Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whose birth centenary falls on April 14, is synonymous with the sarod, the stringed instrument known for its deep, introspective sound. He was to the sarod what Pandit Ravishankar was to the sitar—a global ambassador.
Ali Akbar was born in Shibpur, now in Bangladesh, in 1922. His father Ustad Allauddin Khan had settled under the patronage of the Maharaja at Maihar, a princely state in Madhya Pradesh. Having experienced extreme difficulty in his music learning years, Allauddin Khan set out to make the art accessible, and in the process broke barriers of religion and gender. His children Ali Akbar and Annapoorna Devi trained as a part of the student community that was predominantly non-Muslim: Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Pannalal Ghosh, Sharan Rani, V G Jog and many others. Ali Akbar took this tradition forward, adhering to the Maihar gharana tenet that the more you taught, the better your music became. Some other gharanas chose to remain closed and private.
Ali Akbar established the Ali Akbar College of Music in 1955 in Kolkata, and on the faculty were legendary musicians Nikhil Banerjee, Ashok Roy, Bahadur Khan, Indira Choudhari, and his sister Annapoorna Devi, teaching the sitar, sarod and surbahar. He journeyed away from the institute in 1965 and founded an institution of the same name in California in 1967. However, he continued to teach and perform regularly in India for another decade. Music teaching occupied him for the rest of his life in the United States.
Ali Akbar also taught in Switzerland and was a distinguished adjunct professor of music at the University of California. In his later years, when he had lost mobility, he would be lifted up the stairs with the help of a motorised chair fixed to the bannister. Once inside his class, his teaching would go on spiritedly for hours. Pandit Rajeev Taranath, one his most accomplished disciples and now a resident of Mysuru, says Ali Akbar sought a profound understanding from Indian students, but was satisfied with correct playing of the notations from his foreign students. He also taught the latter more ragas. Taranath describes him as a guru and generous and mother figure.
Ali Akbar’s sarod was re-engineered by his father and crafted by his uncle Ayet Ali Khan. It was a gift he received at 16, and remained an inseparable companion for 70 years. Interestingly, the animal skin used to cover the chamber-resonator of the sarod had seemingly freed the instrument from the dead clarity that a wood or metal cover would generate. His genius reinvented the ghasit, the graces that help create mesmerising phrases on the sarod, and explored the distinct percussive features of the restructured sarod. The staccato discontinuity in the melodic flow, characteristic of the sarod, ceased to be a barrier, and he created new kaleidoscopic patterns and variations. His daring exploration of ragas, and the leaps and surprises he could pull off, were evident in his celebrated duets with Pandit Ravishankar too.
Perhaps no other instrumentalist has perceived the sophisticated connection between a musical instrument and the music it creates. Early in his career, he embarked on an exploration of the tonal variety his instrument could produce. New sarod-specific sparks emerged in his playing, creating melancholic turns and adding a magic touch that created “internal drama”, in Taranath’s words. Ali Akbar’s unique chalans (movements) and meends (graces), and his reinterpretation of the compositions of the Maihar gharana, made his music unique.
“The distinct contribution of Khansaab was his extreme sensitivity to melody. He sucked the juice out of every note and every movement. When he came and stayed on a note, quite often one felt, ‘That’s it’, so delicate and so pure. He would stay on a note, make a home there and invite you. The note would change its tone, or what is called shruti, depending on the raga. So much thinking, meditation and feeling must have gone into that achievement. The note spoke for itself. I have not come across anybody else doing this. His concerts were a gift to the Gods,” Taranath says.
Ali Akbar, he sums up, left a wealth of music that knew “no falsity or humbug.”
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009) was honoured with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. He travelled extensively in the West, popularising the sarod. He won five Grammy nominations and the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honour in the US for traditional arts.
Ali Akbar is an extensively recorded musician, and his records have come out under labels such as HMV and Odeon. His solo albums include Sound of the Sarod: Recorded in Concert (World Pacific, 1962), The Classical Music of India (Prestige,1964) and That Which Colours the Mind (Owsley Stanley Foundation, 2020). His collaborations with Western musicians, and with the celebrated sitarist Pandit Ravishankar, were important milestones. Yehudi Menuhin, the renowned American violinist, described Ali Akbar as “an absolute genius, the greatest musician in the world.”
(The author is a Bengaluru-based freelancer and a sitar player).