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'SwaraSamrat' Ali Akbar Khan Saheb - A Musician Par Excellence!

Engrossed in the musical nuances...Pic by Raghu Rai

Ali Akbar Khan Saheb one of the Greatest Sarod Maestros that India has ever seen, painted the cosmos through his medium of expression the ‘Sarod’, transcending the known domain of Hindustani Classical Music bringing forth the human emotions that created instantaneous dialogue between the maestro and his listeners with nuances beyond contemplation!


Ali Akbar Khan was born in the village of Shibpur in Bangladesh and was the only son of late Padma Vibhusan Acharya Dr. Allauddin Khan and Madina Begum. There’s an interesting legend associated with his birth that says, “His father Baba Allauddin Khan once met a Sadhu at a railway station who blessed him and gave an apple for his wife to eat, promising him the birth of a son, who would carry forward his musical legacy… and then Ali Akbar Khan was born,” writes his daughter Lajwanti Khan Gupta in her book ‘Life-Through the Lens of Music - A Daughter’s diary dedicated to her father’.


Ali Akbar Khan’s musical tradition (Gharana) traces back to MianTansen, a 16th century musical genius who was the court musician of Emperor Akbar. It is believed that his father Baba UstadAllaudinKhansaheb was the foremost Shishya (disciple) of Wazir Khan, a direct disciple of MiyanTansen. Baba Allaudin Khan Saheb is acknowledged as the most influential figure in North Indian Classical Instrumental Music, who was the primary court musician for the Maharaja of Maihar, the Princely State of Madhya Pradesh and is credited to have revolutionized not only the presentation of Indian instrumental music, but also for creating new instruments while perfecting existing instruments.


At the early age of three, Ali Akbar Khan received initial training in various music instruments and vocal music from his father Baba Allauddin Khan Saheb, who later chose ‘Sarod’ for him to focus upon. His father and mentor Baba Allauddin Khan Saheb was a perfectionist and a hard task master who taught him under strict discipline with lessons starting before dawn and often lasting for over eighteen hours a day. Khan also learned to play the Tabla and the Pakhavaj from his uncle, Us. Aftabuddin Khan. Young Ali Akbar learnt the careful crafting of each note combining it with his imaginative way of expressing the ancient ragas with his bold fingers plucking the strings of the Sarod, thus creating mellow passages that brought an incredible sense of divinity to his renditions. In 1939 Ali Akbar Khan gave his debut concert at the age of 13 at the All India Music Conference in Allahabad, which opened a new chapter in Indian instrumental music by redefining the way the sarod was played.


Young Ali Akbar was quite rebellious and at the age of 16 ran away from his home in Maihar to explore his destiny. He reached Mumbai to become a radio artist in All India Radio by the name of Shibu Datta. Eventually his radio concerts became popular and his listenership increased. When the Maharaja of Maihar once heard him, he was so enthralled, that he told his father Baba Allauddin Khan, that he had found a new talent on AIR, who was perhaps better than his son Ali Akbar. Baba Allaudin Khan somehow knew the spark in his son and now became curious about this Shibu Dutta. When he finally heard the young man on the AIR broadcast, he declared him to be none other than his own son Ali Akbar khan and brought him back home. To keep him home and also administer his learning, he even got him married to a beautiful young girl.


In his early twenties, Ali Akbar Khan made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label. He then moved to the dazzling court of Jodhpur to work as a court musician to Maharaja Umaid Singh and later his son Hanuwant Singh. He worked there for seven years until the Maharaja's untimely death. The state of Jodhpur bestowed upon him his first title, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. When Ali Akbar Khan first received the title of Ustad as a relatively young man, his father merely laughed.


Although, in the later years of his life Baba Allaudin Khan once told him, "I am so pleased with your work in music that I will do something which is very rare. As your Guru and father, I am giving you a title; ‘SwaraSamrat’ (Emperor of Sound).” Ali Akbar khan heard him in stunned silence - this being praise from a father who had not only been hard on him but harsh too. When the enormity of his father’s words finally sank in, he renounced his title of Ustad. “He would gently request his concert organizers and others to use his name rather than any titles. Once his Daughter LajwantiJi asked him why he wouldn’t use the titles of Ustad and Acharya anymore and he told her, “I am happy with what my father has given me and after that, no awards or recognitions matter to me.” 


Ali Akbar Khan Saheb was a pathfinder and a unique musician with a creative genius acknowledged internationally. He happened to be the most influential master of his instrument, as his renditions elevated his listeners to a different sphere altogether. The initial stroke of his sarod was enough to pierce the souls of his listeners. He sat with his eyes closed, his shoulders drooping, head bowed, and hands cradling his finely tuned, pitch perfect sarod, stroking the strings with such an ease of balance with his fingers slowly moving to create the sounds of human existence, that forged an aesthetic dialogue between the listener’s and his speaking instrument.  


Ali Akbar Khan carved new heights for sarod players as he was the first Indian musician to record in the west. His musical accomplishments were admired by both eastern and western musicians for his brilliant compositions. Lord Yehudi Menuhin called him ‘An Absolute Genius’(The Greatest Musician in the World)and invited him to perform and record in USA in 1955.


Ali Akbar Khansaheb’s long life and career spanned eras and continents with his mastery of the sarod. He opened the first Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta in 1956 as popularizing Indian Classical Music was the mission of his life. In 1960’s he made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, and gave the first television performance of Indian Music on Allistair Cooke's Omnibus, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the west. In 1967 he decided to teach Indian Music to foreign students who were aspiring to learn Indian music and opened his school in San Rafael, California, where he taught for the next 42 years and trained thousands of students, of Western and Indian origin, at this institute. He visited Basel, Switzerland for more than 20 years and in 1985 opened the Ali Akbar College of Music in Switzerland. 


Ali Akbar Khansaheb wanted to spread awareness about Indian Classical Music and thus started conducting annual seminars which attracted students from all over Europe. Starting from basic to advance levels the college imparted instructions on a variety of instrumentals like Sitar, Sarod, Tabla including Indian Classical Vocal Music along with its theory and history. The College regularly invited some of India’s finest musicians to give seminars and hold workshops like - Smt. Lakshmi Shankar, Us.Allah Rakha Khan Saheb, Us.Zakir Hussain, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Us.Sultan Khan,  Pt.Jasraj, Prof. George Ruckert, Pt. Sankar, Gundecha Brothers and many more. From inception to date, the Ali Akbar College has given training to over 1500 students from over 14 countries, and has organized over 180 concerts of India’s finest virtuosos! 


Ali Akbar Khansahib composed and recorded music for films throughout his career. He composed extensively in India beginning with "Aandhiyan" by Chetan Anand (1953) and went on to create music for "House Holder" by Ivory Merchant and "KhuditaPashan" ("Hungry Stone") for which he won the "Best Musician of the Year" Award.


Ali Akbar khan received the titles of ‘HathiSarupa’ and ‘DowariTajeem’ at the Jodhpur Palace's Golden Jubilee Celebration in 1993. He received all of India’s highest music awards and was considered a “national treasure”. In the USA he was honored with the MacArthur “genius award” and the National Heritage Fellowship, which was presented to him by Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1997. Also he became the second recipient to receive the Asian Paints Shiromani Award - Hall of Fame, following filmmaker Satyajit Ray. 


It is an interesting fact that his father Baba Allauddin Khan, created the first written notation of Indian music, as he learnt the western classical music notation system and went on to invent orchestral compositions in classical ragas with harmony. On June 14th 1994, The Ali Akbar Khan Foundation was created in order to archive and preserve Baba Allauddin Khan Saheb’s musical tradition of Rampur and Maihar known as Baba Allauddin Senia Gharana, bestowing a vast repertoire of compositions available in written, recorded or oral formats. There have been over 100 composition books of Baba Allauddin KhanSaheb, which were preserved, transcribed, cataloged and translated into English by his disciples.

Very few people know about the rare collection of almost 10,000 compositions from 16th - 20th centuries, which belonged to a private collection of the family. The collection contains 360 different exercises for voice and instruments, old traditional compositions and Baba Allauddin's own compositions in Tantrakari style (Instrumental linguistics), songs in dhrupad style and old taranas, and a great variety of Talas (rhythm cycles) that all are quite rare. Unfortunately, much of it is in a state of continuous physical deterioration and needs preservation as a national heritage of music for future generations.

Ali Akbar khan Saheb once wrote about his training on the sarod, “If you practice for ten years, you may begin to please yourself, after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, after 30 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.” 

The Maestro had truly achieved all the benchmarks of performances and departed peacefully on the evening of June 18, 2009, surrounded by his family and close disciples at the age of 87. His departure was a colossal loss to the entire music world.

Picture above by Raghu Rai is courtesy this link https://d1drtiiz13sc9k.cloudfront.net/storyltd/2013/november/raghu_1311stor_13139_tbig.jpg 

To hear Ali Akbar Khan Saheb

1. Raga ZilaKhafi

2. Raga BilaskhaniTodi

3. Raga Piloo

4. Raga KafiUstad Ali Akbar Khan with Zakir Hussain rare recording


About Author: Priyaankaa Mathur has submitted her Ph.D to Delhi University and is an accomplished Hindustani Classical vocalist. Presently Learning under Us. Aslam Hussain Khan Saheb in Jaipur and Khurja Gharana. She has previously learnt from the legendary Ganasaraswati Kishori Amonkarji and Smt. Shalmalee Joshi in Jaipur Atrauli tradition and Ustad Iqbal Ahmed Khan Saheb of Delhi. Her repertoire includes Khyal, Thumri, Ghazals, Bhajans and Sufi genres.


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To hear Raga Kedar by author 

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