If one were to list the all-time greats of Indian classical music, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s name would come very high on it. He gave a new language to sarod. By language, I mean the tonal quality of his sarod, the musicality of his playing and his varied repertoire, which he received from his father and guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan saheb.
It is often said that Indian classical music is improvised. Actually, for most of us, it is a “planned” improvisation, but in Ali Akbar Khan’s case, it really was genuine improvisation.
Making magic: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
I shared a very personal equation with him. He left India and had been living in San Francisco for the last 40 years. Whenever I was visiting, he would call me over for a meal, which he would cook himself. His favourite dish was yellow dal. After meals, we would sit and talk for a long time. Khan saheb had a great sense of humour, though looking at him you would never have guessed it. He would tell hilarious stories. He had no airs and was down to earth—I never once heard him say how he had played a great concert or how he had mesmerized the audience.
While he did come to India off and on, unfortunately, for the most part, the younger generation here was not aware of him. India’s loss was America’s gain. He taught sarod and other instruments, as well as vocals. It is very boring for a performing musician to teach beginners, yet he did it for 40 years.
Ali Akbar Khan’s greatest contribution has been to give a new dimension to sarod and to instrumental music in general, as well as to the next generation of musicians. I feel he should have performed more often in India, but he couldn’t as he didn’t live here. I asked him once why he left, and he said he had wanted to establish a school in Kolkata and approached the government for land but got a cold response. So he decided to spread Hindustani classical music abroad. He took many musicians with him to the US; Zakir (Hussain) was the first tabla player to teach in his school, and many others followed.
In his later years, Khan saheb had wanted to go to Maihar in Madhya Pradesh, where he had grown up. Baba Alauddin Khan was a strict guru who made his students practise for hours on end. Bored by these practice sessions, Ali Akbar Khan ran away to Mumbai one day, when still in his teens, and got a job at the radio station. A couple of months passed when one day, during a radio broadcast of a santoor recital, Allauddin Khan recognized the player as his son even though the name announced was different. He sent people to Mumbai who coaxed and cajoled the boy to return to Maihar.
People such as Ali Akbar Khan are born musicians, their talent the result of samskaras (traditions) from previous births. His music rooms in Mumbai and San Francisco had altars with devis and devtas.This was the legacy of his father, who religiously visited the Sharda Devi temple situated on a hillock in Maihar.
As told to Himanshu Bhagat