Farewell to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

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Yesterday Indian classical music lost one of its greatest, master sarod player Ali Akbar Khan. Those of you from the Bay Area will recognize his name in association with the school he founded in 1967, the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, CA, which has taught North Indian classical music to more than 10,000 students. Along with sitar player Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan was the face of North Indian classical music in the United States and influenced countless musicians around the world.

Guitarist Carlos Santana once said that a single note of Khan’s sarod "goes right to my heart," while classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin – who prompted Mr. Khan to first visit the United States in 1955 – once called the sarodist "the greatest musician in the world."

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took drum lessons at Mr. Khan’s college the first year it opened, said …, "All the people who studied there – it changed all our lives. Khan embodies the pure spirit of music; it’s not just the notes, it’s the spirit. Every time I listen to him, he takes me there."(link)

In 1971, Ali Akbar Khan appeared with Ravi Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha at George Harrison’s 1971 concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Garden.

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p>Born in Bengal and trained as a disciple in a tradition descended from the famed singer Tansen in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court [corrected], Khan’s father was Ustad Allauddin Khan, who taught Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. He gave his first public performance at the age of 13 in Allahabad. Recording from his early twenties, Ali Akbar Khan was titled “Ustad” or “master” by the state of Jodhpur, where he served as Court Musician to the Maharajah.

He performed, often for hours at a time; gave lessons; and composed for the court orchestra. The post vanished after the maharajah died in a plane crash in 1948, and before long the chaos surrounding independence and partition put an end to the court system, which was already in decline. (link)

Ali Akbar Khan first visited the United States in 1955 and performed an unprecedented concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, ["“Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas,” for Angel,] and the first television performance of Indian music, on Allistair Cooke’s Omnibus, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960′s.(link)

He founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta in 1956, but recognizing the great need for Indian classical music instruction in the United States, he established the school in California. Ali Akbar Khan won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("genius grant") in 1991 and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997. Known as a master musician throughout the world, he considered his teaching at the Ali Akbar College his greatest achievement.

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p>Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, sarod, with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, tabla: Raag Bhairavi Bhatiyaar, Aalap and gat

23 thoughts on “Farewell to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

  1. We witnessed the talent of this Giant musician “Khan Sahib” in San Francisco back in mid eighties. Truly a master musician and player of “SAROD”. At one of the private gatherings Khan Sahib played “Shivranjani” at my request. I will always remember him. God rests his soul.

  2. Thanks for this obit… Khansahib was truly a towering figure, yet he was so approachable. I had a chance to meet Khansahib in the last few years, and learn from him briefly… it was a gift.

  3. being in bay area, i got a chance to see his performance many times – his music and legacy will live on. thank you Ustad.

  4. A gigantic loss to all of South Asia.

    Innaa lillaahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji’oon.

    Barak Allahu feekum, Ustad

  5. “Born in Bengal to a family descended from the famed singer Tansen in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court”

    That’s incorrect, afaik. His father was a student of Ud. Wazir Khan of Rampur, who was indeed a descendant of Tansen. The link to Tansen is a gharana (pedagogical) link, not a familial one.

  6. His playing was an inspiration for me and my friends in the 70′s and 80′s. Every time I listened to his records I found a depth passion control and inspiration greater than the previous listening. His mastery of his instrument always lifted my spirits and the sound of some of his phrases resonate even now in my mind. I am not the only Australian for whom this is true. His music is a gift I shall always cherish.

  7. Siddhartha, you’re right. I don’t think anybody can directly trace their genealogical lineage to Tansen! I’m about to correct it.

  8. Siddhartha, The article says “The Khan family traces its musical lineage more than 500 years” Did you misquote or was the article corrected ?

  9. @Nilanjana: I think Wazir Khan did actually trace his lineage back to Tansen, via the latter’s daughter Saraswati (who married the veena player Misri Singh). You’d be surprised how far back musical families trace their family trees. Anyway, thanks for the correction!

  10. @Siddhartha, I think I owe you thanks. One of my favorite books on N. Indian classical music is Daniel Neuman’s The Life of Music in North India. You might be interested to check out what he says. It’s a great read.

  11. Ustad Ali Akbra Khan saheb was the confluence of everything profound and beautiful. We have his work that will live forever. The three of them Ud.Ali Akbar Khansaheb his sister Pandita Annapurna Devi and Pt.Ravi Shankar used to perform together at one time in Kolkata, and old timers will still tell you it was a feast fit for the divines.

  12. Khan Sahib’s death is a great loss to Indian classical music. He will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace.

  13. 8 Nom -

    “Innaa lillaahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji’oon.

    Barak Allahu feekum, Ustad”

    what language is this?

  14. @Nilanjana: Neuman’s book looks interesting. A little searching in Amazon’s book preview (which actually allows you to read the whole book if you’re willing to search by page number every 3 pages :) ) shows Wazir Khan’s (and Dabir Khan’s) family tree to Tansen in Table 24, pg. 255.

    I heard Ud. Ali Akbar Khansaheb live four or five times, twice or thrice in Kolkata and twice in the Bay Area (possibly his last concerts in the latter region). I never knew him personally, yet it feels like a personal loss. I wish I was born earlier so I could have heard him live in his heyday in the 50s and 60s, but at least he was extensively recorded, both commercially (I specially like the Connoisseur Society recs re-released as Signature Series) and non-commercially.

  15. Meera, sister, The first sentence translates to, “to Allah we belong and to Him we return.” It is a common Muslim saying on hearing of someone’s death. The second line translates to, “May Allah bless (him).” (Barak means blessing). The language is Arabic, but there are some Arabic sayings which are so common that you will hear them across the Muslim world, and an Indonesian, Thai, Arab, Serbian, or any other Muslim will utter accordingly. There are variations of these sentences in the original languages, of course. The ones I mentioned are commonly heard in response to someone’s death or loss.

  16. I have always held the view that Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was the greatest musician that India has produced. His music was always from the heart, no showmanship, no frills. I first listened to him live in 1957 at the Max Mueller Bhawan in New Delhi. In an afternoon concert, he so masterfully rendered raga Madhuvanti, accompanied by Chatur Lal on the table. After the program I met Khan Sahib and requested him to send me a recording of the Lata Mangeshkar song (Hein Kahin Par) that he had composed for the film Aandhiyan (1952) that I had seen for which he gave the music. The Ustadji sent me the record from Calcutta. I also was lucky enough to watch both Satyajit Ray’s Devi and Tapan Sinha’s Khudit Pashan for which Khansahib had composed such lovely music. I have been listening to Ali Akbar Khan’s music for over 52 years. No body can play the Sarod better than him. Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar were the first artists who performed jugalbandi. I remember fondly their recording of Palas Kafi and Bilaskhani Todi. This might have been the first long playing record in India. Although in jugalbandi Pt. Ravi Shankar had a tendency to dominate, Ali Akbar was always performed at his very best. His 40 minute raga recording of Raga Marwa is to my mind the best rendering ever of this raga on an instrument. He came to Saskatoon in 1979 under the auspices of Ragamala Performing Arts of Canada along with his son Pranesh (on the tabla) and enthralled the packed audience. He also honored my wife, Manjari (who played Tanpura with him) and me by coming to our modest house and eating simple lunch with us. What a great man! He also told us a lot of stories about his interaction with his guru and father, Baba Alauddin Khan, a hard taskmaster. I will cherish Khansahi’s memories for as long as I live. May his soul rest in peace..