This past June, music lovers suffered a loss that cannot be weighed, with the passing of the great sarodist Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He was one of the greatest musicians of his generation, and purveyor of the Seni Maihar Gharana handed down to him by his father, the legendary the Baba Allauddin Khan. Ali Akbar Khan was also a great human being and important cultural ambassador. He was the first Indian musician to play Indian classical music on American television, on a program called "Omnibus," in 1955. He was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan award, India's second highest civilian honor, in 1989.
Khansahib, as his students and friends knew him, was also a devoted teacher. He was the director of the Ali Akbar College of Music in the Bay area of California, since it’s founding in 1967. Here, thousands of musicians from the US and other countries came to learn Hindustani classical music from some of its greatest exponents. Some of Khansahib’s disciples who have made a life in this music include sarodists George Ruckert, Ken Zukerman, Bruce Hamm, and sitarist Peter Van Gelder. Zukerman founded the European branch of the Ali Akbar School in Basel, Switzerland in 1985, and Ruckert was a co-founder and administrator of the Ali Akbar College in California, and Khansahib’s assistant from 1967 to 1984. Dr. Ruckert is currently an MIT faculty member, and is well known to Boston audiences.
Given Khansahib’s tremendous contribution to music, it is fitting that he will be honored at the upcoming LearnQuest 2010 music festival. (March 31st--April 4th.) Events in his honor at the festival will include a lecture demonstration about his music by George Ruckert, and performances by other students of Khansahib, including Khansahib’s son, sarodist Alam Khan, and Raginder Singh, who is a disciple of Sisir Kanadhar Chaudhuri---a student of Khansahib.
Khansabib maintained the highest standards and integrity to the musical tradition he represented, and yet was also an innovator. He composed many new ragas, including the popular Chandranandam, Raga Chandranandan ("moonstruck"), is based on four evening ragas, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandakauns and Kaushi Kanada. This record was a huge success in India and the raga found a worldwide audience when a 22 minute rendition was re-recorded for the Master Musician of India LP in 1965. He was also well known for his highly advanced concept of ragamala—garland of ragas---and the stunning performances resulting from his weaving ragas and rag phrases together. To this listener, it resulted in some of the most brilliant music I have ever heard in any genre.
Khansahib also collaborated with renown Western artists such as classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, rock stars Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and jazz saxophonist John Handy. With Handy, Khansahib created musically viable fusion with real depth and character, which helped pave the way for much of the Indo-jazz fusion taking place today. While visiting him at his home in 1975, Khansahib told me that there was some talk of him playing with fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, but that never materialized. (He also mentioned to me that McLaughlin’s style was more South Indian.)
As a Western musician and longstanding student of Indian music, I can say that Khansahib has served as inspiration to me on a number of levels. The beauty, grace, and power of his music has inspired all that I do as a composer and jazz musician, and I am not alone in this sentiment. As with all great artists, their work transcends the idiom and speaks to anyone willing to listen. In this sense, Khansahib was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and of all time. But perhaps most all, it was the very emotional and personal way he communicated the ragas, that made you believe not only in the music, but in the man performing it. This quintessentially human quality truly made him universal-- an artist able to touch the heart in the most direct way.
I spoke with Khansahib on a number of occasions both here and in California. Though I never formally attended the school, I spent about six weeks there visiting a friend who was attending, and sitting in on classes. In addition to the music that effortlessly flowed from him, he had great insight and wisdom and shared that with his students. I remember two things he said, that stuck with me: (paraphrased) "When we play well, we feel good, when we don’t play well, we do not." And, "It takes a lifetime to make a musician. Don’t people understand that?" Both statements are profound in their simplicity, and true.
In addition to the brilliance of his art, one of Khansahib’s most enduring qualities was that he never played down to an audience, no matter who it was. This is the mark of a great artist, and shows his unswerving commitment to the integrity of the music, and his respect for people. We are all the lucky recipients of this.
I can only say that I will continue to appreciate and be inspired by Khansahib’s music for the rest of my life, both as Indian classical music at the highest level, and as a great achievement of human spirit. His music is eternal.
Marc Rossi is a Professor at the BerkleeCollege of Music in Boston. He is a composer and jazz pianist of international repute, and has performed Indian-jazz fusion with Lalgudi G.J.R, Krishnan, Durga Krishnan, Peter Row, Geetha Ramanathan Bennett, Satish Vyas, Pradeep Shukla, and V.R.Venkataraman, to name a few.