1996 saw the classical music maestro Ali Akbar Khan in the news twice—for the prestigious Grammy award nomination
for the CD Then and Now (Alam Madina), and for the release ofLegacy (Alam Madina/Triloka), a new CD of Asha Bhosle reciting ancient Tansen compositions. Khan continues to scale new heights at an age when many accomplished musicians are in or contemplating retirement.
Born in 1922 in what is now Bangladesh, Khan began his study of music at the age of three. His father, Allauddin Khan, perhaps the greatest classical musician of this century, began to train him in vocal music as well as in several other instruments. He also studied the tabla from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin, before deciding to concentrate on the sarod.
His father, who also taught Annapurna Devi (Ali Akbar’s sis ter) and Ravi Shankar, had a reputation as a strict taskmaster. Khan continued to learn from him till the latter’s death in 1972 at the age of 110. During this time, Allauddin Khan taught him a wealth of musical material handed down through the generations right from the time of Mian Tansen, the legendary court musician of Mughal Emperor Akbar. (Alauddin Khan and Ali Akbar Khan are direct musical descendants of Tansen through Mohammad Wazir Khan.) He founded the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in Calcutta in 1956. Later, after witnessing the phenomenal interest and abilities of his Western students, he started a music college by the same name in Marin County, Northern California, in 1967.
In addition to receiving the Padma Vibhushan and President of India awards from the Government of India, he has received the Kalidas Sarnrnan from the Madhya Pradesh Academy of MUSIC and Arts as well as honorary degrees from the California Institute of the Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Dhaka University, Delhi University, and Santiniketan.
In 1955 he visited the West and his legendary Music of India became the first such recording released in LP format. He also appeared on Alistair Cooke’s Omnibus television series, setting the stage for the increased popularity of Indian classical music in the West.
At the present time he spends nine months of the year in Marin County, while giving performances in the U.S. and Canada. For two months he visits India, and then teaches for a month at the Ali Akbar College in Switzerland. He has more than 90 releases on various labels, and has countless other recordings that are yet to be released.
The Connoisseur Society released a number of his LPs in the ’60s and ’70s. Even in a small town like Syracuse, NY, where I was a student in the ’70s, his records sold briskly and were gone from the shelves almost 3S soon as they came into the store.
In popular folklore, Tansen is c celebrated as a near-mythic figure whose music could influence the forces of nature (rain, lightning, and animals). Music historians have attributed anywhere from hundreds to thousands of compositions to him, including such major ragas as Miyan Ki Todi, Miyan Ki Malhar, and Darbari Kanara.
Ali Akbar Khan has embarked on an archival project in order to preserve for future generations the compositions of Tansen and his successors that he learned from his father. Legacy, the new release with Asha Bhosle, recorded in Aug-Sept 1995 in Marin County, is the first step in this project.
Proceeds from this record will be used to fund the recording (in a decay-free format, thanks to digital technology) of the rich lore of Tansen compositions handed down to Khan. Using the latest video technology, he will also make a 3-D recording of himself playing the sarod so that future generations will understand the nuances of this demanding instrument.
Legacy itself has been the subject of intense interest in the press. It brings Khan together with the Diva of film music, Asha Bhosle, in a historic collaboration. Bhosle studied Narya Sangeet (Marathi drama music) from her father Dinanath Mangeshkar—himself a legend in his time. Learning Natya Sangeet involved training in light classical music as well as many elements of vocal culture—resonance, breath control, and diction, which are necessary steps in learning classical music as well.
Bhosle’s voice remains sweet, resonant, and strong in the 12 pieces in Legacy which are somewhat different from contemporary classical music. These relatively short pieces (2-10 minutes each) from the 16th to the 18th centuries involve far less improvisation than does present day classical music. Each is a complete song. The sarod prelude for each piece does not intrude upon the vocalization, a tribute to the vocal resonance of the singeras well as the orchestral arrangement. My own favorites are the Hori in Kukubh Bilawal, Dhrupad in Sankara Bharan, Tarana in Bhupali, and Tarana in Bhimpalasri.
The release of this CD has broken down the barriers between film music and classical music. This collaboration in the classical idiom between Ali Akbar Khan and Asha Bhosle comes a full 44 years after they collaborated in the film idiom (Aandhiyan, 1952). Regarding future releases ofTansen’s work, may one hope for “theme” CDs (one for morning ragas, another for evening ragas, and so on)?
The CD Then and Now, which has been nominated for a Grammy, is composed of four pieces-two recorded in 1955 and two in 1994. The first part has Sindhu Bhairavi and Pilu Baroowa for a total of 49 minutes. The second part consist of Hem ant (alap) and Hindol-Hem (gat) for a total of74 minutes. The late Chatur L11 accompanied Khan on the tabla in 1955, while the reigning King of the tabla, Zakir Hussain, accompanies him on the second set.
In the ’50s and ’60s, as the best and brightest classical musicians in India were going abroad. B.V: Keskar, who served as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Nehru’s cabinet, lamented this in his 1967 book, Indian Music: Then and Now. The system of court patronage was ending, and the support from Keskar, through increased air time on All India Radio, was significant but not nearly enough.
This was a time when, after centuries of colonial control, the repressed energies of a nation-in music, dance, yoga, spirituality, Ayurveda—were leaping on to the world stage.
The relative abundance of material wealth outside India was a neutral influence in an objective sense. It had the capacity to slacken lesser mortals, but for masters of Ali Akbar Khan’s caliber and self-discipline, it presented opportunities to strengthen Indian traditions.
That process continues. Today we find Khansahib, 10,000 miles away from Tansen’s birthplace, working to preserve Tansen’s music by utilizing the latest technology and the talent of the gifted popular singer Asha Bhosle. If the life of Ali Akbar Khan be seen as a micro¬cosm of the world of Indian music, one cannot but be pleased with the prospects for its future.