Ali Akbar Khan

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One of the world’s most acclaimed musicians, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan is considered a National Treasure in his native India. He was the recipient of the highest awards in music both in India and America, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “genius award” and several Grammy nominations. Yehudi Menuhin, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, referred to Ali Akbar Khan as “An absolute genius…the greatest musician in the world.”

Our sages developed music from time immemorial for the mind to take shelter in that pure being which stands apart as one’s true self. Real music is not for wealth, not for honors, or not even for the joys of the mind – it is one kind of yoga, a path for realization and salvation to purify your mind and heart and give you longevity.”
~ Ali Akbar Khan

Born in 1922 in East Bengal, Bangladesh, Ali Akbar Khan (Khansahib) began his studies in music at the age of three. He studied vocal music from his father and drums from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. His father also trained him on several other instruments, but decided finally that he must concentrate on the sarode and on vocal. For over twenty years, he trained and practiced up to 18 hours a day. His father was a legendary task master. This meant that Khansahib was groomed to be a musician of the highest degree. Playing with friends and choosing what he would do with his life was not an option for the young Ali Akbar. His father continued to teach Khansahib until he was over 100 years old. He died in 1972 at the age of 105. After his father’s death, Khansahib would continue to learn from his father in his dreams.

“Do you know what true music is? To a musician, music should be the Supreme Deity who will be worshipped with the eagerness of an undivided mind, and tears shall be his ritual ingredients”
- Baba Allauddin Khan
Ali Akbar Khan gave his first public performance in Allahabad at age thirteen. In his early twenties, he made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label, and the next year, he became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. 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. 

At the request of Lord Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan first visited the United States in 1955 and performed an unprecedented concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, and 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 1960’s.

Khansahib founded the first Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, in 1956. In the early 1960’s he was asked to teach a group of Mother Superiors at McGill University in Montreal Canada. With them he explored the similarities between Gregorian chants and the old dhrupad style of North India.

In 1965 he came to Berkeley, California, to teach for the Asian Society of Eastern Arts. Little did he know then that he would remain in California, spreading the teachings of his father. Recognizing the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students, he decided to open his own school where he could teach on a regular basis.

In 1967, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, which moved to Marin County, California, the following year. He then maintained a regular teaching schedule of 6 classes a week, 9 months of the year for the next 40 years. Khansahib also opened a branch of his college in Basel, Switzerland, that is still run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman.

Khansahib has 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 (their first film), “Khudita Pashan” (or “Hungry Stone”) for which he won the “Best Musician of the Year” award, “Devi” by Satyajit Ray, and in America, “Little Buddha” by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Baba Allauddin Khan left behind such a wealth of material that Khansahib felt he was always learning new things from his father. Khansahib continued his father’s tradition, that of the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Maihar and Rampur, India. Now, his family and students in California are continuing with this treasure trove of music. After securing the preservation of this vast tradition, the work of training the future students will have something that the classical world has yet to experience; a wealth of audio recordings directly from the source of the tradition. The music will continue.

A partial overview of Ali Akbar Khan’s awards

1955
~ Released first LP recording of Indian classical music: Music of India; Morning and Evening Ragas on the Angel label
~ First Indian musician to perform on US television: Omnibus with Allistair Cooke

1960
~ Best Musician of the Year Award for film music – Hungry Stones (Tapan Sinha)

1963
~ President of India Award from the Government of India; India’s highest award for the arts

1966
~ The President of India Award, for the second time

1970
~ Gold Disc Award for Concert for Bangladesh album sales, recorded at Madison Square Garden
~ Padma Bhusan Award from the Government of India

1984
~ Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Delhi, India

1988
~ Padma Vibhusan Award from the Government of India; the highest honor presented to a  civilian in India

1991
~ MacArthur Fellow (Genius Grant)

1993
~ The Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Music Awards Foundation (Bammies) in San Francisco, CA

1997
~ National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts
~ October 18th  proclaimed “Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Day” by Willie L. Brown Jr., Mayor of San Francisco

1999
~ Appointment: Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Music to the Department of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz
~ Five GRAMMY Nominations