Khan, Ali Akbar

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ali Akbar Khan


For the Record

Selected discography


Ali Akbar Khan may be the giant of Indian classical music, as the New York Times called him, but the five-time Grammy Award nominee has brought that music to a worldwide audience. The undisputed master of the saroda 25-stringed large plucked lute on which Indian songs known as ragas are playedKhan has been named by the Indian government as a National Living Treasure. Khan is a wildly prolific musician, performer, and teacher. With more than 95 albums to his credit, he maintains an extensive touring schedule and teaches at the three Ali Akbar Colleges of Music in California, India, and Switzerland. Recognized as one of the greatest musicians of our time, according to the Washington Post, Khan has been awarded the highest arts honors in India and the United States and was the first Indian musician to receive the MacArthur Foundations genius grant. More than anything else, Robert Browning, executive director of the World Music Institute, told the New York Times, he has built a knowledge of Indian music.

Ali Akbar Khansahib was born on April 14, 1922, in Shivpur, East Bengal (Bangladesh) to the Hindustani musician Allauddin Khan. Musical talent can be traced far back in Khans family tree to Mian Tansen, a sixteenth-century musician in the court of North India Moghul Emperor Akbar. Khan began studying voice with his father and drums with his uncle at the age of three. His father trained him on many instruments but decided that he must concentrate on voice and on the sarod. Khan practiced the complex instrument 18 hours a day for the next 20 years. I started to learn this music at the same time I began to talk, Khan told the Los Angeles Times. So it is as natural to me as speaking. Its not something I have to think about any more than I have to think about the words Im saying. The young musician made his first public performance at the age of 13. Khan continued his studies with his father until his father was over 100 years old, though the elder Khan often beat his son for what he saw as lack of dedication.

Khan was in his early twenties when he made his first recording and soon thereafter became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, a post he held until the Maharajas death seven years later. The state of Jodhpur gave Khan his first title as a young man, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. When Khan received the title, his father was humored. Khans fathers pride for his son was revealed much later. Late in his life, Allauddin Khan gave his son a title of his own, that of Swara Samrat, or Emperor of Melody. Khan understood his fathers delayed praise for his skill on the sarod. If you practice for ten years, he wrote in a concert program, as quoted in the Washington Post, you may be 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 become a true artistthen you may even please God.

For the Record

Born Ali Akbar Khansahib on April 14, 1922, in East Bengal (Bangladesh); married Mary; children: Alam, Manik, Madina, and eight other living children by two previous wives.

Began musical studies with his father and uncle at age three; began performing publicly, c. 1935; held the position of court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, c. late 1940s; made his first visit to the United States, made the first recording of Indian classical music on a Western record label, and was the first Indian musician to perform on American television, 1955; founded Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, 1956; founded Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County, CA, 1967; played with Ravi Shankar at George Harrisons Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, 1971; performed at the United Nations in New York and at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. at celebrations for Indias fiftieth year of independence, 1997; adjunct professor to the Department of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz, 1999-.

Awards: Best Musician of the Year Award for Hungry Stones film soundtrack, 1960; President of India Award (Indias highest award for the arts), 1963; President of India Award, 1966; The Grand Prix du Disque, 1968; Gold Disc Award for Concert for Bangladesh, 1971; Padma Bhusan Award from the Government of India, 1971; Padma Vibhusan Award (highest honor presented to a civilian in India), 1988; Kalidas Sanman Award, Madya Pradesh Academy of Music and Fine Arts, 1991; first Indian musician to receive MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1991; Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award, 1992; The Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award, Bay Area Music Awards Foundation (BAMMIES), 1993; Governors Award for Outstanding Achievement, The Recording Academy, 1998; Indira Gandhi Gold Plaque, Asiatic Society of Calcutta, 1998.

Addresses: Record company AMMP, Alam Madina Music Productions, 74 Broadmoor Ave., San Anselmo, CA 94960. WebsiteAli Akbar Khan/AMMP Official Website:

In addition to a prolific career as a recording artist and concert musician, Khan has composed and recorded music for films. His career as a composer began in India in 1953 with Aandhiyan by Chetan Anand. He went on to compose for House Holder, the first James Ivory and Ismail Merchant film, and Little Buddha by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Khan made his first visit to the United States in 1955 at the invitation of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and he performed a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also made the first recording of Indian classical music on a Western record label and was the first Indian musician to perform on American television when he appeared on Alistair Cookes Omnibus. Both engagements were well received. At first, Khan was a reluctant ambassador. I didnt want to come at all, he told the Los Angeles Times. I wanted to open a college in Calcutta. And when I came here people didnt have any idea that India had some kind of classical music. But I played and I liked the audiences, and I think they liked me. Celebrated for his intensity, Khans lines are vocalistic; they sing and sigh, wrote New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, reviewing a 1997 performance, adding, even in its most exuberant moments, the music kept a reflective undertone. Another critic, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, called Khans playing so exquisitely pure, so serene, so painfully human or more than human, and so beautiful.

Khans universal popularity bloomed in the mid 1960s when the Beatles discovered Indian music and brought it to the masses. In 1971, Khan joined his brother-in-law, famed sitarist Ravi Shankar who had also studied with Khans father, onstage during George Harrisons Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. Though immensely popular, Khan later scorned the event as superficial, calling it a monkey show.

In 1956, to pass along his knowledge of music, Khan founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India. In 1965, he began teaching in America and was overwhelmed by the positive response from very talented Western students. Khan opened the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in Marin County, California, in 1967 where he trained more than 10,000 Americans on the sarod and the tradition of Indian music. He later opened an extension of his music college in Basel, Switzerland. I teach what I learned from my father, Khan told the Los Angeles Times. The same system, with the same traditional purity. The same kind of devotion, the same love for music has to be built up. And that can only happen when it comes from the heart. Otherwise music doesnt last. It doesnt stay. Its like a medicine that doesnt work.

In 1997, Khan celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, AACMs thirtieth anniversary, and performed at the United Nations in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. at celebrations of Indias fiftieth year of independence. Also that year, he received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowshipthe nations highest arts honorpresented by then-first lady Hillary Clinton at a White House ceremony. These skills passed down from generations are irreplaceable, Clinton said, according to the Marin Independent Journal. This reminds us that diversity is our strength and the arts are what bind us together.

Khans honorary degrees include a degree of Doctor of Literature, Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, India, in 1973; degree of Doctor of Literature, University of Dacca, Bangladesh, in 1974; degree of Doctor of Letters, University of Delhi, India, in 1984; doctorate degree, Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, India, in 1998; and a degree of Doctor of Musical Arts, Honoris Causa, New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 2000.

In the family tradition, Khans son Alam began performing sarod publicly in 1998, and the two often perform together. In 1994, Khan founded the Baba Allauddin Institute to archive and preserve the vast collection of his fathers written and recorded works. In 2001, at age 78, Khan still taught six classes a week for nine months out of the year. He also continued to tour the world extensively. Every day Im finding some new energy, he told the Los Angeles Times, better ideas. The music gets younger as the body gets older. And one life is not enough to understand it all. My father used to say you have to be born ten times to get the music.

Selected discography

The Artistic Sound of Sarod, Chhanda Dhara, 1985.

Journey, Triloka, 1990.

Signature Series, Vol. 1, AMMP, 1990.

Signature Series, Vol. 2, AMMP, 1990.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Plays Alap, A Sarod Solo, Alam Madia, 1992.

Garden of Dreams, Triloka, 1993.

The Emperor of Sarod Live, Chhanda Dhara, 1994.

Signature Series, Vol. 3, Alam Madina, 1994.

Signature Series, Vol. 4, AMMP, 1994.

Rag Manj Khammaj & Rag Misra Mand, AMMP, 1994.

Live in San Francisco, AMMP, 1995.

In Berkeley (live), AMMP, 1995.

Jewels of Maihar, AMMP, 1995.

Live in Calcutta, Vol. 1, AMMP, 1995.

Live in Calcutta, Vol. 2, AMMP, 1995.

In Concert at St. Johns (live), AMMP, 1995.

Live in Delhi, AMMP, 1995.

In Eugene, Oregon (live), AMMP, 1995.

Traditional Music of India, Prestige, 1995.

Then and Now: The Music of the Masters Continues, Alam Madina, 1995.

Morning Visions, AMMP, 1995.

Passing on the Tradition (live), AMMP, 1997.

Legacy: 16th-18th Century Music from India, AMMP, 1997.



Indian Express, February 25, 2001.

Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1999.

Marin Independent Journal (Marin County, CA), September 24, 1997.

News-Gazette (Urbana, IL), February 19, 2001.

New York Times, November 18, 1997; December 24, 1997; August 15, 2000.

Washington Post, August 18, 1997; September 21, 1997.


Ali Akbar Khan, All Music Guide, (May 31, 2001).

Ali Akbar Khan/AMMP Official Website, (May 31, 2001).

Brenna Sanchez

Khan, Ali Akbar

views updated May 21 2018

Ali Akbar Khan

Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan (born 1922) is venerated in his homeland as a National Living Treasure, while internationally he is regarded as the greatest living classical Indian musician. A master of the sarod, a 25-stringed Indian instrument, Khan helped introduce and popularize Indian music throughout the Western world.

Khan was born on April 14, 1922, in Shivpur, East Bengal, an area now known as Bangladesh but then part of British-controlled India. He began learning and playing music when he was three years old. He was taught by his father, the late Padma Vibhusan Acharya Dr. Allauddin Khan, who is regarded as the most important figure in North Indian music of his time. The elder Khan played over 200 instruments and lived to be 110 years old. Regarded as both a great musician and teacher, Allauddin Khan attracted a great many aspiring Indian musicians who wanted to learn from the master.

Khan's family followed the rich tradition of North Indian classical music that had developed over 4,000 years and was based on ancient principles of rag (melody) and taal (rhythm). The family dates its ancestry back to Mian Tansen, a 16th-century court musician to the Mogul Emperor Akbar.

Allauddin Khan, who also mastered Western and African instruments during his career, continued teaching his son right up until his death in 1972. He also taught his daughters, Sharija, Jehanara, and Annapurna, and instructed many other famous musicians, among them the illustrious sitarist Ravi Shankar, flautist Pannalal Ghosh, and Ali Akbar Khan's own son sarodist, Aashish Khan.

Ali Khan's musical training was rigorous. For more than 20 years, starting at age three, he practiced every day for 18 hours a day. In an interview with V. R. Rao posted on the Cyberabad Web site, Khan explained that he learned music like a child learns language. "I didn't consciously want to learn music. It was more like a language that an infant learns," he said.

Khan's early musical education included a variety of string and percussion instruments including the sarod, sitar, sursingar, pakhavaj, rabab, and violin. In addition to the instruction from his father, Khan also learned vocals from his sister Jehanara and percussion from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. Eventually, his father recommended that he focus on the sarod, an ancient steel-clad member of the lute family at least 2,000 years old with 25 strings and played with a bow. The sarod, Khan's father said, could fulfill 200 instruments in one.

Success Came Early

Khan made his first public performance, in Allahabad in 1935, when he was only 13 years old. At the same time, he began composing his own music under his father's direction. His skill was such that, when he was still a teenager, Khan was scheduled to accompany his father on a tour of Europe and America. However, the plans were canceled because Khan did not like the idea of being away from his mother, and he was not practicing his music as much as his father felt he should. The elder Khan cut his tour short and returned to India, to make sure his son practiced 15 to 18 hours a day.

In 1938 Ravi Shankar began studying with Allauddin Khan in Maihar and, in 1941 he married his teacher's daughter, Ali Khan's sister Annapurna, who was then considered to be the premiere player of the surbahar, a deeper-toned, heavier relative of the sitar, which was Shankar's chosen instrument. Ali Khan studied along with his now-brother-in-law Shankar and, thanks to the guidance of Alluddin Khan, the two musicians became highly regarded in Hindustani music circles for their duets.

In 1943, when he was 21, Khan was appointed court musician to the maharaja of Jodhpur. Khan held this position until the maharaja died several years later. The state of Jodhpur bestowed on the young musician the title of "Ustad," or master musician. At first, Khan's father was amused that his son would receive such a high honor at such an early age. However, later in life, Allauddin Khan told his son that he had been extremely proud of him. Then, to show his pleasure and respect, he gave his son the title of "Swara Samrat" or "emperor of melody." Of all the honors that he received in his life, Ali Khan would value that one the most.

During the 1940s Khan also made his first sound recordings, and he began his own career as a teacher, instructing Maharajah Hanumantha Singh. New opportunities opened up when he met world famous violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin at a recital in Delhi in 1952. Menuhin, who would call Khan one of the greatest musician in the world, was so impressed that he encouraged the young man to perform in the West. This resulted in Khan's first trip to the United States in 1955, when he appeared in a first-of-its kind concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In addition, he appeared on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus television show, marking the first time Indian music was performed live on television. Khan's appearance had an enormous impact. It opened the door to Western acceptance of Indian music, an acceptance that reached full bloom in the 1960s, due, in large part, to the embracement of Indian music by the so-called "counterculture." However, at that time, Indian music and culture seemed alien to many Americans. "When I came in '55, because I was in Indian dress, people on the street in New York came out of the bars and shops and followed us," Khan remembered in an interview with Neela Banerjee for Asian Week. "They asked me, 'Who are you? Where are you from?' When I said 'India,' some of them didn't even know where it was. Or others who knew I was a musician asked funny questions like, 'How can you play music in India with all the tigers and snakes and monkeys you have to fight off?'"

In 1955 Khan also released his first Western recordings of Indian classical music, titled Music of India and Morning and Evening Ragas. The following year he established the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India. During the same decade Khan first began composing music for films, an activity he engaged in throughout his career. He composed his first score in 1953 for Aandhiyan, a film by Indian filmmaker Chetan Anand. Later, he would compose music for Devi (1960), by internationally acclaimed Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray; The Householder, (1963), the first film directed by the celebrated team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory; and Little Buddha, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Opened Music School

Throughout the 1960s, Khan continued recording music and releasing recordings. In 1963 and 1966 he received the President of India Award. In addition, acting upon the influence of his father, who had taught him the value of teaching music, he established the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley, California, in 1967, and moved the school to a new location in Marin County two years later. For a long time, he had attempted to set up a school in his homeland, with little success. "For thirty years I struggled to establish a teaching institution in Calcutta," he told Rao. "But it wasn't possible. No response."

By the mid-1960s the West was receptive to listening to and learning about Indian music. A large part of the general public had became aware of Indian music due to the interest in the form by popular rock musicians, such as George Harrison of the Beatles and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, both of whom integrated Indian instrumentation into their own compositions. The essence of Indian music fit well with the times, and many in the youth movement were willing and ready to explore ideas that were either ancient, revolutionary, exotic, or esoteric.

Complex in form, Indian music is also spiritual and contemplative. Although a performer, Khan sees himself more as a listener and as an extension of his sarod, and he can lose his sense of self while performing. Indian music, he explained to Rao, "is like a meditation, like going to temple. Music makes your heart very, very, very clear. You can feel what is peace, what is friendship, what is love, what you can do for others. Even when you hear, it is like fresh air, clean water—even if you don't understand it, when you hear it, it is pure."

The West Embraced Indian Music

By the mid-to late 1960s classical Indian musicians such as Khan and Shankar were appearing at U.S. and U.K. music festivals, including the ground-breaking Monterey Pop Festival in San Francisco in 1967 and the first Woodstock music festival held in Bethel, New York, in 1969. In fact, Indian music became a staple at such events, while also gaining its largest mass-audience exposure with The Concert for Bangladesh, a documentary film of a musical benefit organized by Harrison to raise funds for the starving people of that country. The performing lineup included some of the most famous rock stars of the era including Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Leon Russell as well as Shankar, who was accompanied for the event by Khan, Alla Rakah, and Kamala Chakravarty. (For his own concerts, Khan was most often accompanied by Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri on the tabla and son Alam on the sarode.)

During this period, Khan's fame on the international circuit was second only to that of Shankar due to Shankar's longer association with the Beatles. While Shankar had by now divorced Khan's sister, Annapurna, Shankar remained a disciple of Allauddin Khan. Shankar and Khan performed together for the final time at Montpellier, France, in July of 1985. Despite many pleas and generous offers, they never performed together again.

Honors and Awards Accumulated

In 1971 Khan received a Gold Disc award for his appearance on the bestselling Concert for Bangladesh album. The previous year, he earned a Grammy nomination for the recording Shree Rag. In 1973 and 1974 he received doctor of literature degrees from the Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, India, and the University of Dacca in Bangladesh, respectively.

In 1979 Khan started his own recording label, Alam Medina Music Productions label, named after his son. Throughout the next decade his recorded output was prolific. He released six albums in 1980, three in 1981, and four in 1982. In 1983, the year he released two more albums, he was again nominated for a Grammy award, this time for Misra Piloo. The following year he released four more albums and received a doctor of letters degree from the University of Delhi, India. From 1985 to 1986 Khan released nine more albums.

In addition to recording, Khan invested time in teaching. In 1985 he opened a new branch of his music school in Switzerland. In 1988, the year he produced his first music video, he received the Padma Vibhusan award, which is the highest honor presented to a civilian in India. He continued amassing honors and awards throughout the 1990s, in 1991 alone receiving the Kalidas Sanman award from the Madya Pradesh Academy of Music and Fine Arts as well as an honorary doctorate degree in arts from the California Institute of the Arts. He also became the first Indian musician to receive a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. The following year, he received the Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award in London. In 1993 he was honored with the titles of Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem during the Jodhpur Palace's Golden Jubilee Celebration, and also received the Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Music Awards Foundation.

Established Akbar Foundation

In 1994 Khan founded the Ali Akbar Khan Foundation to fund the Baba Allauddin Khan Institute, a library and archive dedicated to the preservation of his own compositions as well as his father's. This large-scale archiving project involves more than 30,000 compositions, including more than 10,000 compositions from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Khan's wife, sons, and students have joined their efforts to convert collections of music from old reel-to-reel tapes to digital master tapes.

In 1997, the year Khan celebrated his 75th birthday, he received the prestigious National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The presentation was made at the White House by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. That same year Khan became the second recipient, after filmmaker Satyajit Ray, to receive the Asian Paints Shiromani-Hall of Fame Award. In August of 1997, to celebrate the 50th year of India's independence, Khan performed at the United Nations in New York and at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at the request of the Indian Embassy.

Khan received yet another doctorate degree in 1998, this one from the Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, India. He also received the Indira Gandhi Gold Plaque from the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. That same year, Willie L. Brown Jr., mayor of San Francisco, proclaimed October 18th "Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Day." In 1999 Khan was appointed adjunct professor to the Department of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In this position he gave concerts and conducted classes and workshops. He also advised the Arts Division in developing courses and resources in classical music of India.

In 2002, to celebrate his life and times, Khan performed an 80th birthday concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He was accompanied by his 20-year old son Alam and tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri. Also that year, he received an honorary degree in musical arts from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Like his father before him, Khan has continued teaching and performing, although he gradually has cut down on his public performances. Also like his father, much of Khan's time is devoted to teaching his son, Alam.


Asian Week, January 11, 2002.


"Ali Akbar Khan," Indian Classical Music Society Web site, (December 18, 2003).

"Ali Akbar Khan," MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, (December 18 2003).

"Ali Akbar Khan—A Musical Giant,", (December 18, 2003)

Official Ali Akbar Khan Home Page, (December 18, 2003).

"Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Great Indian Sarod Player" (interview), Cyberbad Web site, (February, 1988).

Khan, Ali Akbar

views updated Jun 08 2018


KHAN, ALI AKBAR (1922–), musician and educator who helped popularize North Indian classical music in the second half of the twentieth century. The son of Allaudin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan was born in Shivpur, East Bengal, in 1922. He studied with his father (who also taught sitarist Ravi Shankar) in a context of royal patronage and experimentation. His professional career has included a diversity of roles, including court musician (to the Maharaja of Jodhpur), film composer (including Devi for Satyajit Ray), radio station music director, concert performer, and prolific teacher, and he has received numerous awards and honors. Khan, perhaps more than any other modern Indian classical musician, has demonstrated a flair and an interest for melding Indian sensibilities and Western materials.

Ali Akbar Khan's distinctive approach to the sarod, a North Indian lute, has emphasized original ideas, a rhythmic flair, and collaborative dynamics. His fluent melodic adeptness is evident in his creation of new rāgas from existing tunes and motifs as well as in his ability to draw new ideas from old rāgas. His performance style features a masterful control of rhythm and time and recognition of the drummer's art.

His Ali Akbar College of Music has two campuses—one in Kolkata and one in the San Francisco area—that have trained a new generation of performers and helped to educate the world about Indian music. More recently, in keeping with his previous musical experiments for film, he has explored cross-cultural musical idioms.

Gordon Thompson


Khan, Ali Akbar, and George Ruckert. Introduction to the Classical Music of North India. St. Louis: East Bay Books, 1991.

"Khan, Ali Akbar." Available from <>