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Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009): Sultan of strings

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009): Sultan of strings

Classes in progress at the ATO Fraternity House, Berkeley, in the summer of 1969.

Classes in progress at the ATO Fraternity House, Berkeley, in the summer of 1969. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

A tribute on the Ustad’s birth centenary.

APRIL 14, 2022, marked the birth centenary of sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan whose musical journey began in the small town of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh and, with the path studded with acclaimed concerts and an inspiring body of work, culminated in San Rafael in California where he successfully ran his Ali Akbar College of Music. Violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin, who invited and presented many Carnatic and Hindustani musicians to audiences in the US, declared that Ali Akbar Khan—known as Khansahib among his students—was the greatest musician on the planet. He was not alone in believing that Khansahib was an extraordinary musician.

How did Ali Akbar Khan attract such a following among music students in a foreign culture with a very different musical sensibility and how did he elicit such admiration amongst his peers?

Baba Allauddin Khan.
Baba Allauddin Khan. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

An important part of the answer must lie in his highly refined musicianship—a blazing talent honed through a rigorous and very strict practice regimen under the guidance of his father and guru, the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan. As a child, Ali Akbar Khan was not encouraged to speak—certainly not to his father but even to his mother or sister: “I was told to express myself through music and only music.” He hated his father for not allowing him to go out and play like other children and even tried to run away from that life. But then, when he started truly loving music, when he came home to that music, he started loving his father.

At every opportunity Khansahib spoke of his father’s music and his responsibility to the tradition his father had passed on to him. Among the many awards conferred on him for his rich body of work as performer, composer, and teacher are the Padma Vibhushan, as also the MacArthur Award and the National Heritage Fellowship, both highly coveted and prestigious awards in the US. Baba Allauddin Khan was a court musician at the royal house in Maihar, but his reach went far beyond that small town. He was an epoch maker, creating a niche for instrumental music in the world of Hindustani music through his brilliant students like Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, his daughter Annapurna Devi, and many others in the lineage. The Maihar gharana, or school, that he founded and nurtured continues to be a formidable presence in the field of instrumental music in Hindustani music.

The India years

Ali Akbar Khan trained under Allauddin Khan, sometimes playing for 18 hours in a day. His father taught him many instruments until he decided it would be the sarod that his son would focus on. An American interviewer asked a curious “Why? Why did your father decide that you should play the sarod?” Obviously that question had never crossed Khansahib’s mind and his startled response was—“to teach me music of course!” And this offers a glimpse into the two very unalike worlds he lived in. His own upbringing was as a dutiful son and student who, as he recounts, never raised his eyes to meet his guru’s eyes and did not say anything to his guru other than a “yes”.

Khansahib accompanying his class on the tabla in the summer of 1969. 
Khansahib accompanying his class on the tabla in the summer of 1969.  | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

He went on to teach in the US where his students could ask him anything. When admonishing a class for being out of tune, a student shot a question: “How about you Khansahib? Do you play in tune?” For a student to ask his guru this would be considered unspeakable insolence in India even today, but in the US this is part of the culture. Ali Akbar Khan was able to take this immense gulf in his stride and gather around him a community of devoted students. Indeed, in response to that question, recalls his student, American bluegrass musician Jody Stecher, Khansahib said that he had been in tune twice. “I am still trying,” he said. Stecher says, “We then realised that there are levels of being in tune.”

Perhaps that sensitivity towards, and deep quest for, sur, or tunefulness, lay at the heart of Khansahib’s own fabulous musicianship. We hear an artistry of a rare kind in his music, an artistry that dazzles suddenly in a delicately ornamented phrase strategically placed after a series of searching notes of the raga. That phrase will cause a welling up of emotions, primal and deep, a restless longing, a tear.

Ravi Shankar at a master class at the Military Academy, San Rafael, in 1972.
Ravi Shankar at a master class at the Military Academy, San Rafael, in 1972. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

The emotive quality of his music pulled his listeners into a world of sophisticated melody that touched unknown recesses of the heart. He had a brilliant performing career in solo concerts, in celebrated jugalbandis with Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, and others, as well as collaborations with musicians from other genres.

His debut solo performance was at a music conference in Allahabad in 1936 at the age of 13; in 1938 he performed on AIR. He became the youngest music director for AIR Lucknow, responsible for performances and composing for the radio orchestra. He was appointed court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Umaid Singh, in 1943, which was short-lived due to the dissolution of the princely states post Independence. Soon he moved to Bombay, where he scored music for films such as Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan, Satyajit Ray’s Devi, Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder, and Tapan Sinha’s Khudito Pashan.

Zakir Hussain’s rhythm class at the Military Academy in 1972.
Zakir Hussain’s rhythm class at the Military Academy in 1972. | Photo Credit: Betsey (Bourbon) Bruner/ Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

He also composed gats, or compositions in ragas, often on the spur of the moment. And he created ragas, the most astonishing such creation being Chandranandan. He was requested to play something new for a HMV 78 RPM disc just as he was settling down in the studio trying to decide what to play. The three-minute recording that emerged is often described as a complex blend of well-known ragas like Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandkauns, and Kaunsi Kanada, but that is perhaps not how Khansahib approached it. Speaking about this raga, he said: “When you blend a raag together you must blend the flavours like punch... you can’t taste the individual flavours, but some new taste is there. Like you can’t make an animal with the head of a cat, and feet like a bird... it looks funny... and you have no raag.”

The recording became a hit, and everywhere he was asked to play Chandranandan. But here was the problem: he didn’t remember what he had played. He then studied his own recording, gave it an analytical and conceptual form, and then played it. Today it is part of the repertoire of many instrumentalists.

Moving to the US

The heart of his brilliant career was surely his teaching and the propagation of the music he had received from his father. He chose to teach mostly in the US, convinced that it was possible for Hindustani music to take root and flourish there. It was no mean task to be able to sustain the interest in this music among Americans. It was, after all, a very different music in many respects.

Khansahib in the audience, flanked by Swapan Chaudhuri and Pandit Jasraj in the first row; and Salamat Ali Khan in the second row, listening to a concert in 1989. 
Khansahib in the audience, flanked by Swapan Chaudhuri and Pandit Jasraj in the first row; and Salamat Ali Khan in the second row, listening to a concert in 1989.  | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

Daisy Pardis, a student of the sitar, speaks about the excitement and terror of trying to learn this music. In the book The First Forty Years, a “photo chronology” of the Ali Akbar College of Music, she writes: “There we were, a whole horde of us in the beginner’s class with our instruments teetering and tottering as we tried to hold them in the right position, our bones cracking and legs falling asleep from sitting on the floor. Facing us was Khansahib, as we learned to call him, and the ancient tradition of music that evolved over two thousand years or more, which to us was a series of confusing mysteries. What is a raga? What is tala? How to function in the notation system? And constantly: What did he say? What note was that? At first, we tried to clear things up by asking questions, but the answers were always either not what you wanted to know, or just incomprehensible. Eventually we gave up and stopped trying to understand the music in our concepts, just learned what he wanted us to learn as best we could.”

Stecher notes that Khansahib would teach compositions but, like any other master musician in the Hindustani music tradition, would subtly change it. The ontological status of composition in Hindustani music, especially in the khayal idiom and instrumental music, is nebulous. “It was chaos in class,” recalls Stecher, laughing.

With Jane Chaudhuri and Swapan Chaudhuri in the 1990s.
With Jane Chaudhuri and Swapan Chaudhuri in the 1990s. | Photo Credit: Steve Brock/Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

How did Khansahib communicate the tantalisingly flexible quality of composition in Hindustani music to a people for many of whom composition was something set in dots and lines? From all accounts, he did not dilute or compromise, nor did he shy away from sharing extra musical lore with these students. Some ragas can cure illnesses. If, for a few consecutive days, you played Raga Yaman in the morning (its prescribed time is the early part of the night), your house would collapse on you! “I did not test it,” says Stecher.

It was an extraordinary moment, a concatenation of many factors, that had Americans seeking to learn from Khansahib, and it is these students who worked to make possible the Ali Akbar College of Music in California. And, it was this—a growing community of Americans eager to learn this music seriously—that led Khansahib to make the move to the US. He reasoned that it was easier for him to move to the US than have all these people come to India to learn.

Teaching an instrumental class at the Marin Unitarian Fellowship Center in 1970.
Teaching an instrumental class at the Marin Unitarian Fellowship Center in 1970. | Photo Credit: Betsey (Bourbon) Bruner/Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

A pamphlet that was circulated to raise funds for the college speaks for their enthusiasm and determination: “Our aim of course is that we establish a permanent, year-round school where we can uninterruptedly continue our studies and through which our ancient gharana will be transmitted in unbroken succession. Immediately we must raise $20,000… today we have $46.25. Ask everybody, tell everybody…” ( The First Forty Years—Ali Akbar Khan Photo Book)

After a few years of moving from place to place, the college finally had its own home in San Rafael where it continues to function with Khansahib’s wife, Mary Khan, as director and his son Alam Khan as a senior teacher.

Receiving the Grammy Organisation’s Governor’s Award in 1998 from the percussion legend Mickey Hart.
Receiving the Grammy Organisation’s Governor’s Award in 1998 from the percussion legend Mickey Hart. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

On receiving the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, Khansahib spoke of having trained over 6,000 students at his various schools. And many of them, including his sons Alam Khan, Aashish Khan, and others like Ken Zuckerman, emerged as accomplished performers of the sarod, sitar, and other instruments.

The receptivity for this music amongst Americans of that generation is remarkable; for them Khansahib’s music also represented the wisdom and spirituality of an ancient culture. This was especially attractive at the time when the youth in the US, the flower generation, sought succour from violence within and without.

Ali Akbar Khan once said: “Music is an international language. It has always been a special significance in the Indian culture and philosophy. According to Hindu belief the creation itself traced back to Nada-Brahma, creation or manifestation of supreme being. Our sages developed music from time immemorial, for the mind to take shelter in that pure being which stands apart from the body and mind as one’s true self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honours, not even for the joys of the mind, but is a path for salvation and realisation. This is what I truly feel.”

And this legacy endures. Even today it is hard to extricate the idea of Indian music from ideas of spirituality, trance, meditation and such. This is entrenched enough to reflect in pop culture. The Hollywood film Men in Black 3, for example, includes a scene with the character of Andy Warhol as an agency man who appears to be presiding over a cult. With eyes widening in horror and suffering, he begs for his death to be faked: “I can’t listen to sitar music any more!”

No doubt, there is a meditative quality to the leisurely exploration of ragas in dhrupad and khayal and instrumental music, but that is only one aspect, an aspect that is not necessarily the aim of the performer.

John Handy, Zakir Hussain, and Ali Akbar Khan perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971.
John Handy, Zakir Hussain, and Ali Akbar Khan perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. | Photo Credit: Betsey (Bruner) Bourbon/ Courtesy Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

His centenary year is being marked by the Ali Akbar Khan family through concerts; a 24-hour raga radio, where his performances of ragas of various times of the day and night are available; and as centennial tributes that his students and collaborators have shared from their interactions with him.

During a period when, through the operation of various factors, interest in Indian music was growing in the US, Ali Akbar Khan offered a quiet and solid sustenance to this interest by imparting the best training in this music to anyone interested, a training that was backed by his traditional taleem and supreme musicianship. His contribution to the global presence of Hindustani music today is immense.

Lakshmi Sreeram is a Chennai-based classical musician and writer.