Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who passed away on June 18, was perhaps the most gifted of all the instrumentalists to have graced the Hindustani music scene in the past hundred years, that is, in the era of recorded music and the public concert stage. Those who have had the privilege of having heard sarod players of generations earlier than Ali Akbars have, almost to the man, put their prejudices aside, to acknowledge him as the most complete of all the instrumentalists. His knowledge of the grammar of ragas was formidable. In this respect, he was equal to his sister, the unsung genius Annapoorna Debi, and his former brother-in-law Pandit Ravi Shankar. His interpretation of the roop and aakaar, inner and outer raiments of many ragas, left both the connoisseur and the layman utterly astonished.
Much has been said of his command of varying tempi laya and rightly so; it was as adventurous as that of his confrere, Ravi Shankar, but something in his mercurial personality made it so beguiling. Mind you, this quality would come and go; he was not a consistent performer, but when it was there he was the King. The romantic vaishnav in him would have scoffed at the idea. On a good day, his laya manipulation combined with his insight into a given raga could create magic.
Those who have heard him live or in a recording, on a good day, have been on to profound revelations, whose nature could be universal and personal, nay private, all at once. His ebullience and introversion easily made him the most exciting instrumentalist in Hindustani music, indeed music of any genre. The tributes that have poured in almost immediately after his passing bear this out. Pop, classical, jazz musicians as well as those from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, have acknowledged him as a towering genius and a very giving human being.
The making of Ali Akbar Khan Saheb survives as much in his music as in the anecdotes narrated by others and by him. When the martinet-guru Ustad Allauddin Khan, his father, told his other gifted pupil, Ravi Shankar, to wear bangles for playing the sitar too softly though tunefully in 1938, the lad, stung to the core, left in tears for the Maihar railway station (in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh).
Ali Akbar, then all of 16, was dispatched by his compassionate mother, Medina Bibi, to fetch Ravi. When the cosseted Ravi, still stung by his gurus remark seemed reluctant to return, Ali Akbar took off his shirt and showed him the welts his fathers cane had made on his back. The two guru bhais quietly returned home to their practice.
According to Pandit Ravi Shankar, whenever Allauddin Khan Saheb was away, Ali Akbar would cut loose, albeit in a most innocent way. Uday Shankar, the pioneering Indian dancer and Ravis elder brother, took the irascible ustad to Europe as the music director of his dance troupe.
Young Ali Akbar, at home, promptly bought himself a gramophone and a set of 78 RPMs of Krishna Chandra Deys soul-stirring kirtan-based songs. He also took to playing football with the local boys. The end result of this brief vacation from practice, or riyaaz, was predictable. Allauddin Khan Saheb, on his return from Europe, gave his son a sound thrashing and made him practice twice as hard as before.
Ali Akbar Saheb had inherited not only his fathers gargantuan appetite for diverse musical influences within the Hindustani tradition but also his ability to make them an organic part of his own expression. He was, to use that most hackneyed of expressions, able to be both creative and original, almost always, in his use of this huge base of musical learning. His gats, big and small, in various ragas always take the listener by surprise.
Take his 1967 EMI recording of raga Desh, accompanied by Shankar Ghosh on the tabla. It is, of course, deeply poignant but it also has flashes of his then troubled personality.
One may argue that every performance by an artist, be it a vocalist or an instrumentalist, is autobiographical. True, but Ali Akbars Desh is palpably different from that of a Desh played by Radhika Mohan Moitra or his disciple Buddhadev Dasgupta or Amjad Ali Khan, though each may have played a memorable version. Those fortunate enough to hear Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Saheb, Amjad Alis illustrious father, in his prime, maintain that he had made Desh his own.
Any raga played by Ali Akbar Khan received his distinctive, multidimensional treatment. If it were not facetious, one could call his treatment of a raga poetically cubist, to borrow an analogy from 20th century Western painting. The same 1967 recording containing Desh also has a haunting alap in Desh Malhar. This recording is the most perceptive aural portrait of the man. We do not know if his later recordings in ragas such as Madan Manjari, his own creation, Chandranandan, Alamgiri, Malayalam, Puriya Kalyan, Gauri Manjari, Medhavi and Jogiya Kalengra, among others, were not an elaborate concealment of his true personality despite their obvious merit. While recordings such as these reveal his enormous erudition in Hindustani music, they also, ironically, mitigate the passionate quest of his youth and late middle age, and bring about a mellowness, charming and welcome though not entirely natural.
His dramatic renderings of ragas such as Bilas Khani Todi, Jaijawanti, Darbari Kanara, Mian Ki Todi, Yaman Kalyan, Ramdasi Malhar, Bageshshri Kannada and Suha Sugrai have even made the Jades listen to these ragas with a new attentiveness. Hardly any instrumentalist has made a recording of a deceptive raga such as Chayanat sound so exquisite and yet not without its mystery.
Most musicians of undoubted talent, both vocalists and instrumentalists, would fall for the obvious sweetness of the raga and be content with it. Not so Ali Akbar. He added to its burnished glow a pilgrims quest.
When his musical quest was at odds with his personal longings, there were fireworks. Until he met Mary, his fourth and final wife and the mother of his son Alam some 30 years ago, his private life, to put it mildly, was turbulent. Why he parted from his second wife, the mother of his sons Ashish, Dhyanesh, Pranesh, Samaresh, Aparesh and daughter Shri, is a mystery. His union with his third wife Rajdulari, a talented singer, was tempestuous. They split, but not before recording together in 1967 a long-playing disc with raga Kirwani on one side and Yamani Bilawal on the other. Mahapurush Mishra was on the tabla.
Before he went to the United States in 1955 and later settled down there, first in Berkeley, California, and later in Marin County, north of San Francisco, his financial position was precarious. So was Ravi Shankars. They composed music for mostly Hindi films individually and played when required in orchestras for other film composers. Ali Akbars sarod solo carried Chetan Anands Buddhist story of renunciation, Anjali. Earlier, for the same director, he composed the haunting, 19-minute ragamalika composition, Ek Taraf Haeye Shaadmaani, memorably rendered by Lata Mangeshkar.
He did not like composing for films particularly. In 1957, paradoxically, he allowed his friend Ritwik Ghatak to persuade him to compose the music for the path-breaking film Ajaantrik. Ghatak had his own story to tell regarding the films music. He told this writer in 1975: Ali Akbar was a little nervous about composing the music for Ajaantrik, especially after Ravi Shankars success with Satyajit Rays Pather Panchali. On the first day of the recording he turned up with 60 musicians. Without turning a hair, we recorded with them and paid them off. Then we ordered some food and Ali Akbars favourite Gold Spot whisky. Towards morning he started playing Bilaskhani Todi. It was a grand experience. I had already alerted recordist Satyen Chatterjee and his colleague Jyoti Chatterjee. They recorded it beautifully. Ali Akbar Khans background score for Ajaantrik is amongst the most apposite in cinema.
There is a story about Ali Akbar Khan from those times, that is, the mid-1950s, narrated by his admirer and lay pupil Sandhya Sen. He told her that he had just received his fee after his Sunday morning concert at Basusri Cinema in south Calcutta and a nimble-fingered man picked his pocket and swiftly made his way through the crowd. The whole action was watched by an admiring Khan Saheb. When asked later by an astonished and angry friend why he did not raise an alarm, Ali Akbar Khan said that he did not want to spoil the lovely after-concert mood that everyone had got into.
Duets with his formidable adversary, Ravi Shankar, remain a benchmark for all such ventures in Hindustani instrumental music. His own darting, spontaneous musical inventions are held in exquisite balance by Ravi Shankars unfailing sense of form and a complementarity of ideas. Nowhere perhaps in the history of Hindustani and Carnatic music, indeed in music, eastern or Western, have two musicians created compositions in which one persons idea results in the birth of a new one while adhering to the form outlined by a given raga and the tala (beat cycle) and laya so required. A perfect example is their 1963 rendering of raga Shri with Alla Rakha on the tabla.
There is also a 1972 recording of Hem Bihag, Manj Khammaj and Sindu Bhairavi. Also with Alla Rakha on the tabla. The recordings of ragas Khammaj and Durga come to mind. A 1971 duet of Mishr Jhinjhoti also comes to mind, as does a 1964 interpretation of Palas Kafi and Bilaskhani Todi accompanied by Kanai Dutta on the tabla. There are, of course, very many more recordings of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan playing together superbly. Not many are readily available but nonetheless are there in the collections of archives abroad, and with connoisseurs. They played less and less together as relations soured between them, not the least for the shabby way in which Ravi Shankar left Annapoorna. In all fairness it must be remembered that it was Ravi Shankar who helped Ali Akbar find his footing in the West, particularly in the U.S.
Ali Akbar Khans musical education, like that of his fellow pupils, particularly Annapoorna and Ravi Shankar, took place in far away Maihar in a quiet, ashram-like atmosphere. Ustad Allauddin Khan, a devotee of Maa Sharada, believed that the pursuit of music was akin to prayer. He felt that many musicians of his time had cheapened it by pandering to the moneyed philistines. He wished to restore the pristine glory of Hindustani music sullied by public performers such as the Mirasis. In order to achieve his objective he was unbelievably harsh with his most gifted pupils, more so with his gregarious son. Life was practice, practice and more practice. Everything else was secondary.
When Ali Akbar came out into the world he was full of goodwill and music, the likes of which had never been heard before. He also had the appetite of a sensualist and the temperament of an old-time East Bengal village patriarch, with the kindness, benevolence and bursts of temper to go with it. When he came to negotiate the modern world, he was quite often baffled by it. He got around it by teaching and the Ali Akbar College of Music at San Rafael, California, his creation, became the finest institution in the world for teaching Hindustani music. As a teacher, he always tried to live up to the ideals of his giving father.
After all the panegyrics die down and people pay attention to the music, and the music alone, they will understand what a magnificent musician Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was. He was prone to the vagaries of mood, could play badly if something irritated him very much, but when the muses were kind, he made music fit for the Gods.