Ustad Ali Akbar Khan: Sarod maestro who played with Ravi Shankar and appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh

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The Independent Online

In 1966 Yehudi Menuhin uttered the words that have reverberated in many of the sarod maestro's obituaries. When introducing Ali Akbar Khan, ustad [master] of the sarod, he called him "an absolute genius... perhaps the greatest musician in the world." Uncounted thousands of musicians and music lovers would contest the "perhaps". His music affected the Beatles, Byrds and Grateful Dead and, as the Indian classical singer Rita Ganguly wrote, "... there is hardly any instrumentalist in our country today who is not indebted to the great musical philosopher, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, directly or indirectly."

The sarod, is a sonorous, steel-clad, metal strung, short-necked lute played with a coconut shell plectrum. Although Khan opened George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971 with Ravi Shankar and the tabla master Alla Rakha (Shankar delivered the killer put-down, "If you enjoy the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more") and collaborated with people as varied as the actress Yvette Mimieux, his second wife Rajdulari Aliakbar Khan, the jazz saxophonist John Handy and the renowned playback singer Asha Bhosle, at heart Khan was avowedly traditionalist in outlook.

Hindustani music is music held in trust and he dedicated his life to its safekeeping. He was a musician's musician, blessed with a generosity of talent and imagination. With his coruscating playing style and profound interpretative abilities, he distilled the very essence of a raga's soul. He left hundreds of hours of recordings for AMMP, Angel/EMI, Apple, Chhanda Dhara, Connoisseur Society, Ducretet-Thomson, Deutsche Welle, Gramophone Company of India and Water Lily Acoustics that rank as extraordinary pinnacles of spontaneous creativity. In the 1990s he told me where once he had played for audiences he now played for himself. To attend his recitals was to witness music as sacrament and time losing meaning.

The third child of Allauddin Khan – one of the 20th century's foremost shapers of Hindustani music – and Madina Manjari, Ali Akbar Khan grew up in ascetic circumstances. He never had the early confidence-boosting cosmopolitanism of Ravi Shankar – born two years earlier than Khan, in 1920, and his brother-in-law through his marriage to Khan's younger sister, Annapurna Devi – and never matched Shankar's fluency in English or ease in foreign or unfamiliar company. What compensated for that was the depth of his upbringing as a hereditary musician. He began learning music at the age of three, starting with the basics of vocal melody and rhythmicality. He was the product of his father's tyrannically rigorous, unsparingly precise tutelage which from early childhood to early manhood developed into 18 hours' practice per day. He did not so much absorb music as a child picks up language: he was, rather, force-fed.

He first began composing with "Mali Gaura" (1935) for the Maihar Band, an orphan orchestra put together by his father that toured India, and would go on to compose hundreds of original creations, including the aptly named night raga "Chandranandan" or "Joy of the Moon". In 1936 he gave his first solo recital, in Allahabad.

Two years later, 1938 proved a key year. Khan ran away and, under the name Shibdutta, broadcast on All India Radio in Bombay with a young staffer called Alla Rakha accompanying. By chance the Maharajah of Maihar heard the broadcast and commented to Allauddin Khan on the similarity of Shibdutta's playing style to his son's. The game up, finally he returned to Maihar and was promptly married to his first wife, Zubeba. In December 1939 his son Aashish was born – the first of 12 children over three marriages.

In 1938 Robindra – later Ravi – Shankar became a shishya [disciple] of Allauddin Khan in Maihar, alongside Ali Akbar Khan. Studying together at their guru's feet fostered an intuition and empathy of unparalleled sensitivity between the two young men. Shankar and Annapurna had performed sitar-surbahar jugalbandis [duets] in public but when the brothers-in-law began performing jugalbandis in the 1950s they were a sensation because of the tigerish potential for male (sarod) and female (sitar) dialogue. In Concert 1972 finds them flying in homage to their guru's recent death.

In 1952 Yehudi Menuhin attended a house recital in Delhi at which Khan, Shankar and the tabla maestro Chatur Lal performed. Menuhin brought his considerable influence to bear on getting them to the United States; Shankar then pulled out so Khan travelled alone. In April 1955 he achieved three historical firsts for a principal soloist: he gave North America its first major recital of Hindustani music, at New York's Museum of Modern Art; appeared on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus television magazine programme; and recorded the world's first microgroove LP devoted to a musician from the subcontinent – Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas (1955). Later that year he gave a recital at London's St. Pancras Town Hall, again with Menuhin as master of ceremonies.

In 1960 he accepted invitations to teach at Montreal and McGill University, having already opened the "Ali Akbar Khan College of education" (sic) in Calcutta – so named to distance himself deliberately from his father's name out of fear of dishonouring him should things go wrong. American engagements followed and in 1967 he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, first in Berkeley, before moving across the San Francisco Bay to San Rafael in Marin County in 1977.

Many mistook him to be a man of few words. That could be down to shyness, his confidence with English in public or his slight lisp. In private he was quite the raconteur. He was generous with his knowledge, and we spent hours talking in his inner sanctum with his family photographs, the first quarter-size sarod his father had made him and the shrine wall with its Koranic verses and effigy of the Hindu Goddess Kali Maa side by side, since divinity was a portal for him and his music. I asked him once about a passage written by Satyajit Ray on an album of his and Shankar's compositions for Haimanti Sukla. He put on his glasses, read them through and translated the Bengali on the spot into English with great nuance – and occasional "footnotes" for my benefit. He was never garrulous but he sure could talk.

Like nobody else, he spanned several lifetimes of Hindustani music. His life spanned the era of courtly patronage as the Maharajah of Jodhpur's principal musician, the era of All India Radio as national patron and the music's breakthrough into modern times through recordings and film work, including Aandhiyan (1945), or art films such as Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960), plus recitals and teaching. Three sons, Aashish, Alam-e-Aftabuddin and Manik (the last two by his third wife, Mary Johnson Khan), continue on the sarod path.

Ken Hunt

Ali Akbar Khan: sarod player, composer and teacher: born Shivpur, Tripura District, East Bengal (now Bangladesh) 14 April 1922; married three times (eight sons, four daughters); died San Anselmo, Marin County, California 18 June 2009.