Song of Surrender

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

Yehudi Menuhin called him the greatest musician in the world. The Indian government named him a national treasure. For long one of two artists every westerner identified Indian classical music with, Ali Akbar Khan was among the most decorated of Indian musicians.

A student of his martinet father Baba Allauddin Khan along with Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Pannalal Ghosh and other outstanding disciples, at his ashram in East Bengal, and at Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan mastered the sarod to reach great heights, though he started learning Hindustani music—at the age of three—with vocal music, and went on to experiment with the surbahar, tabla and sitar.

Waking at the crack of dawn and going on for some 18 hours of practice was the students’ daily routine at Maihar. In Ali Akbar Khan as well as his classmates, the regimen was to produce unparalleled rigour and discipline, and complete realisation of every raga taught. On him, his father’s teaching made such a profound impact that he continued to say till the very end of his life: “I can hear Baba’s instruction while playing. He makes me play. I do my riyaz on stage.” For he remained an eternal student, forever practising and polishing his art, even as his own school, the Ali Akbar College of Music in California, produced at least two generations of fine Hindustani classical musicians.

Ali Akbar Khan first went to the USA in 1955, courtesy Yehudi Menuhin, and was instrumental, along with his friend and partner Pandit Ravi Shankar, in introducing western audiences to Indian classical music. Though the brothers-in-law—Ravi Shankar married Ali Akbar’s sister Annapoorna Devi—did not hesitate to collaborate with jazz and rock musicians to make their own art palatable to the untrained western ear, his was an austere, uncompromising music, not a flashy compromise in standards. His ‘Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas’ was perhaps the first LP of Indian classical music in the United States.

To the end, Ali Akbar Khan remained a simple, loving man, who cared more for music and his students than his numerous honours and awards, of which the Padma Vibhushan was the highest. To connoisseurs of Hindustani music, he has been the greatest sarod artist of all time.

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