Ali Akbar Khan: Maestro who displayed technical finesse and stirring intensity

Ali Akbar Khan (14 April 1922–18 June 2009) evolved a vocabulary and idiom of his own and influenced almost all the subsequent sarod players. Yehudi Menuhin described him as the greatest musician

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Kuldeep Kumar

So short and ephemeral is public memory that the 96th birth anniversary of sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan passed us by on April 14 without any murmur in the music world that has largely been beset with unabashed self-promotion and unbridled pursuit of commercial success. However, those who had the good fortune of attending his concerts and listening to his recordings will always cherish those memories and savour the divine music that he created.

In 1966 when Yehudi Menuhin described Ali Akbar Khan as “an absolute genius…perhaps the greatest musician in the world”, the world sat up and took due notice as the words of unusual praise were uttered by no ill-informed music critic of a newspaper but by a man who himself had come to be regarded as one of the all-time great violinists even before the age of 20. Some would consider the Yehudi as the greatest violinist of the twentieth century because his playing displayed dazzling technical virtuosity coupled with rare emotional intensity. Not surprisingly, these two qualities were the hallmark of Ali Akbar Khan’s music too.

His reclusive younger sister Annapurna Devi (born Roshanara Khan), who has become a living legend surrounded by an inexplicable mystique, is of the opinion that “purity of ragadari (treatment of a raga), innovation, unbelievable layakari and unmatched creativity” were the qualities that made Ali Akbar Khan into a rare musician. Ravi Shankar, who had a life-long association with him as his gurubhai, brother-in-law and musical collaborator, described him as the “greatest instrumentalist” in the world of Hindustani classical music.

The soul of Indian classical music—be it of the North (Hindustani) or of the South (Carnatic)—resides in on-the-spot improvisations within the pre-determined parameters of a raga. This presupposes musical creativity if one wants to become a real artiste. Indian music is not written like its Western counterpart, thus giving each artiste uncommon freedom to interpret the same raga in his or her own unique way. A raga is not merely a melodic scale. It has its own distinct personality because of a certain mandatory combination of notes in a specified order and, according to musicians like Kishori Amonkar, it also has a particular mood. Different musicians would express different things while performing the same raga. These and many other characteristics place a raga in a category of its own and distinguish it from a written piece of Western classical music.

Ali Akbar Khan was born on April 14, 1922, to Alauddin Khan and Medina Begum at Shibpur in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). His father Alauddin Khan was one of the most famous and revered musicians of the twentieth century whose style of playing sarod emerged as one of the dominant styles along with the two already existing styles of the Shahjahanpur gharana as represented by Sakhawat Husain and the Gwalior gharana as represented by Hafiz Ali Khan, father of the present-day maestro Amjad Ali Khan. As Alauddin Khan settled in a small princely state of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh as the teacher of the local ruler, his gharana came to be known as the Maihar gharana and became the only gharana that produced top-class artistes who mastered not one but several instruments. Alauddin Khan is the only musician whose disciples included maestros like Ali Akbar Khan and Bahadur Khan (Sarod), Annapurna Devi (Surbahar), Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee (Sitar), VG Jog (Violin) and Pannalal Ghosh (Flute). These disciples in turn trained musicians like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Devendra Murdeshwar, Umashankar Mishra, Shamim Ahmed, Joya Biswas, Sharan Rani, and last but not the least, Anoushka Shankar.


Alauddin Khan played various instruments and was a veritable encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. As a teacher, he was virtually a tyrant

Alauddin Khan played various instruments and was a veritable encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. As a teacher, he was virtually a tyrant. Ali Akbar Khan’s training in music began when he was only three and went on till the death of his father in 1972 although by that time, Ali Akbar Khan had become an internationally acclaimed musician. Later, he told an American interviewer: “Up to the age of sixteen or seventeen, I had not been allowed to say anything except yes or no. If I said ‘No’, my father would beat me up. I learnt to speak only here in America because I had to teach.” Ravi Shankar too wrote in his autobiography: “Ali Akbar told me that he had been compelled to practice fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and there were times when Baba (Alauddin Khan) tied him to a tree for hours and refused to let him eat if his progress was not satisfactory.” This was disputed by the late Jitendra Pratap, a well known music critic who had stayed for many years in Maihar to learn from Alauddin Khan), but Ali Akbar Khan’s son Alam Khan confirmed its veracity to this writer during a conversation.


It was rigorous training that equipped Ali Akbar Khan with excellent technique as well as musical knowledge. His alap was the most systematic and elaborate, his layakari was absolutely mesmerising and his treatment of gats (rhythm-based compositions) was soul touching

It was this rigorous training that equipped Ali Akbar Khan with excellent technique as well as musical knowledge. His alap was the most systematic and elaborate, his layakari was absolutely mesmerising and his treatment of gats (rhythm-based compositions) was soul touching. He evolved a vocabulary and idiom of his own and influenced almost all the subsequent sarod players. He gave his first performance at the age of 13 and recorded his first commercial disc for HMV in Lucknow in 1943. He also served at the Lucknow station of the All India Radio for a few years. He joined the court of the Jodhpur Maharaja and remained in service for seven years. According to the late sarod maestro Budddhadev Dasgupta, it was in Lucknow that Ali Akbar Khan matured into an artiste. “When I heard him for the first time,” Dasgupta told this writer, “I felt that he was like a musical dictionary which had every word in it but somehow one could not connect them. However, a few years later, when I heard his broadcast from AIR Lucknow, I could not believe my ears. He was simply writing poetry on sarod. I had never heard that kind of sarod ever before.”

Little wonder that Yehudi Menuhin invited him and Ravi Shankar to visit the United States in 1955. For some reason, Ravi Shankar had to drop out and Ali Akbar Khan went and performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also recorded the first Western LP of Indian classical music. And the rest is history. He opened his college there, trained thousands of students and became one of the most famous musicians. His duets with Ravi Shankar were hugely popular both in India and abroad. Like Ravi Shankar, he too composed music for several films including Chetan Anand’s Andhiyan, Ivory-Merchant’s House Holder, Tapan Sinha’s Khudito Pashan and Satyajit Ray’s Devi. Many awards came his way including the Padma Vishushan and MacArthur (Genius Award). However, he cherished only one title that was bestowed on him by his father and guru. Once after listening to his son’s playing, Alauddin Khan, who hardly ever praised his disciples, called him and said, “Today, I declare that you are Swar Samrat”. To Ali Akbar Khan, no honour could be greater than this.

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