With over a 100 commercial releases, he was amongst most prolific and successful recording artists of the 20th century. As a missionary of the Hindustani music tradition in the West, he was, arguably, the most influential. The legendary violinist, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced him to the West, called him “an absolute genius” and “the greatest musician in the world”.
Ustad Ali Akbar was perhaps the single most decorated musician of his generation. In India, he was decorated with the Padma Vibhushan. In the US, he received the National Heritage Award conferred by the National Endowment for the Arts at a White House ceremony. Principal amongst the many awards he received are Honorary Doctorates from a large number of Indian and American universities, the Kalidas Samman, the Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award, the Ustad Enayet Khan Memorial Award, and several Grammy nominations.
In 1997, the Indian Ambassador to the US invited him to perform at the United Nations in New York, and at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC to commemorate 50 years of India’s independence.
As a Sarod player, the Ustad created a distinctive vocabulary for the instrument which now influences the idiom of all Sarod players, cutting across gharana affiliations, and whose echo can also be heard in the artistic style of other plucked lutes, such as the sitar and the Classical Guitar. This achievement is more significant than is commonly recognized.
Until his father’s time, the Sarod, newly evolved from the Persian and Afghan Rababs – both relatively unrefined instruments -- was incapable of delivering sophisticated music acceptable to contemporary audiences. In the 1930s, Ali Akbar’s father, Allauddin Khan, and uncle, Ayet Ali Khan, re-engineered the instrument to respond to modern musical requirements. It took Ali Akbar Khan less than 15 years after its re-engineering to exploit the Sarod’s new-found musical potential, and emerge as one of the most mesmerizing musicians of the 20th century.
Ali Akbar Khan’s contribution was also significant in another respect. In the tradition he inherited, instrumental music attempted to mould itself after either the vocal genres – Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, and Thumree – or the idiom of the medieval Rudra Veena. While being well versed in the traditional idiom, Ali Akbar pioneered the drift of instrumental music away from traditional reference points, and towards a more purposeful exploitation of unique features of the instrument. Indeed, he personally guided the Hawaiian Guitar pioneer, Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra, towards re-engineering the instrument for Hindustani music, and developing a unique technique and idiom for it.
A child of destiny
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was born at Shibpur (East Bengal, now Bangladesh). He learnt vocal music and several instruments with his father, Ustad Alauddin Khan, and the rhythm instruments from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. Finally, as desired by his father, he pursued the Sarod.
Of his apprenticeship with his father, the Ustad told an American interviewer – “ up to the age of sixteen or seventeen, I had not been allowed to say anything except yes or no. If I said no, my father would beat me. I learnt to speak only here in America, because I had to teach”. In his autobiography, Pandit Ravi Shankar recalls – “Ali Akbar told me he had been compelled to practice fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and there were times when Baba tied him to a tree for hours and refused to let him eat if his progress was not satisfactory.”
The Ustad gave his first public performance at Allahabad at the age of 13 or 14, and cut his first commercial disc at 21. His professional career began soon thereafter, when he was invited to join the service of the Jodhpur Maharaja. He served there for seven years till the Maharaja’s demise.
Thereafter he moved to Bombay to pursue a career as an independent musician. The turning point in his career came when, in 1955, Menuhin invited him to perform in the US. During this trip, he performed Indian music for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave the first TV performance of Hindustani music in America, and cut the first Long Playing (LP) record of Hindustani music, which was introduced by Menuhin himself.
In 1956, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan set up the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. In 1967, he set up the college in San Rafael, California. Thereafter, he remained a resident of California, and guided a branch of the college at Basle in Switzerland, run by his disciple, Ken Zuckerman. Under the Ustad’s stewardship, the Ali Akbar College became a veritable powerhouse of Indian cultural influence, at which a galaxy of eminent Indian musicians assisted him in propagating the Indian musical arts.
The Ali Akbar College is believed to have, by now, trained over 7000 Americans and students of other nationalities from its three bases in San Rafael, Basle, and Calcutta. The San Rafael establishment is preserving over 35 years of recorded training sessions conducted by the Ustad, and documenting over 10,000 compositions, which his father, Allauddin Khan had learned or composed. Several of the alumni of the Ali Akbar College head departments of music at some of the most prestigious universities in the US.
The Ustad’s repertoire was a rich mix of common raga-s like Durga, Shree, Todi, popular light raga-s like Piloo, Sindh Bhairavi, Zilla Kafi, and classical and semi-classical or folk-based melodic entities created by him. Amongst his own creations, the most successful classical raga-s have been Chandranandan, Gauri Manjari, and Jogiya Kalingara. Amongst his more celebrated semi-classical creations are Bhoop-Mand and Palas Kafi.
He had a peerless command over melody, and evolved several new directions for exploring the melodic potential of ragas (melodic matrices). He was an unmatched master of the rhythmic element in music, and performed in a wider range of talas (rhythmic cycles) than any of his contemporary instrumentalists. He was a “musicians’ musician”, held in awe by the musicians’ community for his uncanny blend of orthodoxy and path-breaking innovativeness.
The duet artist
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was amongst the most successful duet artists of the 20th century. Partnering with only sitarists, he gave memorable duets with Ustad Vilayat Khan in the 1950’s. For films, he also did a few duets with Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. The most durable, partnership, however, was forged between him and Pandit Ravi Shankar in the 1960s.
Of the Ali Akbar-Ravi Shankar duet, Lord Yehudi Menuhin had said – “To be present, as I have been, at a chamber music recital by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, each goading the other to new heights of invention, is an experience more magical than almost any in the world. One is in the presence of creation”.
The film music composer
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the film industry. In 1953, he composed the music for Chetan Anand’s “Andhiyan”. Thereafter, he composed the music for Ivory-Merchant’s first film, “The Householder”. His music for Tapan Sinha’s “Kshudita Pashan” won the President’s award for the best music of the year. In 1960, he composed the music for Satyajit Ray’s “Devi”. He collaborated later with Bernardo Bertolucci on the music for the film “Little Buddha”.
The Ustad created, and inhabited, a world of his own – a world in which there were only Swaras (musical notes), Ragas, Talas, and Bandishes (compositions). This world of his remained insulated from the world outside. His worldly affairs were managed entirely by his family members and trusted disciples. Even when he performed on the stage, he was oblivious of audiences. He spoke to his Sarod, and his Sarod responded with the grace, depth, and luminosity that no other Sarod has been able to match.
Despite having settled in the US, he was never, even feebly, accused of transgressing the aesthetic boundaries of Hindustani music. He remained untouched by the torrent of recognition and media attention that flowed towards him. His personal life remained personal. He lived for his music, and music alone.
Thus spake Ali Akbar Khan
Excerpts from interviews
“For us, as a family, music is like food. When you need it you don’t have to explain why, because it is basic to life.”
“Real music is not for wealth, not for honours or even the joys of the mind… but as a path for realization and salvation.”
“If you practice for 10 years, you may please yourself; after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience; after thirty years you may even please your Guru; but you must practice many more years before you finally become an artist – then you may please even God”.
“Singing instrumental music is most important because while you play an instrument, you are singing through the instrument. Actually, you are singing inside.”
(c) Deepak S. Raja, 2010