“Why is your tabla in Fairfax, when you are in San Rafael?” (meaning, why is your table out of tune or rhythm?) This was a favorite refrain of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, when he taught his class of vocal and instrumental students and would literally tune all the instruments himself. You now have a chance of actually sitting in class—for free—with “Khansaab.” The Ali Akbar Khan Archives will be unveiled and open to the public starting this month.
It is estimated that Khansaab taught over 10,000 classes in four decades. The archives already have over 8,000 hours of class recordings and some 900 concerts, organized by raga, rhythm, and other attributes. For the uninitiated, there is a reference guide showing which raga is associated with the time of the day, as well as a primer on speeds. Visitors can walk in Monday-Thursday and listen to him channel a raga or instruments while guiding his students along with philosophical (and at times humorous, prosaic) admonishments: “The raga is like a white fabric, if you don’t stick to the notes, it gets tarnished” or “Balance (the note) like a lotus flower floating on water, the water is under it, not in it.”
You can actually sing and play along as he instructs the class painstakingly. One class is about the Yaman Kalyan raga, where he enunciates the swars (notes) and then sings them, guiding the class through the first, second, and third speeds. In another session, he says, “Western music has Flat and Sharp notes; Indian music has Natural and Sharp notes.” At all times, he’s communicating and trying to open his class to the depths of the sound.
Khansaab believed that Indian classical arts needed to be shared. “He said that if more people learn, then there is greater chance that the art would survive and flourish,” says Alam Khan, Khansaab’s son, himself a sarod player.
The archives are the fruit of Khansaab’s widow, Mary Khan’s labor, who started the project in 1986. The story of how the archives came to be has the makings of a documentary: Floods, life-events, numerous locations, and repeated rounds of fund-raising peppering the almost single-handed effort by Mary. India Currents sat with Mary Khan to talk about her husband’s legacy.
IC: 8000 hours of recordings and over 120 concerts! These numbers are daunting, how did it all start?
MK: Our home was always filled with tapes of Khansaab’s concerts and classes, they were everywhere.
One day, I looked around and felt that something must be done about them, they were just too precious.
So I started organizing them. At first, I wanted to just safe-keep; in 1999, I decided to create a database for easy access by anybody who wanted to learn. I started contacting students and getting their ideas.
Every class would have wires running all over the room. Then I had to sort through and piece the recordings together to make sure that a session was complete…So you could say that it was an idea that took almost 30 years to take shape!
IC: It is mostly a solo project. Was it overwhelming?
MK: Well, somebody had to bear down and do it. But yes, it was tough. Transferring content from tapes over hi-fidelity reel-to-reel machines itself took some time to figure out. People would bring boxes of material over…There was a time when we had flooding and I had to resurrect material that included programs, flyers, tapes. After that, we started to do backups. For years, everybody would say, “Where’s Mary; oh she’s in the Archive Room.”
IC: Why in San Rafael? Why free?
MK: The class locations moved 22 times since the 60s (laughs). The joke among Ali Akbar Khan College of Music students is that it took 22 shrutis (tonal baseline) to find the perfect one. San Rafael has been the base for decades now, it seemed fitting to do it here. If a true believer were to offer an acoustic room and dedicated hours to this project, there is no reason why it cannot also be accessed some place else.
Having it be free was important, because that is the Khan legacy, to impart learning to whoever is committed.
IC: Why did you wait till February 2015 to unveil the archives?
MK: I had made some progress on the audio, but then I realized video is important too. Then, since it’s a performing art, including concerts was important too—it just grew. Also, ensuring complete sessions …one cannot leave a student with an incomplete raga! Teaching has been sacred to Khansaab.
Beginners would walk into class and be unnerved that Khansaab himself would be teaching them. Sharing the experience of live composing is important and very rare—I was waiting for the body of work to be right.
IC: Did you ever think that this is what you would do with your life?
MK: (Tearing up) Honestly? I feel like this is what I was born to do. It all started with Khansaab’s father, Ustad Allaudin Khan who was so generous that he even formed a music band called the Maihar Band, to give orphans a sense of belonging and purpose. Khansaab continued that giving tradition here in the United States. Towards the end, he said to me, “My father is going to bless you for all of this.” That made everything worth it.
The world laments the passing on of legends, but Mary Khan has made sure that Khansaab lives on. As Alam says, “These archives are going to outlive us all.”
Ali Ahkbar Khan Library, 215 West End Avenue, San Rafael. atwww.aliakbarkhanlibrary.com.