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Tribute to a Maestro

Ali Akbar Khan

Ali Akbar Khan

It has been a year since Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has passed away. ITC SRA pays tribute to the illustrious master of sarode.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was born on April 14, 1922 in the village of Shibpur, Comilla, in present-day Bangladesh (then East Bengal), to revered musician and teacher, Baba Allauddin Khansahib and Madina Begum. Soon after his birth, the family returned to Maihar (in present day Madhya Pradesh, India) where his father was the primary court musician for the Maharaja of the princely state.

From an early age Ali Akbar Khan received training from his father in various instruments as well as vocal composition, but finally gravitated towards the sarode. Allauddin Khan was a perfectionist and a strict taskmaster, and Ali Akbar`s lessons started before dawn and often lasted 18 hours a day. Khansahib also learned to play the tabla and the pakhawaj from his uncle, Aftabuddin Khan, who he visited at Shibpur. During this period, he met several prominent musicians, such as the sarodiya, Timir Baran and flautist Pannalal Ghosh, who came to study with his father; in later years he was joined in his lessons by his sister Annapurna Devi, who became an accomplished player of the surbahar, and fellow student Ravi Shankar.

Ali Akbar Khan, after years of rigorous training gave his debut performance at a music conference in Allahabad in 1936, at the age of 13. Three years later, he accompanied Ravi Shankar on the sarode during the latter`s debut performance at the same conference, this was the first of many jugalbandis between the two musicians. In 1938 he gave his first recital on All India Radio (AIR), Bombay (accompanied on the tabla by Alla Rakha), and starting in January 1940, he gave monthly performances on AIR, Lucknow. Finally in 1944, he left Maihar to start his professional career, becoming the youngest Music Director for AIR, Lucknow.

In 1943, on his father`s recommendation, Ali Akbar Khan was appointed a court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. There, he taught and composed music, besides giving recitals and was accorded the title of Ustad by the Maharaja. When the princely states were wound down with India`s independence in 1947, he moved to Bombay.

At the request of Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khansahib first visited the United States in 1955 and performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music and was the first to perform Indian music on US television, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960`s.

He performed in India and traveled extensively in the West. Khansahib founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Kolkata in 1956. Later, recognising the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students, he began teaching in America in 1965. He founded another school of the same name in Berkeley, California in 1967 and later moved it to San Rafael, California. In 1985, he also opened a branch of his college in Basel, Switzerland, run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman, where he taught when on his world tours.

Khansahib had composed and recorded music for films throughout his career. He composed extensively in India beginning with `Aandhiyan` by Chetan Anand (1953) and went on to create music for `House Holder` by Ivory/Merchant (their first film), `Khudita Pashan` (or `Hungry Stone`) for which he won the `Best Musician of the Year` award, `Devi` by Satyajit Ray and, in America, `Little Buddha` by Bernardo Bertolucci (1993).

Beginning in 1945, Ali Akbar Khan also started recording a series of 78 rpm disks at the HMV studios in Bombay. For one such record he conceived a new composition Raga Chandranandan, based on four evening ragas, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandakauns and Kaunsi Kanhada. This record was a huge success in India and the raga found a worldwide audience.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1967 and Padma Vibhushan in 1989, as well as a plethora of other awards and honours. In 1997, Khansahib received the National Endowment for the Arts` prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, the United States` highest honour in the traditional arts, which was presented by Mrs. Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in the White House. This followed a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1991. He was nominated for the Grammy awards five times between 1970 and 1998.

Ali Akbar Khan was based in the United States for the last four decades of his life. On June 18, 2009, he passed away in San Francisco after a prolonged kidney ailment. He was 87 years old.


Select Artist Name Gharana Raga Structure Duration Action
Ali Akbar Khan Seni-Maihar Gara 20.30

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