Sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan was a man of great humility (Obituary)

June 19th, 2009 - 8:24 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 19 (IANS) Legendary sarod exponent Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, one of the greatest Indian classical musicians of modern times, was in personal life a man of great compassion, innocence and humility.
He felt that life’s greatest lessons were either taught by children who knew nothing, or by stalwarts - because the mediocre always found faults.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who took Indian classical music to the world stage, passed away in California Friday after a prolonged kidney aliment. He was 87.

Citing an instance of his sharp memory, humility and compassion, noted Indian classical vocalist Rita Ganguly of the Dhrupad gharana told IANS from Mumbai, “Once as a three-and-a-half year old, I attended a concert in Lucknow by the Maihar band conducted by Baba Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan’s father, the founder of the Senia-Maihar gharana. I just walked up on to the centre-stage and started dancing on my own till the band played. No one could stop me.

“Several decades later in 1982, at a concert in Udaipur, Ustad Ali Abkar Khan, who was also part of the band in Lucknow, reminded me of the incident and narrated it in detail because it had slipped from my memory. He said he learnt from me - a toddler who knew nothing about music - a vital lesson because of the gay abandon with which I danced.”

The Maihar band was a group of established musicians assembled by Ustad Allauddin Khan in the 1950s.

That fateful night in Lucknow was the beginning of Ganguly’s career and the “reminder of the incident by none other than the maestro himself” intensified her life-long love affair with the music of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

“He is the greatest musician India has ever produced and his death is nothing short of tragedy in the world of Indian music. He tops the list of three trend-setters in Indian music that includes Begum Akhtar and Ustad Amir Khan,” Ganguly said.

Born on April 14, 1922, in Comilla in present day Bangladesh, maestro Ali Akbar Khan traces his ancestry to Mian Tansen, the 16th century musical genius and court musician of Emperor Akbar. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was married to sitar legend Pandit Ravi Shankar.

The sarod maestro is survived by 11 children, including the great sarod player Ustad Ashish Khan.

Ali Akbar was one the early band of Indian classical musicians who took Indian traditional music to the world - especially to the US and helped it carve a niche for itself.

He is the creator of several famous ragas, including Gauri Manjari, Lajwanti, Madhavi and Madhu Malati.

He gave his first public performance at the age of 13. In his early 20s, the sarod exponent cut his first HMV label and subsequently became the court musician of the Maharaja of Jodhpur for seven years. He learnt music from his father Ustad Allauddin Khan as well as uncle Fakir Aftabuddin. He was also part of the Uday Shankar’s music and dance ensemble.

His upbringing was austere and he practised music for 18 hours a day.

He founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Kolkata in 1956 and relocated to US in 1965 to teach Indian music to American youth. He set up the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael near San Francisco and Switzerland. He has millions of fans across the globe.

Musician-writer Peter Lavezzoli, in his book ‘Bhairavi’ says Ali Akbar Khan was the first Indian classical musician to appear on US television. At the request of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar visited the US in 1955 and performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also cut an LP - the first recording of Indian classical music - in the US.

“I recorded a half an hour interview-based programme with him on Doordarshan 15 years ago. He was playing at Maihar near Jabalpur, the hub of his gharana of music. I think Ali Akbar Khan was a purist and one of the greatest sarod players of the century,” veteran Doordarshan presenter and music writer Sharad Dutt told IANS.

Recalling his contribution to Hindi cinema music, Dutt said Bollywood musician Jaidev was one of Ali Akbar’s disciples.

“That is why Jaidev’s compositions are full of sarod,” Dutt said.

Ali Akbar Khan composed the songs and background score for the 1953 movie “Aandhiyan”, a Navketan production directed by Chetan Anand, starring Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik. “The music was widely acclaimed,” Dutt said.

His list of awards is long. In 1960, he was conferred the Best Musician of the Year Award for his work in the movie “Hungry Stones” directed by Tapan Sinha and in 1963 he was honoured with the President of India Award. He was also given the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibushan by the government.

Besides, he won several prestigious awards in US and Britain.

“But for the Indian classical music fraternity - which is tightly knit - he was always the affectionate big brother. We bonded over the soirees and the radio programmes in Delhi and Lucknow in the 1940s and 1950s. He stayed in a house near the Bengali Market when he was in Delhi,” reminisced Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj.

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