When Ali Akbar Khan’s advanced age began to adversely affect his sarod playing, many of us, his former students and fans, made sure to attend as many of his concerts as we could. Those last concerts were like observing the ruins of a great piece of architecture that would soon disappear forever. There was still much that reminded us that no one ever played like Khansahib at his best, and that now no one ever would again. When he finally retired from performing, despite our desperate standing ovations in concert after concert, how could we deny that he was mortal and would soon sink into history? Everyone knew that he would leave us soon, and yet, that did nothing to stop the grief when the inevitable finally occurred.
For the rest of his life, he continued to teach fulltime at theAli Akbar College of Music(AACM), even though he was in constant pain and under regular medical treatment. “On the day before he died, several of us students decided, without talking to each other about it, that we all wanted to see him one more time”, recalls vocalist Gayatri Kaudinya. “We thought that if we asked to come, someone might say no, so thirty or forty of us just showed up. We clustered around Baba, and he told me to bring him a harmonium, and then asked me what my last lesson was. He taught all of us for over an hour. At one point (his son) Alam broke in and said something like, ‘I think it’s time to take a break now.’ When he said that, Baba said, ‘OK, send in the next batch.’ I think he didn’t even realize that he wasn’t at school. And in a way he was right, because all the students were there.”
The funeral was the following Sunday, but word traveled quickly and people arrived from all over the world. Some were wearing the traditional Indian mourning color of white, others the Western mourning color of black—about equal numbers of Indians and Westerners in each. Anoushka Shankar and Khansahib’s daughter Madina wore embroidered veils of pure white, and were among the many who gave moving reminiscences of their time with him. His long time tabla player, Swapan Chaudhuri, was devastated as he shared his grief. Alam Khan’s voice constantly hovered on the edge of breaking. “I didn’t write anything because I don’t like to write stuff,” he said. “That’s rather like how we play music. I know what I feel and I know why we’re here, and that’s the raga. But I don’t know what I’m going to say, I’m just going to improvise.”
Khansahib’s extended musical family provided emotional support for his deeply grieving immediate family. Zakir Hussain helped his tabla colleague Chaudhuri from the podium, and unobtrusively took responsibility for the ebb and flow of human traffic whenever he was needed. It was inspiring to see how he has managed to imperceptibly transition from prodigy to patriarch as the years have gone by. Anoushka Shankar did her best to cheer Alam up with invitations to social gatherings and offers to play on her next album. And everyone who knew Khansahib well—students, colleagues, friends—gathered at the AACM building for the wake after the funeral. There was food, beer, and wine, and everyone took shelter in the brief moment of respite from grief that inevitably follows a ceremony of public mourning. We can only grieve so much at a time, even though we know we will continue to grieve tomorrow. The few hours after the funeral were the still center of the emotional storm, and for that moment we could reminisce fondly, and even laugh.
Zakir Hussain insisted that now was the time for everyone to share their memories about Khansahib. He began by recounting one of his own. In the middle of a concert in India, Zakir looked up to discover that Khansahib appeared to have grown a full head of hair on his ordinarily very bald head. It turned out, however, that his head was actually covered with flying insects, and that Khansahib was too absorbed in the music to notice.
After the laughter died down, Zakir said seriously that this was a sign of Khansahib’s phenomenal presence of mind while playing. Others told stories of similar distractions Khansahib had transcended: blood on a tabla player’s bass drum, a tanpura player who had a heart attack on stage and had to be carried off and replaced in the middle of a concert. There were also stories that seemed to provide evidence of something like psychic powers. A woman who had been his assistant during a tour of Germany remarked that he knew nothing about European Politics, but when he played at Nuremburg (home of the Nazi war crime trials), he said “Saraswati wouldn’t appear. All I could see was blood and death.”
A more comical, but arguably more convincing, story was told by tabla player Tim Witter, who had hosted a concert at his restored and remodeled house in Oakland. When Khansahib entered the courtyard, he said ominously that “thousands of chickens have died in this place.” Incredibly, he was right. Witter had bought the house from a Chinese family that butchered poultry, and the courtyard had once contained a chopping block covered with chicken blood. Witter had thoroughly disinfected the courtyard and removed the chopping block years before.
Someone said that Khansahib had been born with “cobra tongue” i.e. two spots on his tongue which, according to local folklore, gave him the power to kill with a curse. Once he did curse somebody and this person did die, and Khansahib was terrified of ever doing this again. Someone else remarked that Khansahib learned the raga Alam Malaya from his departed father in a dream. I mentioned that he had said that the raga Hindol had powers to heal the skin, and that a liver spot had disappeared from his face during the weeks he was teaching that raga.
The stories were still coming as I left that evening, thinking about the future of what we always called “The College.” Despite that name, I had always thought of AACM as one man of genius with a building around him. Could there really be such a thing as an Ali Akbar college without Ali Akbar? Fortunately, when I interviewed Khansahib’s widow Mary, she showed me that she had been preparing for this moment for years, with the active cooperation of Khansahib himself. Despite the distractions caused by her loss, she is overseeing a carefully planned vision for the future.
In many ways this new AACM will be more like a college than ever before. Khansahib was an inspired teacher who often had a remarkable awareness of the needs of his students. However, these were unpredictable flashes of insight, not parts of a structured program. Attending a class was rather like living in the shadow of a volcano that continually showered you with music. Original improvisations on traditional ragas were produced out of nowhere, we each learned whatever we could, and were grateful for it. During much of that long period of creativity, Mary Khan was supervising the scrupulous documentation of every class with audio, video, and musical notation.
Her current mission is to organize that material so that students at AACM will get the maximum benefit from it. There are now four workstations operating five days a week transferring over 4500 class tapes to digital format. A raw recording of a single class features many manifestations of a raga: scale exercises, chalans (key melodic phrases), songs, instrumental improvisations. Each of these distinct forms of the same raga will be transferred to a single CD, then given a timing code for easy access. The reference numbers for those CDs will be stored in a searchable computer database, along with sample mp3s, notations of the compositions, and written commentary about fundamental rules and principles. This information will enable a student to decide which CD to use for study and practice.
Some have suggested that this material be put on the internet, but both Mary and Khansahib rejected that idea. “Khansahib was very critical of what he called ‘the Sony Gharana,’” said Mary, “by which he meant those people who never practiced, but only listened to their lesson tapes on the way to school. It’s essential that people take the time out of their lives to study this material, rather than ‘acquiring it on a CD.”
When students listen to those recordings at AACM, they will also have them clarified and explained by teachers who have devoted their lives to Khansahib’s music. Swapan Chaudhuri will remain as the school’s tabla instructor, and will also participate in the taal (rhythm) classes. Alam Khan, who has been studying with his father for twenty years and performed with him for over a decade, teaches instrumental classes, and will soon be offering classes on alap and improvisation. Sarodist Bruce Hamm, who teaches the Sunday morning classes, studied with Khansahib for 35 years, and sitarist Peter Van Gelder began studying with Khansahib in India before the AACM existed. Seventeen year old Gayatri Kaundinya has studied with Khansahib since she was four, and will be offering special vocal classes for children and teens. Each of the teachers will build their lessons around Khansahib’s original class recordings, so that the student gets the best of both worlds. First they get an oral transmission from a living person, then they get to hear recordings which show how the compositions were originally created.
This does not mean that AACM will completely ignore the internet. There is also a plan to create an online introduction to the concert experience. Alam Khan and Swapan Chaudhuri will record a ten minute version of a raga that has all the elements of a full length performance. Within this video, the user can click on links to other videos that will explain what the artists are doing at each point. There will also be video demonstrations of such fundamentals as how to properly sing Sa (the tonic note), and how to tune a tanpura. “If they go repeatedly through this site, students will get a real sense of what it’s like to study this music seriously,” says Mary Khan. “If they realize that they want to commit themselves to this music after going through this, then they’ll be ready to come to the college.”
Teed Rockwell, a student of Ali Akbar Khan, is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.