An Appreciation

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Imagine an ocean as wide and deep as the Pacific with water as sweet as nectar. Imagine a gathering of hundreds of students, each drinking as much as he or she wants from this marvelously nourishing ocean. Some stay for a lifetime, some drop by only for a few sips, but each is welcome to as much nectar as he can drink. And what is left? An ocean as deep and wide as the Pacific.

That is perfect. This is perfect.
From the perfect springs the perfect.
If from the perfect the perfect is taken,
only the perfect remains.
Ishavasya Upanishad

Looking into the eyes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan is like looking into the Earth's deepest ocean. Khansahib, a title by which he is known to his students, gives forth musical knowledge from a being so saturated in melody, so steeped in rhythm and a deep, profound knowledge of hundreds of ragas -- that there is never any question of more. There is always more for each individual student and for all students, all listeners, everyone who is thirsty for the delights of North Indian classical music.

For us, as a family, music is like food.
When you need it you don't have to explain
why, because it is basic to life.
Ali Akbar Khan

Ali Akbar Khan, heir to the Seni Baba Allauddin Gharana and destined to become one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known, was born in Shivpur, Bangladesh in 1922. That same year, his family moved to Maihar, in northern India, a rural, flat land, where the highest hill was that on which the Sharda Ma Temple stood, and living was still tuned to the rhythms of the earth. In ancient times the Khan family was Hindu, but three or four generations ago they converted to Islam. Today, Khansahib. whose religion is music, might be described as a Westernized-Muslim-Hindu, of a Sufi, a distillation of many traditions, the quintessential world citizen. His music speaks to the soul wherever that soul may reside -- in India, China, Russia, Africa, Australia, Europe or the Americas, the Far East, the Near East, the Middle East, or the West.

1995 marks forty years since Ali Akbar Khan first left India to visit other countries of the world, and to come to America. Though he is now seventy-three, given the good luck and good genes of his father, who lived to be one hundred and ten, his devotees can look forward to another thirty, perhaps, forty years. For, whether or not he teaches from the dais in the concert hall of the Ali Akbar College of Music, which he founded twenty-six years ago, he will teach. To sit in Khansahib's presence is to learn.

First you build the house -- you make
the structure. Then you put in the furniture
and the people. The people cook, eat, work,
sleep. They begin to fight, they quarrel,
they make up. They make love.
Ali Akbar Khan

Thus Khansahib describes the structure of, and the process of learning the structure of a raga. At times he states this metaphor simply, at other times, chuckling all the while, he adds graphic embellishments.

Derived from the fusion of cultures that swept over North India and adapted now to the ways of the Western World, Khansahib's music both transmits and creates the sound of what we in the West have come to know as North Indian classical music.

Ali Akbar Khan grew up in Maihar, in Madhya Pradesh, where his father, the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan (in his youth known as Alam) was court musician to the Maharaja. Ali Akbar's musical instruction began at the age of three. He practiced on many different instruments. (Baba Allauddin played over 200 instruments, both Eastern and Western.) However, when Ali Akbar was nine, Baba singled out the sarode for his only son--and the ever continuing study of vocal music.

For twenty years, the young Khan was set to practice eighteen hours nearly every day by this temperamental and severe taskmaster who lived simply and dressed as plainly as a saint.

I don't like music until I am fifty. Then
I am understanding the real meaning of each
note, the sound.
Ali Akbar Khan

Stories abound of Ali Akbar's fear of Baba Allauddin, of the severity of Baba's discipline.

...during my childhood, up to age sixteen or
seventeen, I had not been allowed to say anything
except yes and no. And if I said no, my father
would beat me. I only really learned to speak here
in America because I had to teach.
Ali Akbar Khan

His father was also a deeply compassionate man. He took in orphans from the plagues that periodically swept India, and trained them as musicians. When Ali Akbar was in his early teens his father made him director -- over these now grown children -- and composer for the Maihar Band which became famous throughout India.

When my father was a student, nobody wanted
to teach. They only give to their own family --
sons, not even daughter, just son -- if he can
learn. But they don't want any students. If any
student come then they have to stay many years.
They never get lessons, just the maestro watching
what kind of person he is. Then maybe after six
years, if he is judged to be all right, they
teach a little bit to the students, but what they
used to teach to their sons and blood, they teach
not to the student. "Why you hide things?' That
is from my father. "First thing,' he say, 'don't
give to wrong person, but if you find the right
person, then we don't hide anything. Whatever he
has, whatever he learned, he gives. Like with
food, whatever you have you give.
Ali Akbar Khan

In addition to the orphan musicians, many students came each year to study with Baba Allauddin. Some were frightened away by his strictness and his temper. Of the others who stayed, some became the great musicians of the age, Nikhil Banerjee, Sharan Rani, Indranil Battacharya, Pannalal Ghosh. In 1938, the eighteen year old Ravi Shankar came to study the sitar. During the seven years he stayed at Maihar, he studied, at times, alone with Baba and, at times, in company with Ali Akbar and Baba's daughter, Annapurna. In 1940 he married Annapurna and became Ali Akbar Khan's brother-in-law.

In the mid '40s, these two young musicians, Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, who were destined to become the most notable international North Indian Classical musicians of the age, began to perform in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, in concerts and at conferences and festivals throughout India. Annapurna, though as talented as her brother and husband, but born in an era when few women became concert musicians shied away from public performance.

While still in his twenties, Ali Akbar Khan became Music Director for All India Radio in Lucknow. Then he was sent to Jodhpur as a substitute for his father who had been invited to become court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. He remained there for six years, playing music up to eight hours a day. Upon the untimely death of the Maharaja, and having become fascinated with the film world, Ali Akbar moved to Bombay, the movie capitol of India, where, to his father's distress, he composed film music.

When my father heard that I was working
in the movies, he sent me a telegram: 'From
today you're no longer my son.'

Then one day my father goes to the movie
'Hungry Stones.' My goodness," he said, 'who
composed this music? He is great.' When told
that all the music was composed by me, he wrote
a letter from Maihar: 'You can compose film music.
I withdraw my last telegram.' Then I sent him
a telegram,'From today, I'm not going to compose
film music any moe.'

Ali Akbar Khan

For Ali Akbar had found the, for the most part, popularizing nature of film music unrewarding. He resumed touring within India, playing at festivals and concerts and in Delhi, in 1954, he met one of the twentieth century's greatest Western musicians, Yehudi Menuhin -- who had become fascinated with Indian music.

I would say without hesitation that the
Indian musician possess easily the most acute
and accurate sense of hearing and pitch, as
well as the most evolved sense of rhythm, of
any the world over... be present, as I have been, at a 'chamber
music' recital by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan,
each goading the other to new heights of invention,
is an experience more magical than almost any in
the world. One is in the presence of creation.

Yehudi Menuhin

Having become acquainted with the young musicians, Menuhin wanted to introduce them to Western audiences.

I don't want to come to America. I don't want
to leave India, I don't want to go anywhere,
but we believe that what God wants...
Ali Akbar Khan

In 1955, Ali Akbar Khan, at thirty-three, flew to Europe. Both he and Ravi Shankar, invited by Yehudi Menuhin and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, were to tour England and come to the United States to play several concerts. Shankar could not come. Flying with Chatur Lal, who would play tabla, and Shirish Gor, who would play tanpura, Ali Akbar Khan came to America. friends pushed me more or less
through customs and into the plane.
Ali Akbar Khan

In New York City the young men from India stayed in a hotel near the Museum of Modern Art.

People are very nice when we walk in the
street. They start talking, and we become
friends, sometimes they invite us into the
bar, have a beer, they want to find out
where we are from.
Ali Akbar Khan

Before the concert there was a party:

It was April, there was my birthday,
and then Yehudi Menuhin's birthday -- we
celebrated birthdays together. They made
a big cake -- on one side the Indian flag,
on the other side, the American flag. We
invited all the local musicians. We have
music all night until about four o'clock
in the morning.
Ali Akbar Khan

The first concert, at the Museum of Modern Art, was given to an audience, not too large, partly invited, partly public and, by Indian standards, it was short, about two hours. The whole music world was there -- the luminaries had gathered to greet a visiting star from the other side of the sphere. Afterward, Rockefeller gave a party in his...

...not guest house, Rockefeller, some kind of
place -- there we went with all the musicians.
Mr. Strokowski was there and many others. I
don't remember their names.
Ali Akbar Khan

Two other concerts followed, one at Rockefeller Center in New York and one in Washington D.C.. Thus -- using only one knight, an instrumentalist who, at that age, looked like a cherub and played a beautiful, but unknown-to-the-West, instrument called a sarode, and one drummer, playing a tabla (a drum), also, at that time, unknown in the West, and one musician playing the tanpura, a drone which creates the environment within which Indian music takes place -- Saraswati, Goddess of Music began her conquest of the West.

Probably no one could have foretold that night that Ali Akbar Khan would eventually come to live in America and teach whole generations to appreciate and to play what is known to this day in India as Nada Brahma, the Language of God.The haunting purity of the single notes of the alap, the varying of them little by little, the coaxing of them into clusters of soaring melody, the rhythmic complexity of the jor, the jhala, the gat -- the sheer ecstasy of the performance enthralled his new audiences. In the same year as he gave his first three American concerts, Khansahib appeared on Allistar Cooke's Omnibus, the first Indian musician ever to play on Western television.

In addition to the concerts and TV appearance, in 1955 Khansahib recorded, in New York City, the first ever long playing record of North Indian classical music. For even in India, no company wanted to chance cutting a record of classical music on such new technology. But when Khansahib's recorded-in-the-West album of Rag Sindhu Bhairavi and Rag Pilu Baroowa -- both introduced by Yehudi Menuhin announcing the scale, counting the sixteen beats of Tintal, and demonstrating the drone -- was released on Angel records, as surely as the unleashing of a nuclear chain reaction, it began to change the course of music around the world.

Khan returned to India in 1956 to found the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. The world was changing, not only in the radical ways that followed India's Independence, but the rest of the world, too, was taking a quantum leap in awareness. During the late '50s, '60s and early '70s Western flower children set out to explore every corner of the earth. Crowds of young people went to India, and in their best moments tried to absorb some of its four thousand year old culture. This new generation was beginning to realize that many cultures were older, more complex, and often more beautiful than their own which was so single-mindedly dedicated to comfort and materialism. Slowly, the West was beginning to acknowledge the awesome extent of the destruction of the earth's cultural heritage that the era of colonialism had left in its wake. The flower children, for all their excesses, left a a legacy of love for much that the West, in succeeding decades, has began to admire, to listen to, and to understand. Among these treasures was North Indian classical music, one of the most ancient and complex musical systems ever invented.

The Indian musician creates in public and does
not keep a record...urging in sequences that
will never be repeated the savoring of each note;
heightening the ear's perception of the notes,
the rhythms and the flexible tensions between them...
Yehudi Menuhin

During the years that followed, Ali Akbar Khan came many times to Europe and America to play and to teach. In 1965 and 1966 he came at the invitation of the The American Society of Eastern Art in Berkeley. In 1967, a little over a decade after his first visit to America, Khansahib decided that California was a place where he could dedicate himself to teaching the Western students that, by then, surrounded him. That year he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley, California.

This country is 200 years only, India is
many thousands of years. Many people here
are very serious and sincere, they'll teach
their kids. Those people who understand purity,
they'll keep purity. Once you know reality,
in anything, then you'll never leave that.
Ali Akbar Khan

From 1967 to 1977, the school moved its temporary quarters twenty-two times as Khansahib began to spend, at first, a few months a year, then longer and longer periods in the United States.

If you want to teach then you have to give
all your time to the students. Like small
babies -- most of the time you have to look
after them.
Ali Akbar Khan

The school expanded. It brought many of the greatest musicians from India to teach, as full time faculty and/or as guest artists, these included Ravi Shankar, V.G. Jog, Villayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Lalita Ghosh, G.S.Sachdev, Aashish Khan, Dhyanesh Khan, Chitresh Das, Bahadur Khan, Indranil Battacharya, Laxmi Shankar, Pandit Jasraj, Satyadev Pawar, Shankar Ghosh, Sanjukta Ghosh, Mahaparush Misra, Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, and Swapan Chaudhuri.

Khansahib's first "permanent" home here was at 215 First Street In San Rafael. Why has this address stuck in his mind when many other dates and facts have gone into time? "Because it is the number of my college." he says, "which for eighteen years now has had its permanent home at 215 West End Avneue."

When asked if he decided to settle in Marin County because Mt. Tamalpais looked like the mountain in Maiher on which the Sharda Ma Temple sits, he said:

I liked San Rafael, that's all, it's very
peaceful, not so crowded at that time... I
didn't have time to see a mountain then, I
wanted to rent a house. When I start living
here, then I have time to see the mountain.
Ali Akbar Khan

Khansahib Is full of paradoxes, for though he has lived mainly in the United States for over twenty years, he is not a Westerner, but he feels he is no longer at home in India either, "...too many people die, too much change." Khansahib comes to his seventies, not without pain, and not without sacrifice. He takes the vicissitudes and delights of his life and turns them into Sadja, Rishaba, Gandhara, Madhyama, Panchama, Dhaivata, Nishada -- the notes of the Indian music scale, derived from, as legend has it, the cries of the peacock, the chataka bird, the goat, the heron, the cuckoo in the spring, the frogs during rain, and the elephant's trumpeting. Khansahib, like the music, is grounded in the earth.

In India he had two famlies. The sons of the second family, Aashish, Pranesh and Dhyanesh, have graced their father's college with their musical and teaching skills. Aashish is a sarodist, Pranesh, a tabla player and Administrative Director of the AACM, and Dhyanesh, until his early death in 1991, was an outstanding teacher and sarode player. Khansahib's daughter, Amina Perera, who remained in Calcutta, is a fine sitarist and excellent teacher.

Khansahib cherishes the peace and quiet that living in Marin County offers him, where close friends and musicians from all over the world come to visit, to learn, to listen, to play and to teach at the College. He has a new family here, an American wife, Mary Johnson Khan -- who having studied tabla with Swapan Chaudhuri, Zakir Hussain and Alla Rakha, still, at times, plays theka for her husband's classes -- and three young children. The eldest child is named Alam after his grandfather. He and his brother Manik began this year to study sarode and drum, respectively, at the AACM. The youngest, three and a half year old Madina, also picked out her drums and was seen for a day carrying her brightly colored tabla rings and covers about the school.

Mary Khan oversees the Alamedina Record Company, that is the primer producer of Ali Akbar Khan's prodigious output. In cooperation with Khansahib she recently founded the Ali Akbar Khan Foundation to archive the music of the Baba Allauddin Gharana. One of its main projects over the next few years will be to release a series of CDs which will present and preserve many compositions that are for now archived only in Khansahib's memory. There are thousands of such compositions taught to him by his father, other thousands that he has composed during the more than half century of his musical Haj. This year he began this work of direct transmission by inviting Asha Bhosle to learn and record a group of rare songs handed down through the Baba Allauddin Gharana, as learned by Baba Allauddin from Wazir Khan, a direct descendant of Mian Tansen's daughter Saraswati; as well as some tarana's from Bhadurhussain Khan, creator of the tarana form.

Khansahib's international touring, giving dozens of performances each year, continues with unabated energy. Even though it is exhausting to spend one's life in airports, on planes, in hotels, in cars, going to unknown concert halls, in, for the most part, unseen cities, he continues to play and to teach in almost every country of the world. He has opened a branch of the AACM in Basel, Switzerland to serve Europe, and a branch in Fremont, California to served the Bay Area's ever increasing Indian population.

Many Indians, having heard from childhood the lyrical and mathematical magic that is North Indian classical music, work in the computer industry in the Bay Area and study music at the Ali Akbar Colleges at night. This continues an ancient tradition. For the study of classical Indian music is not primarily for training future concert performers, its intricacies are mastered and its techniques perfected essentially for the student's own pleasure and development.

I play for myself. If I like my music, you
will like it. If I do not, you will not.
Ali Akbar Khan

When Khansahib picks up his sarode -- carved from teak by his uncle, Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, in 1933 -- and the muse of the raga comes to sit with him, one can all but see, shimmering in air, the individual notes as they begin to sing with an almost vocal beauty about the compassion, greatness, sorrow, and sweetness that resides in every human heart.

If you practice for ten years, you may begin
to please yourself, after twenty years you
may become a performer and please an audience,
after thirty years you may please even your
guru, but you must practice for many more years
before you finally become a true artist -- then
you may please even God.
Ali AkbarKhan

Swami Haridas, Tansen's guru, retreated to the forest and would not come to sing even for Emperor Akbar. To hear the rapturous beauty of his voice, the Emperor had to disguise himself and go into the forest. "I sing for men," the great Tansen explained to the Emperor, "but Swamiji sings only for God."

Many fortunate musicians who attend the AACM, re-experience this in a modern way. For though, Khansahib's concerts are stellar events and, for their dazzling beauty, are not to be missed. Still, it is in class when he is creating a composition -- one more among the 500 he would like to teach to his students in each raga -- that some of the greatest moments in music happen. Suddenly it will seem as if Khansahib is alone -- or, some might say, sitting within Goddess Saraswati's aura -- and from his sarode will issue notes of such beauty that more than one student has found tears running down his cheeks.

Khansahib walks in the footsteps of Tansen who, legend says, when challenged by enemies to do so -- lit the lamps by singing Raga Dipak, but died from the effort it cost. Among those who love him, none suggests that Khansahib test his powers with Dipak. For in a sense his students are his lamps. They have been lighted, they are his gift. They have cost Khansahib's life, but it is a gift freely given. The rasa of art is to give delight. Khansahib's presence has been an unending cornucopia of delight to the musicians and music lovers of this world.

Honors have been lavished upon Ali Akbar Khan both by his native country and countries around the world. To cite only a few, Khansahib has been presented with the President of India Award twice, and holds the titles of Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. In the United States, he was invited to play at the inaugural ceremonies of President Kennedy and, in 1991, he received the MacArthur Foundation Genuis Fellowship in recognition of his work in transmitting and enhancing the musical tradition of North India. In 1993 he received the Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1994 the Ali Akbar Foundation was created to archive and preserve the music of the Seni Baba Allauddin Gharana so that future generations may hear and study it.

In 1995, as we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Khansahib's first arrival in America, we can only say "Welcome home, Khansahib, citizen of the world, we are pleased that you have chosen to live among us."

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Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:

Selections from ALI AKBAR KHAN, An Appreciation have appeared in India Currents Magazine under the title DEEP AS THE OCEAN" (U.S.A.), and in India Perspectives as ALI AKBAR KHAN, The Great Musical Genius (published in India, translated into eight languages and circulated via Indian Embassies throughout the world). It also appears on various Web sites originating in both U.S.A. and India. Other articles by Jan Haag about North Indian Classical Music include THE GOLDEN DRUMMING OF SWAPAN CHAUDHURI, SISIR KONA DHAR CHOWDHURY, and LAXMI GANESH TEWARI.

Jan Haag, writer, poet, painter and textile artist, creates works which incorporate the beauty and complexity of North Indian Classical music patterns into the intricacy of Textile Art. A retrospective of Haag's Needlepoints was shown at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Seattle, Washington.




21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context