Legendary sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan died of renal failure at his San Anselmo, California, home on Friday. He was 87, and is survived by 11 children from three marriages.
“Aalam (Ali Akbar’s youngest son) informed me that Ustadji passed away at around 9.45am (Indian time). His last rites will be performed there,” Khan’s disciple and sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee told DNA from Kolkata.
Ali Akbar, born on April 14, 1922, in Comilla in present-day Bangladesh, was one of the greatest teachers and ambassadors of Indian classical music. He is credited with taking this music to the West, ahead of sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, whose first wife was Akbar’s sister, the sitar and surbahar exponent Annapurna Devi.
News of Ali Akbar’s death sent the world of music into mourning. Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain told DNA he was cancelling all appointments to be present at the funeral. “I am on my way to San Francisco from London and will reach there on the 20th afternoon,” Hussain said in an SMS.
Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan told DNA: “I have lost my elder brother and won’t be able to express the loss in words. I am performing in Albuquerque in a few hours and my concert is dedicated to him.”
Ali Akbar’s musical pedigree was deep-rooted. He was the son of multi-instrumentalist Baba Allaudin Khan, who founded the Maihar Gharana, the school most closely associated with Hindustani classical music the world over and among the prominent musicians of which are sitarists Ravi Shankar and the late Nikhil Banerjee. Allaudin Khan and Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan, Amjad Ali’s father, were gurubhais as they had the same teacher, the veena player Muhammad Wazir of Rampur.
Ali Akbar, Khansaheb to admirers, began learning music from his father at three. He made waves with his concert debut at 17 at the All-India Music Conference in Allahabad in 1939, an evening that is said to have redefined sarod playing. He went on to compose several ragas, including Gauri Manjari, Lajwanti, Madhavi and Madhu Malati, and also scored Bengali films like Jhinder Bandi, Kshudhita Pashan and Satyajit Ray’s Devi.
The three Ali Akbar Khan Colleges of Music -- founded in 1956, 1967 and 1985, respectively, in Kolkata, San Rafael (California) and Basel (Switzerland) -- attracted thousands of students from all over the world, remaining unparalleled institutions for the teaching of Indian classical music and spread of Indian culture.
“Something that I find truly admirable in him is that he dedicated the last 40 years of his life teaching,” Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma told DNA. “Teaching the sarod to a novice when you are a master can be excruciatingly boring. But Ustadji did this tough job for 40 years.”
Among Ali Akbar’s numerous awards and recognitions were the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Bhushan, the MacArthur Genius Award, two Grammy nominations, the President of India Award and, the most valuable to him, the title of Swar Samrat (emperor of melody) bestowed by his father and guru.
But despite his phenomenal success, Ali Akbar remained a very simple man -- another inheritance from his illustrious father, a straightforward Bangaal from East Bengal.
-- With inputs from agencies