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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee