Ali Akbar Khan, the foremost virtuoso of the lutelike sarod, whose dazzling technique and gift for melodic invention, often on display in concert with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar, helped popularize North Indian classical music in the West, died on Thursday at his home in San Anselmo, Calif. He was 87.
The cause was kidney failure, said a spokesman for the Ali Akbar College of Music.
Mr. Khan, who was named a national treasure by the Indian government in 1989, carried on the musical traditions of his father, Allauddin Khan, whose ashram in East Bengal produced some of India’s most celebrated musicians, notably Mr. Shankar, the flutist Pannalal Ghosh and the sitarist Nikhil Banerjee.
Unlike his father, a volatile and uneven performer, Mr. Khan maintained an austere demeanor onstage while coaxing passages of extraordinary intensity from his sarod, an instrument with 25 strings, 10 plucked with a piece of coconut shell while the remainder resonate sympathetically.
“He was not as flashy as Ravi Shankar, but he had the ability to play a single note, or a simple passage of notes, and draw out such amazing depth,” said John Schaefer, the host of “New Sounds” and “Soundcheck” on WNYC-FM in New York. “That’s why he was able to get a world of emotion and color out of ‘Malasri,’ which is often called a three-note raga. That, for me, stands as the calling card of the genius of Ali Khan.”
The violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who brought Mr. Khan to the United States in 1955, called him “an absolute genius” and “the greatest musician in the world.”
In 1971, Mr. Khan performed at Madison Square Garden with Mr. Shankar, Alla Rakha and Kamala Chakravarty on a bill with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and other rock stars at the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit organized by George Harrison and Mr. Shankar. The album and film of the two performances gave added exposure to Mr. Khan and North Indian music.
Mr. Khan, whose name is often preceded by the honorific Ustad, or master, was born in Shibpur, a small village in Bengal (now Bangladesh). He grew up in Maihar, where his father was the principal musician in the court of the maharajah. He began vocal training at 3 and, after studying the surbahar, sitar and tabla, focused on the sarod.
His father was a stern, sometimes brutal taskmaster, rousing his young son at dawn for several hours of practice before breakfast and continuing well into the evening of what were often 18-hour days. Allauddin Khan had elevated the status of instrumental music, previously regarded as inferior to vocal performance, by synthesizing various regional styles into a modern concert style. His son absorbed his encyclopedic knowledge of North Indian music and eventually outstripped him as an instrumentalist.
Mr. Khan’s younger sister, Annapurna Devi, who later married Mr. Shankar, developed into an equally accomplished master of the surbahar, but custom prevented her from performing in public.
At 13, Mr. Khan performed for a large audience for the first time, at a music conference in the holy city of Allahabad. By his early 20s he was music director of All-India Radio in Lucknow, broadcasting as a solo artist and composing for the radio’s orchestra.
He said his father, who lived to be more than 100 and also taught Shankar, was “very strict. He never played with me, he never laughed, never smiled. He was a tiger. I wanted love from him. . . . The motive was that if you show that, too much love, then I was spoiled. At that time I was very angry, but now I am grateful.”
“My father’s main purpose was to hear me play while he was living in Maihar, because I was always being broadcast,” Mr. Khan told Peter Lavezzoli, the author of “The Dawn of Indian Music in the West.” “If I played anything wrong, he would come the next day to Lucknow, straight from the train station, tell me to get my sarod and listen to me play and correct me.”
For part of a series of 78s that he recorded in Lucknow for HMV in 1945, he composed and performed the three-minute Raga Chandranandan (“Moonstruck”), a blend of four evening ragas, which became a national hit and a signature piece for Mr. Khan. He later recorded a 22-minute version for the album “Master Musician of India” on the Connoisseur label.
After a few years Mr. Khan left Lucknow to become the court musician for the maharajah of Jodhpur. 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.
Defying his father, Mr. Khan moved to Bombay and began writing scores for films, including Chetan Anand’s “Aandhiyan” (1952), Satyajit Ray’s “Devi” (1960) and Tapan Sinha’s “Hungry Stones” (1960). His father, a friend of the director of “Hungry Stones,” went to see the film and said: “My goodness, who composed the music? He is great.” On being informed that it was his son, the elder Khan sent a telegram of forgiveness.
Although without question an innovator, Khan is perhaps most revered for his unwillingness to compromise his music, which was based on traditional Hindustani ragas, a system of melodic templates in ascending and descending scales. Unusually, he was known to play whole concerts of the alaap (the introductory section of most ragas, played in free rhythm with only a drone accompaniment), known to be most testing for a musician.
By this time the younger Khan had grown frustrated with the limitations of film work and was eager to return to classical music, though he later composed the scores for “The Householder” (1963), the first Ismail Merchant-James Ivory feature film, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” (1993). His collaboration with Ray, in particular, had been less than satisfactory. “Ray was not a connoisseur of Indian classical music,” he told The Times of India in 2008.
Intent on exposing Westerners to Asian music, Menuhin brought Mr. Khan to New York in 1955 for a performance at the Museum of Modern Art, where Mr. Khan made what is believed to be the first long-playing record of Indian classical music in the United States, “Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas,” for Angel. He scored another first when he performed on Alistair Cooke’s television program “Omnibus.”
Western interest in Indian music soared after Harrison took up the sitar and Mr. Shankar began touring Europe and the United States. In 1967 Mr. Khan, who had founded a music school in Calcutta in 1956, started the Ali Akbar College of Music, now in San Rafael, Calif., with a satellite school in Basel, Switzerland. “Two or three generations of really fine Indian players — meaning performers of Indian classical music — have come out of that school,” Mr. Schaefer said.
Mr. Khan is survived by his wife, Mary; seven sons, including Aashish, a renowned sarod player; and four daughters. In 1989 he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor, and in 1991 he became the first Indian musician to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
He once wrote of the sarod, “If you practice for ten years, you may begin to please yourself, after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, after 30 years you may please even your guru, but you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist — then you may please even God.”
The classical music of North India is an uplifting and extraordinary music, dating back thousands of years. Ali Akbar Khan is one of today’s most accomplished Indian classical musicians. Considered a “National Living Treasure” in India, he is admired by both Eastern and Western musicians for his brilliant compositions and his mastery of the sarode (a beautiful, 25-stringed Indian instrument). Concert violinist the late Lord Yehudi Menuhin called Ali Akbar Khan, “An absolute genius…the greatest musician in the world,” and many have considered him the “Indian Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s family traces its gharana (ancestral tradition) to Mian Tansen, a 16th century musical genius and court musician of Emperor Akbar. Ali Akbar Khan’s father, the late Padma Vibhusan Acharya Dr. Allauddin Khan, was acknowledged as the greatest figure in North Indian music in this century.
Born in 1922 in East Bengal (Bangladesh), Ali Akbar Khan (Khansahib) began his studies in music at the age of three. He studied vocal music from his father and drums from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. His father also trained him on several other instruments, but decided finally that he must concentrate on the sarode and on vocal. For over twenty years, he trained and practiced 18 hours a day. After that, his father continued to teach Khansahib until he was over 100 years old, and left behind such a wealth of material that Khansahib feels he is still learning new things from it. Since his father’s death in 1972, Khansahib has continued his father’s tradition, that of the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Maihar and Rampur, India.
Ali Akbar Khan gave his first public performance in Allahabad at age thirteen. In his early twenties, he made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label, and the next year, he became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. He worked there for seven years until the Maharaja’s untimely death. The state of Jodhpur bestowed upon him his first title, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. Many years later, he received the title of Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem at the Jodhpur Palace’s Golden Jubilee Celebraton in 1993.
At the request of Lord Menuhin, 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, 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.
Khansahib founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, in 1956. Later, recognizing the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students, he began teaching in America in 1965. In 1967, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, which moved to Marin County, California, the following year. He currently maintains a teaching schedule of 6 classes a week for 9months of the year. Khansahib also opened a branch of his college in Basel, Switzerland, run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman, where he teaches yearly during his world tour. Ali Akbar Khan continues to tour extensively in Asia, Europe, The Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Khansahib has 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.
1997 was a landmark year for Ali Akbar Khan. In February, he was the second recipient to receive the Asian Paints Shiromani Award – Hall of Fame, following filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He celebrated his 75th birthday in April and AACM’s 30th anniversary in June. In August, the Indian Embassy requested Khansahib to perform at the United Nations in New York and at Kennedy Center in Washington DC; both performances were in celebration of the 50th year of India’s Independence. In September, Ali Akbar Khan was chosen to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was presented by Mrs. Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in the White House.
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.
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – Sarod
Pandit Mahapurush Misra – Tabla
01 Raga Bairagi
02 Raga Aheer Bhairow
mp3 192kbps | w/ cover | 57mb
*out of print
Alam Khan (son of Ali Akbar Khan):
“I will leave you with this:
Last evening 6/17/09 while surrounded by his students and family here at our home, Baba said to us, “bring the harmonium.”
We all were surprised, to say the least, and concerned that he should rest. He kept requesting us so I went into the next room to bring the harmonium. One of his youngest disciples whom he has been teaching since childhood began to play Sa upon his request. Soon after, Baba began to sing to us all in Rag Durga. He proceeded to teach us for the next 30 minutes and all in the room were singing and weeping. It was truly a moment in my life I will never forget and was so moving I felt as though I was living in a story one might hear of the great legends of olden times. Even while “on his deathbed” (or chair, in his case) and not being able to lift his head, our father and guru wanted to still teach us and share with us this beautiful music. God bless him… God bless him.”