The Legends of Music:

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1920 - 2009)

"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."

-Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Ali Akbar Khan, son of Ustad Allauddin Khan, needs little introduction for his name occupies an elevated position in the world of Hindustani music. He did for the Sarod what Pandit. Ravishankarji did for the Sitar. Such epithets as ?Emperor of Sarod? and ?Bach of Indian Music? are telling of the esteem that he enjoys in the West such that his name has become synonymous with the instrument.

Ali Akbar was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and he too, like Baba Allauddin Khan, grew up in an environment where Swara, Laya and Raaga were as common places as breathing, eating and sleeping. Needless to say, being the son of the greatest Sarodiya of his time, he was trained by Baba from his tender years. He was taught drupad and dhamar first and the Sarod from the age of nine. Baba was ruthless disciplinarian and an uncompromising perfectionist as a teacher. He would lock up the young boy in a room and command him to practice for long hours. Mistakes rarely went unpunished. Even in his early youth, his irrepressible father would tie his son to a tree and beat him black and blue if he ever made a mistake while practicing or could not execute a gamak. Baba always bracketed out his tender loving side and brought forth his more severe side when he took on the role of the teacher.

Naturally enough, the young Ali Akbar began to chafe when he was submitted to such harsh methods of instruction. On one occasion, he said to himself that enough is enough, procured a rope, climbed down from the upper storey of his home at the dead of night. Then he proceeded to the Maihar railway station with two rupees in hand and his beloved Sarod. Ticketless, he boarded a train going to Khandwa. After a while a ticket examiner caught the defaulter and promptly detrained him before the train reached its destination. From there, Ali Akbar proceeded to the town on foot. En route, he was tempted to lay his money on a gambling table he saw on the way; he lost every paisa he had with him. But he hugged his dear Sarod, his paternal legacy. Hungry and homeless, he wandered about the railway station where he was spotted by a music lover who fed and housed him and also arranged for a few programmes. With the money he obtained from these concerts, Ali Akbar proceeded to Bombay. After wandering about for a while in the big city, he was fortunate enough to get a break in Bombay AIR.

Once when one of his programmes was aired, the Maharaja of Maihar happened to hear it, as also the name of ht eartist. He promptly informed the agonized Baba about his son?s probable whereabouts. Baba speedily reached Bombay and hauled the young man back home. As a token, Baba made the training sessions less rigorous. The Maharaja also appointed Ali Akbar as a court musician. In no time he began to scale the musical heights his father had in mind for him. From this point on there was no looking back. The first indication of the immense fame to follow came in his twenties when he was appointed as court musician by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Several honours and much wealth came his way incessantly from that point on.

Later on, RaviShankar became his guru-bhari and later his brother-in-law. In the mid 1950s he started visiting the US for long spells. After a while, sensing lucrative prospects there, he settled down in San Rafael, California and started a school of music there. During the 1960s and 1970s, both he and Ravi Shankar gave a number of jugalbandis at various places in the US, and in European countries. This partnership proved to be very fruitful while it lasted. The concept of jugalbandi received a solidity and weight in the hands of these nearly matched instrumentalists who shared similar ideas on music and could take it to new heights.

As with Ravi shankar?s music, there is something truly traditional and fascinatingly modern about Ali Akbar?s music. Though not a colourful performer as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar made numerous innovations to the instrument and the style of playing in a much quieter manner. His rigorous training under Baba, as also his own innovative additions, gives his alaaps the meticulous structure, the grand spaciousness and solemn depth characteristic of drupad. Ali Akbar?s command over rhythm was superb and at times, even breathtaking, especially when he has someone with astounding gifts like Pt. Swapan Choudhry as his Tablist. Audiences always looked forward to these lively contests between the Tabla and the Sarod for they are not merely exciting spectacles but musical events that challenge and spur either player to give his best. Following the mutually spurring rhythmic contest, both the sarod and the table converge and proceed to an exhilarating climax.

Ali Akbar was a widely recorded artist. One has only to listen to some of the recordings that came out in the 1950s and the 1960s to appreciate the unparalleled melodic variety he has at his command. Rarely do we come across an instrumentalist who combines the cerebral with the emotional, the concrete with the tantalizing and the sensuous with the ethereal with such ease in the circumambient universe of his art. Ali Akbar also went on to create a handful of ragas like Chandranandan, Medhavi, Lajwanti and Gauri Manjari.

When Ali Akbar Khan first received the title of Ustad as a relatively young man, his father merely laughed. But later, when the patriarch was a centenarian, he told his son one day that he was very proud of him: "I am so pleased with your work in music that I will do something which is very rare. As your Guru and father, I am giving you a title, Swara Samrat (Emperor of Melody)." Khansahib feels most fortunate to have received this blessing from his father, mother, and uncle.

It may come as a surprise that Ustad Vilayat Khan had a special place in his heart for Ali Akbar ? a fact that stands in stark contrast to the gall he was never tired of spewing on his professional rival ? Ravi Shankar.

In over three decades, Ali Akbar has made San Rafael, California his home as also the nucleus of all his musical activities (www.aacm.org). Here, he has trained a number of American disciples into the nuances of Hindustani music. Some of his well known gifted disciples are ? Ken Zuckerman, Sharan Rani, Ashish Khan (his son), Brij Narayan, Pt. Rajeev Taranath (now resides in Bangalore), Pt. Brij Bhushan Kabra and Pradeep Barot.

AWARDS, TITLES & RECORDINGS,
1955
* Released first western LP recording of Indian classical music: Music of India; Morning & Evening Ragas on Angel label
* First Indian musician to perform on US television: Omnibus with Allistair Cooke

1960
* Best Musician of the Year Award for film music - Hungry Stones (Taipan Sinha)
* Released one album
1962
* Released two albums
1963
* President of India award, India's highest award for the arts
* Released two albums
1964
* Released two albums
1965
* Released two albums
1966
* Performed at Carnegie Hall and Newport Jazz Festival
* The President of India award, for the second time
* Released five albums
1967
* Released four albums
1968
* The Grand Prix du Disque
* Released two albums
1969
* Released four albums
1970
* GRAMMY Nomination for Shree Rag
* Released one album
1971
* Montery Jazz Festival
* Gold Disc award for Concert for Bangladesh sales,recorded at Madison Square Garden
* Padma Bhusan award from the Government of India
* Released one album
1972
* Released two albums
1973
* Degree of Doctor of Literature - Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, India
* Released two albums
1974
* Degree of Doctor of Literature - University of Dacca, Bangladesh
* Released three albums
1977
* Released one albums
1979
* Released one album
1980
* Released six albums
1981
* Released three albums
1982
* Released four albums
1983
* GRAMMMY Nomination for Misra Piloo
* Released three albums
1984
* Degree of Doctor of Letters - University of Delhi, India
* Released three albums
1985
* Released three albums
1986
* Released six albums
1988v * Padma Vibhusan award - the highest honor presented to a civilian in India
* Released one video
1990
* Released five albums
1991
* Kalidas Sanman award - by the Madya Pradesh Academy of Music and Fine Arts
* Honorary Doctorate Degree in Arts from the California Institute of the Arts
* First Indian musician to receive MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("genius grant")
* Released one album
1992
* The Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award in London
1993
* The Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Music Awards Foundation (Bammies)
* Titles: Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem, from Maharaja of Jodhpur
1994
* Founded the Ali Akbar Khan Foundation and Baba Allauddin Khan Institute
1995
* Released one album
1996
* GRAMMY Nomination for Then and Now
* Released two albums
1997
* GRAMMY Nomination for Legacy for
1998
* GRAMMY Nomination for Passing on the Tradition
* Doctorate Degree - Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, India (pioneered and founded by Tagore)
* Governor's Award for Outstanding Achievement from NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Science)
* Indira Gandhi Gold Plaque from the Asiatic Society of Calcutta
* Compositions commissioned - Meet the Composer / Arts Endowment Commissioning Music / USA - and performed by Khansahib's new AACM Orchestra (made up of 40 senior students and guest artists--vocalists and instrumentalists on a variety of Indian and Western instruments), conducted by Khansahib
* October 18th "Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Day" as proclaimed by Willie L. Brown Jr., Mayor of San Francisco
1999
* "Sangeet Samman" title from the Dover Lane Music Conference in Calcutta
* Appointment: Adjunct Professor to the Department of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz
2000
* Degree of Doctor of Musical Arts, Honoris Causa from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (in May)

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