x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

India's master of the sarod

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, 87 Yehudi Menuhin called him the world's greatest musician. George Harrison asked him to play too.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was major figure in bringing Indian classical music to the West.
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was major figure in bringing Indian classical music to the West.

The musician Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, acclaimed as a national living treasure in India, was a central figure in introducing the classical music of his homeland to a western audience. Master of the sarod, a 25-string instrument similar to the Middle Eastern oud, he recorded more than 95 albums, was nominated for five Grammy Awards and composed musical scores for both Indian and western films, including Satyajit Ray's Devi and Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Born in Shibpur in British-controlled East Bengal, now Bangladesh, Khan appeared in 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. The event was the first of its kind, held by musicians not for profit but to garner aid for victims of Cyclone Bhola and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Despite his claim that, as a musician, he did not "understand" politics, Khan opened the billing in a duet with the sitar player Ravi Shankar - at the time his brother-in-law. George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared together for the first time in five years, Bob Dylan sang and the overall effect, Khan concluded regretfully, was a "war of music". A portly, diminutive man, benign and balding, Khan could trace his lineage back to a 16th-century court musician of the Mogul Emperor Akbar. He too would later serve as a court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. His strict father, one of the foremost Indian musicians of his time, oversaw the boy's musical education from the age of three. Lessons could last up to 18 hours. When Khan accidentally shot off the tip of his right finger with an air gun, the furious father warned his son that he would never be a soloist. He was proved wrong. On a sarod carved by his uncle from a teak tree in his great-grandfather's garden, Khan gave his first public performance at Allahabad, and made various recordings in India in his 20s. When the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin visited India in the 1950s, so taken was he with the music he heard that he invited Ravi Shankar to present a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shankar declined, but Khan accepted and was referred to thereafter by Menuhin as "the greatest musician in the world". The concert was seen as a key introduction of Indian music to the West, which infiltrated the pop cultures of the 60s, most notably the music of The Beatles. Khan made his first US recording of Indian classical music on Angel Records and gave the first performance of live Indian music on Alistair Cooke's television show Omnibus. He was a figure of curiosity for some and was amused to be asked as he walked the streets of New York in his Indian dress: "How can you play music in India with all the tigers and monkeys you have to fight off?" He later opened a music college in Calcutta that failed to thrive. Invited to return to America under the auspices of the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley, California, Khan founded his own school, the Ali Akbar College of Music, initially in Berkeley, later in Marin County. There, a senior student recalled, the musician hoped to create a "number of protégés". It was ambition fully realised: around 10,000 students passed through the college and a sister school was opened later in Switzerland. Khan was the first Indian musician to receive a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. Six years later he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was born on April 14, 1922. He died on June 19. He is survived by his wife Mary and 11 children. * The National