MAESTRO ALI AKBAR KHAN’S life story began the way many others do: living in a small town, unaware of what lay beyond the roads outside his window. However, coming from a village in rural Central India, with a father whose legend preceded him and whose infamous disposition as a taskmaster was an everyday reality—this begins to set Ali Akbar Khan’s story apart as something singularly remarkable. What he couldn’t have known back then, sitting on the floor of his room, his sarod before him, was that he would go on to become one of the greatest Hindustani classical musicians the world has ever known. That young boy would one day receive the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship from the President of the United States. He would travel the world, he would open institutions, and he would bring the tradition of his family to the West. Maestro Ali Akbar Khan’s life story began as any other—but it lives on endlessly.
Ali Akbar Khan (known more familiarly as Khansahib) was regarded as a “musician’s musician.” He was the master of the sarod (a 25-stringed, fretless instrument), in the Maihar gharana (ancestral tradition), and was known for his incredible breadth of artistry and knowledge. He was born in the village of Shibpur, in present-day Bangladesh on April 14th, 1922, and was raised by his father, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan, and his mother, Madina Begum. As a young child, he was known simply as “Little Ali Akbar”—but his father had always expected greatness from him.
Soon after Khansahib’s birth, his family moved back to Maihar (in present-day Madhya Pradesh, India), where his father was the primary court musician for the Maharaja of Jodphur. Khansahib began his studies with his father at the tender age of 3, learning vocal music. The classical music of North India is among the oldest continual musical traditions in the world, dating back thousands of years, and his father is acknowledged as one of the greatest figures in North Indian music of all time. Their family traces its gharana from Mian Tansen—a 16th century musical genius and court musician for Emperor Akbar—to Mohammed Wazir Khan, who was court musician of Rampur State and Baba Allauddin Khan’s guru. In olden times, this music was considered close to magic; there are many accounts of it healing the ailing, as well as starting fires and bringing rain. The music could be used as medicine, and for this reason it must be studied seriously and with intense dedication.
After a few years, Khansahib was sent to Bengal for a time to study with his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin Khan, who taught him percussion and flute, as well as a general understanding of rhythm. Khansahib once said that he learned music in a very natural way at that age, although he was not keen to do so. He said he learned it, “like a language.” His father’s life was not easy, and his path to musical mastery was often fraught with troubles. It was for this reason that he was so severe with his son, and Khansahib, knowing no other type of life, accepted this future. Upon returning home from his uncle’s, his father took over his studies and trained him on various instruments. At the age of nine or ten, he decided that it was time for his son to concentrate on one instrument—the sarod, which he would continue to play for the rest of his life.
Baba Allauddin Khan was a known perfectionist, a taskmaster, and was unfailingly strict with his son’s studies; Khansahib often noted that his riyaaz (practice) would last for 18 hours each day. He had two older sisters, and one younger—the late Annapurna Devi—who he would train with. But, most often, he would be taught alone:
“He taught me for 20 years after my return from Bengal. I would have to study up to 18 hours a day. In fact, practically all my waking hours would be filled with music. For as much as 15 of these, Baba would be with me. Among other things, Baba also taught me how to teach others, and how to compose music.”
Although Khansahib did not have the choice to live his life more freely, the severe nature of his training led him to become a musician of the highest caliber. He ran away from home twice and was brought back each time, resuming his studies. His father continued to teach him until he was over 100 years old. After his death in 1972 at the age of 110, Khansahib would continue to learn from him in his dreams.
In 1936, at the age of thirteen, Khansahib gave his first public performance on the sarod at a music conference in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, India. About the performance, Khansahib said:
“I do not remember much from that because it was quite some time ago. In those days, all the distinguished singers and instrumentalists used to sit in the front row to hear music. They were extremely demanding and would not tolerate mediocrity. Some of them would come to the stage and shout if they didn’t like what they heard. But I remember that after I finished my performance, many of them came up on the stage and hugged me.”
This performance was the beginning for Khansahib—the start of a lifelong journey of creating art in a public forum. His gift was noted, even at that young age. Although his studies would continue intensely for many years to come, his entry into the public perspective would change his relationship to the music. He was no longer just the young boy training in a rural village. He would later say that performing was his way of bringing joy to people and connecting to something higher than himself. Although he was rarely pleased with his own performance, he often felt that the instrument would take over in those moments and he would be told what to do.
Two years after that first performance, in 1938, Khansahib gave his first recital on All India Radio (AIR), Bombay, where he was accompanied on tabla by the great Ustad Alla Rakha. By January of 1940, he was giving monthly performances on AIR, Lucknow. In 1944, Khansahib became the youngest Music Director for AIR, Lucknow, and was responsible for solo performances and composing for the radio orchestra. At just 22 years old, this was instrumental in helping him to find his own path.
In his early twenties, Khansahib made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label. The next year, in 1943, on his father’s recommendation, he was appointed as court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. There, he taught and composed music as well as giving recitals. He worked there for seven years before the Maharaja’s untimely death. This was a challenging job, but the musicians were treated like princes themselves and were given great sums as gifts. About those days, Khansahib said:
“In Jodhpur, that king wanted to hear eight hours [of playing each day]. My father wanted me to play 18 hours a day. He figured that if he sent me to the court, I’d at least play eight, as you can’t say no to a king. So he sent me there. The Maharajah was two years younger than me. But he died in a plane crash, and so I left. I didn’t resign though, and so I still have good relations, as if I’m in the family. His son built a music room in my name in the palace. That was my last job. Every night I had to play eight hours, sometimes without tabla, just the alap, when the king couldn’t sleep. When he’d fall asleep, the queen would give a sign that now I could go.”
It was at the palace that he was bestowed with his first title, that of Ustad (or Master Musician)—an honorific he was never comfortable with and rarely used. He told the king that he couldn’t accept it without his father’s permission, as his father was his guru and had the ultimate word about his development as a musician. The king wrote his father a telegram, and his father approved the title; however, he would tease Khansahib about it, and in turn Khansahib found it to be too embarrassing to use.
After Jodhpur, Khansahib moved to Bombay, where he earned acclaim as a composer of several film scores. He composed extensively in India, beginning with Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan (1952), followed by Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder (1963), and Tapan Sinha’s Khudito Pashan (“Hungry Stones,” 1960), for which he won the “Best Musician of the Year” award. In 1993, he would go on to score some of the music for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.
It was in 1945 that Khansahib recorded a raga he had newly created in Bombay, at the HMV studios. It was entitled Raga Chandranandan (meaning “moonstruck”) and was based on the four evening ragas: Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandakauns, and Kaushi Kanada. This record was a huge success in India and would later find a worldwide audience, becoming a raga he would be remembered for eternally. When speaking about creating compositions, Khansahib said:
“Creating a new raga is very difficult. I can’t avoid old ragas, you see. I have to take the help of the other ragas, then give a new face. And there are already so many ragas there…If a new raga is too much like an old one, you get confused. You have to learn to recognize them. You have to learn so many ragas, not just the notes, but the heart of the ragas.”
The second part of Khansahib’s life—his life away from his home of India—would begin in 1955. Khansahib met the concert violinist Lord Yehudi Menuhin while the musician was touring in India, and it was at Lord Menhuin’s request that Khansahib would leave India to visit both Europe and the United States. It was during Khansahib’s first trip to the US, where he performed an unprecedented concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Menuhin went on to call Khansahib, “An absolute genius… the greatest musician in the world.”
“When I came here in 1955, I met many great musicians, and they hadn’t any idea that India had its own music. I’ve spent more than half my life teaching and playing for people and now many musicians come over to this country to perform, and I never dreamed it would happen like this. I wanted that this music should go everywhere because it can bring peace and love to every human being. That has been my experience.” – Ali Akbar Khan
Khansahib was hesitant about leaving India, as the music style in America was centered around shorter pieces. Indian classical music has a much longer structure, and he feared that shortening the pieces would do injustice to the music. During that trip, Lord Menuhin asked him to make a long-playing record for Angel Records in New York, the first that any Indian musician had recorded of that length to date. The record he created was entitled “Music of India; Morning & Evening Ragas.” Afterwards, seeing the popularity of that album, HMV began making LP’s in India as well. While in New York City, Khansahib also played the first television performance of Indian music on Allistair Cooke’s Omnibus. This was a huge event in both Khansahib’s life and the progression and spread of Indian classical music to the West. He went from that small boy in Maihar to then become the first Indian musician to ever accomplish these goals—things he had not dreamed of doing back then. These events would sow the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960’s.
Khansahib returned to India with another vision in mind: that of opening a place of learning. This tradition was most commonly taught from father to son, something that Khansahib’s father felt limited its potential for growth. With his father’s incredible effort to perfect and sustain the music, Khansahib felt he had a duty to ensure its continuation. In 1956, Khansahib founded the first Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India—a dream he had been working towards for many years. His father told him to teach and spread the music, “as far as the sun and moon”; a desire that would become the mission statement for the AACM in years to come. Khansahib said:
“I was just dreaming like that – one place where all sorts of art, music, painting, language, one big place where people can stay there, and learn there, and that locality and that area is just the atmosphere of music and art. That’s all, nothing else.”
At his core, he believed that all he had created was in honor of his father. He knew he must do what he could to ensure that the lessons his father had bestowed upon him, what his father has spent his life cultivating and preserving, were shared with as many new students as possible. He would continue his own career of performing and composing, but teaching would become the mainstay to which he would forever return. His life was dedicated to passing on this great tradition.
In the early 1960’s, Khansahib was asked to teach a group of Mother Superiors at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. With them, he explored the similarities between Gregorian chants and the old dhrupad style of North India. His knowledge about the music was vast, and his interest and dedication to all sound helped him to explore these different facets. He was known to play “Greensleeves” on the sarod—showing that the medieval English tune fit within a particular raga. Later, continuing his travels, he came to Berkeley, California, in 1965 where he taught for the Asian Society of Eastern Arts. What he did not anticipate at the time was that he would remain in Northern California for the rest of his life. While teaching in Berkeley, Khansahib quickly recognized the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students—for this reason, he decided to open his own school where he would be able to teach on a regular basis.
He founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in 1967, which moved to Marin County, California, the following year—where it remains to this day. He would go on to maintain a regular teaching schedule of six classes a week, nine months of the year, for the next 40 years. After his time teaching in Berkeley, he found that many Western students were making trips to India in order to study. He decided that it would be far easier for one guru to travel to the West, rather than hundreds of students to make their way to India. He began with just 15 students, but it quickly grew. He brought other teachers from India—his friends—to train the students in dance and vocal technique, as well as the sarod, sitar, the Indian flute, and table and percussion. On choosing to come to California to open his school, Khansahib said:
“I tried my level best to stay at home (in India) to train people who would be torch-bearers of our gharana, perfected through my father’s untiring efforts. But financial problems stood in the way, and I found I could not do much with my ideas here. Abroad, the experience was rather the opposite. Positive assistance came from all quarters and I succeeded in creating a new generation of Western pupils. There remains every possibility of Hindustani music taking roots in the West in the near future.”
Later that year, Khansahib was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in India. Then, in August of 1971, Khansahib performed at Madison Square Garden for the Concert for Bangladesh, along with Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, and Kamala Chakravarty; other musicians at the concert included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. A live album and a movie of the historic event were later released.
In 1985, he founded another branch of the Ali Akbar College of Music in Basel, Switzerland, which is still run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman, and in 1989, he was awarded the second highest civilian award in India: Padma Vibhushan.
Khansahib received the illustrious MacArthur Fellowship in 1991—the first Indian musician to be awarded the “genius grant.” On receiving this grant, Khansahib said:
“I was very glad that somebody finally recognized me because I had been working very hard composing and playing for many years. I had also trained 6,000 students at my schools. During the 16th century in India, if a musician was favored by the emperor, he would get gifts of money and even small villages. So this is a bit like the modern version of that kind of patronage.”
In 1997, Khansahib received the National Endowment for the Arts’ prestigious National Heritage Fellowship; this is the United States’ highest honor in the traditional arts. He also received five Grammy nominations over the course of his life.
Despite his many accolades, the only title that Khansahib truly coveted was the one bestowed upon him by his father—the title of Swara Samrat, which means Emperor of Melody.
Khansahib dedicated his life to the continuation of his father’s tradition, that of the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Maihar and Rampur, India. His father left behind such a wealth of material that Khansahib felt he was always able to continue learning new things. After securing the preservation of this vast tradition, the Ali Akbar College of Music was able to open the Ali Akbar Khan Library in 2015. This was a passion project of Khansahib and his wife (and executive director of the AACM), Mary Khan. It houses over 40 years of Khansahib’s life works, amounting to over 8,000 hours of audio and video recordings. It serves to preserve Khansahib’s teachings and the vastness of this ancient tradition and will allow for his life ambition to continue to be realized: that this music be shared with any and all who wish to learn it.
To understand the depth and scope of Khansahib’s contributions to the world of Indian music is to study him for a lifetime. There were so many things he was able to accomplish in his time on this earth. However, despite it all, he very much remained in his heart as that small-town boy. His style of living was simple and peaceful. His humility and lack of airs was something that made him approachable to new students, even though his accomplishments were many. To be so grounded was to be a successful guru—the role he felt should be held above all else.
Ali Akbar Khan passed away quietly at his home in San Anselmo, California, on June 18th, 2009, at the age of 87. He taught music to his students until the last night of his life. His story is built on the foundations of perseverance, hard work, and devotion—in this quiet way, he was able to change the musical world with his sarod. His teachings have opened the doors for so many others to revel in this tradition, and his life’s work, and the life’s work of his father before him, will be carried on for generations to come. The music will continue.
“Music is an international language. It has always been a special significance in the Indian culture and philosophy. According to Hindu belief the creation itself traced back to Nada-Brahma, creation or manifestation of supreme being. Our sages developed music from time immemorial, for the mind to take shelter in that pure being which stands apart from the body and mind as one’s true self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honors, not even for the joys of the mind, but is a path for salvation and realization. This is what I truly feel.” – Ali Akbar Khan