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Remembering Musical Giant Ali Akbar Khan

India Currents, News Feature, Sandip Roy Posted: Jun 19, 2009

Editor's Note: Ali Akbar Khan, the legendary Indian musician, whom Yehudi Menuhin once called "the greatest musician in the world" passed away in the Bay Area this week at the age of 88. This is a profile of the sarode maestro when he was about to turn 80 and still busy performing. His first performance was at the age of 13. He was the first to cut a long play record of Indian classical music in the US and to give a sarod recital on American TV. Khan was also the first Indian musician to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1991 and was nominated for Grammy Awards five time between 1970 to 1998.

"Sing like handwriting," admonishes Ali Akbar Khan. "You are singing like a typewriter." It's evening and class is in full swing at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Khansahib has not been keeping too well. But he is at class and 25-30 students are gathered around him on the bright green carpet. They have all touched his feet before they sat down. But reverence does not count for excuses in a lesson with Ali Akbar Khan. "If you can't sing in tune," he tells a hapless student, "no one can help you. Out of tune is out of tune. It's like a color. You can't change my color."

About to turn 80, Ali Akbar Khan is still particular as ever when it comes to tune. "You start by singing, it's like a language," he says remembering his first lessons when he was boy of three. His father, Baba Alauddin Khan, started training him by teaching him to sing. "I was very small. I didn't know anything. Any music you have to teach, start by singing, not by instrument. I just tried to follow the way he sang. If the note is not in the proper place he might say 'It's too low, come to the right pitch.'" Then without missing a beat, with no trace of false modesty he says matter-of-factly, "But for me he never needed to say this. Low pitch or high pitch, I could always match it. Wherever his voice was."

Ali Akbar Khan grew up in the central Indian princely state of Maihar where his father was the court musician. But his family actually came from what is now Bangladesh. Even more surprising, they were actually East Bengali Brahmins. His great great grandfather married a Muslim woman. "He was a pandit in seven languages," recalls Khansahib. "He established a Kali temple in Hiltepara called Saatail Parbat." In fact, it was a family that was mixed up in the turbulent history of Bengal"they were like Robin Hoodssaving the poor from bad zamindars. They were friends of people like Bhabani Pathak and Debi Chowdhurani (all folk heroes and bandits)."

Ali Akbar Khan obviously has a little bit of that blood coursing through his veins. In his youth he loved to drive from Bombay to Calcutta and just adored his motorcycle. Legend goes he even could pick up handkerchief with his teeth while driving his motorcycle. "Well, I tried to," says the master with a grin. But that promising stunt career was cut short by his father, Baba Alauddin Khan who threatened to burn his motorcycle if he did not stop. So Khansahib's patron, the Maharaja of Jodhpur (who himself died in a plane crash), got him a car instead.

Burning a motorcycle might be a little extreme but Baba Alauddin Khan loomed larger than life in his son's world. Baba left home at the age of 8 to pursue music and was learning till he died at 110. There are legendary stories of what a taskmaster he was. One story has his other young favorite student Ravi Shankar leaving him because he had raised his voice with him. Apparently a young Ali Akbar Khan brought the upset Shankar home by telling him, "You are the only person he has never laid a hand on. We are all amazed by it. Do you know what he has done to me? He used to tie me to a tree everyday for a week and beat me and even refused me food. And you run away because he scolds you!"

But tonight Ali Akbar Khan is not dwelling on his father, the disciplinarian. He sums him up in one sentence "Music was next to God to him, and to me."

One thing Baba Alauddin Khan tried to do, which Ali Akbar Khan also does, is to pass his legacy on by teaching. Not just to his own children but to a wider audience so he could disseminate his music out to the world. There was a plague once in Maihar, remembers Ali Akbar Khan. Many children were orphaned and were abandoned on the streets. Baba took them in and fashioned the Maihar band with them. There were some 50 children in the band and in time, Baba got the king of Maihar who was also his student, to pay them a regular salary. The Maihar band is long goneonly one member is still alive. The house in Maihar still stands with Baba's room as well as the rooms of Ali Akbar Khan and his sister Annapurna. Ali Akbar Khan built a tomb there for his parents.

Baba was a musical wizard who could play 200 instruments. However he told his son to concentrate on one and chose the sarod. "At that time no one knew of the sarod," remembers Ali Akbar Khan. "I would go to play in places like Bombay and all they seemed to know was the sarangi." But he felt, "if you want to learn 100 instruments for 100 different qualities you will get it all in onethe sarod. Then why do you need to go to a 100 places?"

Soon Ali Akbar Khan ended up at the court of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. However that, too, was at his father's behest. "At that time I was working for Indian radio in Lucknow as music director. My father was in Jodhpur and the King of Jodhpur wanted him to stay. My father called me to Jodhpur and I don't know what happened between them but he told me to leave my job in Lucknow." It was at Jodhpur that this twenty-something year-old youth was anointed Ustad. "In those days you could not just call yourself Ustad," says Khansahib. "In those days they had to call a big meeting of nine members who decide whether this person can be called ustad or not. Then they made an announcement all over the state." The accolade was a great honor but an almost greater embarrassment. He remembers when his father heard it he just laughed. "I remember my father would sometimes come to music conferences in Calcutta. I would go to meet him and he would tell his followers 'Look, look the Ustad of Jodhpur is coming. Stand up, stand up.' It was very embarrassing."

But what was also happening was the young Ustad of Jodhpur was coming out of the shadow of his giant of a father and trying to leave his own footprints behind. One of the ways in which he gently rebelled was to try his hand at composing film music. His score for Kshudito Pashan (Hungry Stones) based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore won him great acclaim. But there were several others like Satyajit Ray's Devi, Chetan Anand's Aandhiyan and Merchant Ivory's Householder. His father did not approve of the "atmosphere" of the film world and told him that line was not a good one for him. But Ali Akbar Khan says, "I have done movies only for poor and middle class people like taxi drivers, rickshaw-wallas who never paid attention to music conferences. They always say 'Oh my Godall that is pukka gaana. (rarefied music)' But they went to films. That way at least people will go to see the movie and due to that to that they can get this chance to hear classical music and get over their fear of pukka gaana. Nowadays taxi drivers, porters, buy tickets and attend music conferences."

Meanwhile Indian classical music was slowly coming to the attention of the West. Yehudi Menhuin heard both Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar and was enthralled. He invited Khan to America in 1955 and he played at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and appeared on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus program. Soon he had made the first Western LP of Indian classical music as well. However when it came to settling down in America, he looked not to New York, the cultural capital, but to the West Coast. He remembers that he did originally think about New York but felt, "it was too big for me. It was a city where people were busy all the time, where I would not have a home life."

Back on the West Coast, a couple named Sam and Louise Scripps had opened the Asia Society for Eastern Arts and asked him through legendary bharata natyam danseuse Balasaraswati to teach a session there. One session led to another and finally when Ali Akbar Khan thought he had taught enough, he found he had had 100 students who were willing to go to India to learn from him. "I had no idea how I could manage 100 students at that time on my own, I had no job. So I thought I should just go to them in California." In 1967 he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music. Soon he opened a branch in Basel, Switzerland as well which he visits every year.

It was not necessarily an easy changeCalifornia in the 1960s had still not seen the influx of Indians that flooded the Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s. There was plenty that was missing in his new world. Not just the ilish fish or rasamalai though his face lights up with impish glee at their mention. In fact his wife attests to the fact that he is a wonderful cook of chicken and fish and lamb though Khansahib, who once described himself as a housewife, claims a simple dal and rice is his forte. But the food is just part of the displacement that immigration brings with it. It was about trying to translate an entire sense of being, a culture. He searches for a metaphor and says, "Now everyone appreciates it but at that time no one had any idea. Its like the difference between Ma and Mummyits almost the same but not quite. Like you can translate Rabindranath into English but however good you are you miss somethinga feeling."

His career is studded with awards like the National Heritage Fellowship, Padma Vibhushan, Grammy nominations and friendships and collaborations with people like Yehudi Menhuin and Duke Ellington"all gone now," he says sadly. He has created his own raagas like Chandrannandan and Hem-Hindol though he explains that they are more about "combination" than creation. "I am happy with the old ragas," he says. "One life is not enough to finish learning those."

But the passage of time has only highlighted the importance of the treasure trove of music he presides over. The Ali Akbar Khan College is in the middle of a capital campaign to help expand the current building and purchase another one that would house a library and a store. The current building is bursting at the seams and Khan Sahib's vast collection of music, concert tapes, his father's handwritten notes which are being scanned and translated, 35 years of his classes preserved on audio tape and notated all need a permanent home. "Imagine, people can then hear him teach the same raga over 25 years, they can hear him play it in different concerts. There is this incredible unique amount of materialI am not going to let it slip by," says his wife Mary Khan who says this project is her baby. Her other baby is son Alam who at 20 is now following in his father's footsteps. He started attending classes when he was 7 and around 12 became fascinated by the music. That appeal stayed with him through hours of practice, 6 classes a week and even survived his own rock band. Now Khansahib presents From Father to Son featuring Alam Khan on sarode playing ragini Puriya Dhanasri with Ali Akbar Khan.

But right now, its just business as usual as Khansahib gives his class his full attention.
"Yes," he exhales and a smile creases his face as someone hits a note perfectly. "Yes, catch that note," he says nodding approvingly. Outside the traffic to downtown San Rafael whizzes by. The Shell station advertises gasregular, premium, and super. Right next door, the orange tree is laden with fruit. It's suburban lifein some ways it could be so many other towns in the Bay Area. Except this little corner is uniquefor it has in a house with a stained glass Saraswati window, Ali Akbar Khansahib still catching his notes.

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