This essay was written and posted in July of 2009.  Today, April 13, 2012, is the 90th anniversary of Ali Akbar Khan’s birth.  It is fitting to post these words in memory of this great musician.

Elegy to Ali Akbar Khan

A little over a month ago, the world lost one of its greatest musicians.  I’m not referring to Michael Jackson, but rather to India’s master musician Ali Akbar Khan.  His passing was not unexpected.  He had been in poor health for several years, requiring regular kidney dialysis.  Nonetheless, his passing marks the end of an era, a loss that affects his students and followers around the world.  The New York Times posted an extensive obituary.  NPR highlighted his passing with excerpts of his music and a short interview with tabla master Zakir Hussain, who was on tour in England at the time.

Rather than repeating the accolades listed in the various media reports of his passing, I would like to simply tell my personal story of my experiences with this man.  I first became aware of Indian classical music while I was at Florida State University in the late sixties, listening to Ravi Shankar’s Live in Monterrey LP album.  Soon after that, I heard Ali Akbar Khan’s name for the first time.  When I traveled to India for the first time in 1970, I was introduced to the beautiful flute music that would lead me a few years later to want to learn to play the Indian flute.  Perhaps it was during that first trip to India that I first heard recordings of Ali Akbar’s music.  I returned to the states in late 1972, after having lived in Europe and traveled to India and Afghanistan.  Two years later, during my first trip to California, I discovered that Ali Akbar had founded a college of music in Marin County, California, in 1967.  At that point in my life, I had decided that I didn’t want to live in Georgia any more.  And so, in early 1975, I moved to Marin County, California, and enrolled at Ali Akbar College of Music.

All students of Indian classical music at Ali Akbar College begin their studies with “Beginning Vocal” class.  This class is not about learning to become a virtuoso singer.  Rather, Indian music teaching tradition is based on instruction in vocal music.  The traditional teaching method is for the teacher (in this case, Ali Akbar Khan himself) to sing the various melodies, variations, and improvisations of specific ragas, after which the students sing back and repeat what the teacher just sang.  Immersing oneself in an hour-long class, singing one raga, gives the student the experience of the mood and character of each individual raga, as well as a feel for the particular ways in which the notes of the raga are approached and played.  The nearest corresponding analogue to a raga in Western classical music is a “mode” or “scale”.  But while a raga is usually described as a type of mode or scale, the depth of the musical content contained in a traditional raga is much deeper than the simple notes implied by the terms “mode” and “scale.”

After class, it was traditional for students to show their appreciation and respect for Ali Akbar Khan by going up to him after class and touching his feet.  In Indian culture, the feet are considered to be “unclean”.  (Many Indians walk either in sandals or barefoot, so this cultural belief is literally and figuratively true.) Everyone takes off their shoes when attending classes.  It is considered very disrespectful to point the bottom of one’s feet toward the teacher or even toward a musical instrument.  So to touch a teacher’s feet with one’s hand as a sign of respect signifies that “I am lower than your feet.”

I was initially reticent to follow this tradition.  I am basically an egalitarian social democrat, not deferential to or respectful of class differences or social superiority.  So I held back from the foot-touching ritual for several months, before I finally recognized:  This guy is the “real thing”…He deserves the respect he is getting…This is like having classes with Beethoven or some equivalent giant in Western classical music.  And so I eventually joined the tradition at the end of every class of touching the master’s feet.  Interestingly enough, Ali Akbar Khan, known affectionately to all as “Khansahib” (literally, Mr. Khan, Sir) must have remembered my initial reticence.  When I would meet him in later years, when I was no longer studying at the college, upon meeting again, he would offer me his hand to shake, rather than expecting that I should touch his feet as so many of his students would do whenever they met him.

Khansahib’s personal musical story began with his father Allauddin Khan.  If Ali Akbar could be compared to Beethoven, then Allauddin was Bach.  Allauddin was an immensely talented master musician, who was a legendary stern taskmaster.  He forced Ali Akbar to practice for hours on end for many years.  Legend has it that, as a young man, Allauddin had thrown himself in front of the Maharaja’s carriage to demand an audience with the Maharaja, to request that he might become a court musician.  Otherwise, failing that, he intended to take opium and commit suicide.  The story goes that the Maharaja granted a hearing to this impudent young man, bringing Allauddin into the grand residence, putting a number of instruments in a pile in front of him, and saying, okay, if you want to be a court musician, prove yourself by playing for the Maharaja.  Supposedly, Allauddin could play competently on all the instruments, such that he was immediately taken into the Maharaja’s entourage!  Indeed, Khansahib told me that his father had once played clarinet.  (He told me this when I played clarinet in Beginning Instrumental class.)  Allauddin was certainly a master of the Sarode, the stringed instrument which Ali Akbar made world famous.  In his later years, Allauddin mostly played violin.

Since Ali Akbar Khan was born into this family of court musicians, his proscribed job was to follow in his father’s footsteps.  The court musician’s job was to be available at any time of day or night to entertain the Maharaja and his guests.  When India achieved its independence from England in 1948, the Maharajas lost their power and wealth (which had been supported by the British) as the newly independent country experienced its violent partition from what would become Pakistan and later, Bangla Desh, at which time India began the current phase of its history, as the world’s largest democracy.  Ali Akbar came initially to the states on tour in the fifties, becoming a permanent resident in the sixties.  In the nineties, he received a Macarthur Genius Grant.

Under the Indian music tradition, the student-disciple learns his art from his teacher-guru for decades, until the student is ready to take his place on the world stage as a master in his own right.  Khansahib would sometimes make fun of the impatience of American music students with the following food analogy:  “Learning a raga is similar to preparing a curry.  To make a really great curry is a long process.  The cook must choose the best ingredients in the bazaar.  Sometimes the beans must be soaked for hours, or the meat must be marinated overnight.  Then the cook must sauté the fresh herbs and spices in oil, adding onion, garlic, and the rest of the ingredients one by one at the right time.  Then the curry must simmer for hours to blend all the ingredients.  Finally, the curry is served with freshly made bread, rice, and yogurt.  But you Americans don’t appreciate a curry…you just want a fast food hamburger.”

American students would come into class with their pencils and notebooks and begin to take notes immediately when Khansahib would begin singing a raga.  Finally, in frustration, he insisted that everyone put down their pencils.  He said, “How can you listen to me when you are busy taking notes?  If you don’t really listen carefully to me, what do you think you will be writing on the paper?  Do you think your notes are your teacher?  Your notes can be best used as toilet paper!  If you listen carefully, and learn as I teach, then you can make any notes you need after class.”  That led to the tradition that students would simply listen, learn, and participate in class.  At the conclusion of class, the most advanced student would write (from memory) the contents of the class, the progression of the raga, on the blackboard, at which time the other students could copy his notes for themselves.

Another anecdote concerned the slow exposition of the raga in the opening “Alap”, the slow introduction of the raga, which is performed without composed melody or rhythm.  He said, “The Alap is like a sensuous stripper…the dancer slowly removes one piece of clothing at a time as she dances.  She teases…she takes her time…she builds the audience’s expectation and anticipation.  Every movement is done intentionally and artistically.  But you, Americans…”…at which point he pantomimed the dancer simply opening her gown to flash her naked body.

Someone asked Khansahib what he thought of rock music…jazz…country and western music…as if to set up the conversation in such a way that Khansahib might say that Indian classical music was somehow better than, or superior to these other styles of music.  But he refused to take the bait.  Instead, he said, “Any music that is in tune and in rhythm is good music.”

I personally heard all the stories listed above.  I read this final quote, (repeated here to the best of my recollection):  “If you practice for some years, you might begin to please yourself.  If you practice diligently for many more years, you might please your guru.  If you practice for your whole life, you might please God.”

My friend David explained the experience of having known Ali Akbar Khan with the following analogy:  “I was living my life in my own world orbiting some minor planet in some obscure corner of the galaxy.  And then, this super-nova came along and dragged me out of my comfortable orbit into a new path, attracted by the gravity of this great super-nova, taking me into new, unknown, and uncharted realms of the universe.  And now, suddenly, the super-nova has vanished, leaving a big vacuum where it used to be.  I don’t know where or what my next new world orbit will be.  I just know it will be a different world…a different life for my having known Ali Akbar Khan.

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