Ali Akbar Khan (14 April 1922-18 June 2009), often referred to as Khansahib or by the title Ustad (master), was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod. Khan was instrumental in popularising Indian classical music in the West, both as a performer (often in conjunction with Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar), and as a teacher. He established a music school in Calcutta in 1956, and the Ali Akbar College of Music in 1967, which is now located in San Rafael, California and has a branch in Basel, Switzerland. Khan also composed several classical ragas and film scores. He was a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
April 14 marked the 95th death anniversary of classical maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
Trained as a musician and instrumentalist by his father, Allauddin Khan, Khan first came to America in 1955 on the invitation of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and later settled in California. Khan was nominated for five Grammy Awards and was accorded India's second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1989. He has also won a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts's National Heritage Fellowship.
Ali Akbar Khan was born in the village of Shibpur, Nabinagar Upazila, Brahmanbaria , in present-day Bangladesh, (then Comilla, East Bengal), to renowned musician and teacher, Allauddin Khan and Madina Begum. Soon after his birth, Khan's family returned to Maihar (in present day Madhya Pradesh, India) where his father was the primary court musician for the Maharaja of the princely state.
Ali Akbar Khan, after years of rigorous training gave his debut performance at a music conference in Allahabad in 1936, at the age of 13. Three years later, in December 1939, he accompanied Ravi Shankar on the sarod during the latter's debut performance at the same conference; this was the first of many jugalbandis (duets) between the two musicians. In 1938 Khan gave his first recital on All India Radio (AIR), Bombay (accompanied on the tabla by Alla Rakha), and starting in January 1940, he gave monthly performances on AIR, Lucknow. Finally in 1944, both Shankar and Khan left Maihar to start their professional careers as musicians; Shankar went to Bombay, while Khan became the youngest Music Director for AIR, Lucknow and was responsible for solo performances and composing for the radio orchestra.
In 1943, on his father's recommendation, Khan was appointed a court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Hanwant Singh. There, he taught and composed music besides giving recitals and was accorded the title of Ustad by the Maharaja. When the princely states were wound down with India's independence in 1947 and Hanwant Singh died in a plane crash in 1948, Khan moved to Bombay.
Beginning in 1945, Khan also started recording a series of 78 rpm disks (which could record about three minutes of music) at the HMV Studios in Bombay. For one such record he conceived a new composition Raga Chandranandan ("moonstruck"), based on four evening ragas, Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Nandakauns and Kaushi Kanada. This record was a huge success in India, and the raga found a worldwide audience when a 22-minute rendition was re-recorded for the Master Musician of India LP in 1965 one of Khan's seminal recordings. Khan was based in the United States for the last four decades of his life. He toured extensively until he was prevented from doing so by ill health in the period up to his death from renal failure.
Ali Akbar Khan married three times, and is survived by seven sons and four daughters. The most notable of his children are Aashish Khan (Sarode), Dhyanesh Khan (1941-90; sarod), Pranesh Khan (tabla), and Alam Khan (sarod).
The writer is a freelance contributor.