Philosopher Patrick Grim says that we have two kinds of heroes: those who are both enviable and admirable, and those who are only admirable. We admire the Beatles’ musicianship, and also envy the success and adulation they received. But although we admire Abraham Lincoln’s courage and devotion to his country, very few of us are eager to change places with him, and endure the depression, hardships, and agonizing decisions that were his lot. In cases like these, this distinction seems plausible. However, there are other cases where it is not at all clear-cut. As we watch Play Like a Lion, the new documentary on the intertwined lives of Alam Khan and his father the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, we see much in each of their lives which seems far from enviable. Ali Akbar Khan (or Khansahib, as he was respectfully addressed by his students) was forced by his father, the great Allaudin Khan, to practice constantly, and he lived with the threat of beatings and missed meals if he ever tried to have anything resembling a normal childhood. And yet when those of us who play music hear him, we cannot help but wonder “Could it have been worth it? Would I have been willing to endure what he endured if it meant that music of this quality could have flowed from my hands and heart?” Most of us will never be given the opportunity to make that choice. Play like a Lion tells the story of how Alam Khan was given that choice, and the grace and courage with which he made it.
Khansahib would never have forced his son to endure what he had endured, and he made it clear that a music career was not a parental command. Instead, Alam’s love of music blossomed slowly and naturally. “My father never forced me to play music, but from an early age I was always either drumming on something or singing something I had heard. His relationship with his father was so strict, he didn’t have a close relationship with his father beyond the music. He obviously didn’t want that same relationship with me. He gave me that freedom he never had, and we had a very loving relationship.”
For much of his younger life, Alam Khan played music playfully. For a while, he was a rock and roll guitarist, jamming with his mother and brother in the family living room. Later he was a rapper in Marin clubs, and was often seen around the Ali Akbar College in a black stocking cap and low-hanging blue jeans. Today, however, this young man in his late 20s is the senior instructor at the Ali Akbar College, and plays classical sarod concerts all over India and America. With the passing of his father, music is no longer a game for Alam, but a spiritual calling. “When I was 13, I was playing Jimmy Hendrix, Grunge, Nirvana, but I also started to listen to my father’s recordings. The melodies, the sounds, the kinds of vibrations you would feel inside, the moods it brought out—that has never left me. It was like recognizing an old friend. Today, my whole life is to play this music and try to keep it alive and continue it.”
Was his choice enviable as well as admirable? The distinction between the two seems to turn on the suffering that results from such decisions. for Alam, however, the suffering was clearly part of the point. “There have been many times in my life when I’ve thought about doing something else. This music was beautiful and I loved it, and I was connected to it, and I had an ability to play it and learn it. But was that enough? I finally decided that it was. Difficulties and obstacles arise in life to test you, because nothing is worth having unless you work for it. It has to be important if you spend your whole life doing it. It’s just a question of are you going to give up, or are you going to work through it. And working through it can take years.”
Alam has already spent years learning his father’s music, and now has reached a level of virtuosity that the rest of us can only dream about. Is his condition enviable as well as admirable? In one sense, he has a deeper awareness of his family’s music than any of us will ever have. And yet, paradoxically, he will never be able to enjoy it the way the rest of us do, because his critical eye is always colored by an awareness how much better he could be. “Since I am in this family, the expectations I have for myself are probably higher than I can meet. That’s something I’m going to have to come to terms with in my life.”
Alam’s younger brother Manik, who also plays sarod, acknowledges that his brother’s burden is unique. “Being the second son in the family, I don’t have the responsibility that Alam does. Alam has taken a huge responsibility on his shoulders.”
This perfectionism has made Alam hesitant to release any recordings, despite the fact that many people privately hoard their bootleg recordings of his superb live performances.
Shades of Sarod, his first album without his father, came out this year and is clearly shaped by Alam’s determination that nothing is recorded until he is certain it deserves to be.
The standard format of a Hindustani performance, which Alam usually follows in his concerts, is to devote the bulk of the evening to exploring all the nuances of a single raga.
Apparently Alam feels that these live performances don’t measure up to his own tough standards, and so he has elected to do shorter versions of four different ragas, to make sure that there is no hint of mechanicalness or redundancy. He is accompanied by Salar Nader, one of the finest tabla players of their generation, who carries on the style of Zakir Hussein in much the way that Alam preserves his father’s tradition. The result sounds uncannily like Khansahib himself playing in a tight economical manner, but with complete authority and control. It is a sobering reminder that the rest of us are too willing to tackle the most difficult aspects of Khansahib’s music way too early. The son had completely mastered one small region of his father’s genius, and only then was he willing to let himself document what he had accomplished. A lifetime of such accomplishments lies before him, and we can all look forward to hearing them.
This does not mean that Alam is merely a conduit of his father’s tradition. Despite the uncanny similarity in their styles, Alam has emerged with a musical mind of his own. This is eloquently demonstrated by Alam’s final words in Play Like a Lion, and the fiery climactic performance that follows them. “People have always said ‘It’s going to be on you next.’
That’s true, but my father was bigger than any one person, and it will take many people to carry that responsibility. Obviously I’m grateful for the gifts he’s given me, and that’s what my life revolves around. But I’m not the next Ali Akbar Khan. There will never be another Ali Akbar Khan. I’m Alam Khan. That’s what I’m going to realize in my life and be okay with that.”
For more information on the movie and album, go to playlikealion.com and alamkhan.com
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.