allows Sakaram to inspect before strumming it quietly. Khan plays a few snatches on the sarangi as Tawadros listens and tunes his instrument. He looks up once or twice to quietly smile at me from across the room.

Sadozai’s set has begun. A volunteer enters to ask us to keep things quiet. Khan apologizes and takes the sarangi from his companion who is playing it absent-mindedly.

After a few minutes Khan begins playing it himself. Sakaram continues to inspect the oud as Tawadros plays. The music, talk and laughter in the green room get steadily louder.  Sadozai is about mid-way through his solo set.

Khan is now just outside the green room and talking to his companions. A volunteer scolds him again about talking too loudly. He apologizes profusely. And then turns to his companions, and grins like a mischievous school boy.

Soon they will all be up on stage playing sets they have barely rehearsed together. Up there they are unrecognizable. Transformed by the charisma of the stage and setting, music they are playing and the audience’s awe and reverence. The coming together of masters of instruments that come from very different parts of the world and yet seem to have a common beginning somewhere in the history of music is a gratifying idea. We hear strains of very different ethos of music and yet their unlikely blend is exhilarating. The men with instruments I met backstage are magicians now and they are being treated so. The audience refuses to let them go after their final set is done. This puts them in a tight spot— one in which they have to improvise an entire composition; build it from scratch. As they fidget with their instruments on the stage, glancing uncertainly at each other, for a moment I glimpse the men I met backstage again. But then they start playing and very soon they are having a conversation with each other. A strong, powerful and mesmerizing conversation unlike the mundane chatter behind the scenes. Their eyes light up most in this last set. It is one thing to be treated as magicians, quite another to know you truly have made magic.


(Image: Daud Khan Sadozai performs on stage at Riff. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff.)