Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KHAN, Ali Akbar

(b April 14 1922, Shivpur, East Bengal [Bangladesh since 1971]; d 18 June 2009, San Anselmo CA) Sarod player, composer and teacher; one of the foremost Northern Indian (Hindustani) musicians and popularizers of Indian classical music. Renowned for his virtuosity on the sarod, a sonorous, steel-clad, metal-strung member of the lute family derived from a folk lute called the rebab. Rita Ganguly wrote in Bismillah Khan And Benaras in 1994, 'there is hardly any instrumentalist in our country today who is not indebted to the great musical philosopher, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, directly or indirectly'. (Ustad denotes a teacher of Muslim background, the counterpart of the Hindu pandit, while Khansahib denotes respect for a Muslim musician.)

Khan's guru-father, Padma-Vibhusan Acharya Allauddin Khan (b Tripura district; d 6 September 1972, Maihar: he is believed to have been well over 100 years old) was a consummate multi-instrumentalist who taught not only his son but also his daughters, Sharija, Jehanara and Annapurna. Khan began learning music at the age of three and learned it like a child learns language; his older sister Jehanara instructed him in singing, being more advanced, and they learned together before he took instruction alone. Talking to Folk Roots in 1994 Khan recalled his father: 'He learned in many, many places and he could play over 200 instruments including Western and African instruments too. His whole life was in music. At last he got the right kind of teacher, a blood relation of Mian Tansen, the court musician of the Emperor Akbar of the sixteenth century.' This teacher was Wazir Khan of the Seni gharana, or school of playing. Allauddin Khan also taught many other illustrious musicians including sitarist Ravi Shankar, Indranil Bhattacharya and Nikhil Banerjee, flautist Pannalal Ghosh, and Ali Akbar Khan's son, sarodist Aashish Khan. As early as c.1935 Ali Akbar Khan was composing at his father's direction, composing 'Mali Gaura' for the band that his father ran for the local Maharajah called the Maihar Band. The father recorded commercially for HMV India as well as broadcasting on Indian radio, All-India Radio (AIR) being a source for several subsequent cassette albums; a selection of his sarod performances is on Chairman's Choice -- Great Gharanas: Maihar on EMI India '94.

From 1938 Ravi Shankar studied under Allauddin Khan in Maihar, and married Annapurna '41, whose reputation on the surbahar (a deeper-voiced, heftier relative of the sitar) is unrivalled (but she has rarely played in public since the 1940s-early '50s when she played jugalbandis or duets in Bombay and Delhi with her then husband). Studying with Shankar at his father's feet led to such empathy that Khan and Shankar became the toast of Hindustani music circles. (Samples of Khan and Shankar's duet work are captured on recordings for HMV India and Apple.) Khan took a post of court musician in Jodhpur, where he taught Maharajah Hanumantha Singh, and broadcast on the Jodhpur Radio in Rajasthan, a station which disappeared when the Indian Government inaugurated its official station in Jaipur. He met Yehudi Menuhin at a recital in Delhi in 1952 which was Menuhin's baptism in the waters of Hindustani music, and where he also met Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal. Shankar was supposed to go to America in 1955 but could not; his brother-in-law took his place: championed by Menuhin, Khan gave the first major recital of Hindustani music in the USA, performing at the Museum of Modern Art, making a TV appearance on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus programme. He made the first LP of Hindustani music, Music Of India on EMI, subtitled Morning And Evening Ragas in 1955 but reissued by AMMP as part of Then And Now '95 to commemorate its 40th anniversary; Chatur Lal accompanied on tabla, Shirish Gor on tanpura, and Menuhin provided spoken introductions. Khan contributed to the soundtrack of Satyajit Ray's film Devi '60, one of the first non-Western directors to breach the international film barrier; during that decade Khan was second only to Shankar in Indian fame on the international circuit. He founded the Ali Akbar Khan college of education in Calcutta; it flourished, and by 1965 he was teaching in the USA; he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) '67, opening in Berkeley '68 before moving to Marin County '69, and opened a Swiss branch in Basle '85.

Parallel with these many activities Khan pursued a solo recording career, his core work on World Pacific, Connoisseur and HMV India (other labels licensed his recordings). Shankar and Khan presented their final jugalbandi at Montpellier in France July '85 and despite repeated pleas and financial temptations have never duetted again. Both contributed to Bengali-language songstress Haimanti Sukla's HMV album '85, notable also for Satyajit Ray's liner notes. He recorded some of his finest work for Connoisseur's Signature Series '63-74; from '90 onwards several albums of this provenance appeared on his own Alam Medina Music Productions (AMMP) label, launched '79 with Live In San Francisco; the reissue programme began with Signature Series Volume 1 and Signature Series Volume 2 with Mahapurush Misra on tabla. In '93 AMMP released the historic Ali Akbar Khan Plays Alap '93, and Morning Visions followed '94; the Grammy-nominated Legacy '95 was a collaboration with playback singer Asha Bhosle (see Filmi) who became Khan's pupil despite already being one of the most prolific and popular performers in the history of recording. His appropriately titled album Passing On The Tradition appeared '96.