Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan: One of the Greatest Bangali Musicians Dies


Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922 - 2009) playing his world-famous sarod
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One of the greatest Bangali (Bengali) musicians and one of the greatest virtuosos of Indian classical music died of kidney failure on June 18 at his home at San Anselmo, near San Francisco, USA. He was 87 years old. He popularized the Indian classical music in the Western countries. He had founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Kolkata (Calcutta) with branches in San Francisco and Switzerland. World renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin had once termed him "an absolute genius" and "the greatest musician in the world." His brilliant compositions and mastery of the 25-string musical instrument, called sarod, made him famous all over the world.


Born on April 14, 1922 at the village of Shibpur in Comilla District of East Bengal in the then British-ruled India, he was the only son of another great Bangali musician Ustad Alauddin Khan. Originally, his ancestors come from a Hindu Brahmin family.

He began to learn music under his father's tutelage from the age of three. After his birth the family moved to Maihar in Uttar Pradesh, where his father was the court musician of the maharaja (great king -- ruler of the princely state). His sister Annapurna Devi, who later married famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, was an accomplished surbahar -- a plucked string instrument -- player, but she could not perform in public due to conservative customs of placing restrictions on women.

Among his achievements are:

  • At the age of 13 in 1936, he publicly performed for the first time in Allahabad, India. From then on he began to draw attention of music lovers.
  • By his early 20s, he became the music director of All-India Radio in Lucknow.
  • His first grammophone recording was done in Lucknow, India, in his early 20s.
  • In 1943, the Maharaja of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India, made him the court musician. He served there until the plane-crash death of the maharaja in 1948.
  • Then he moved to Bombay against his father's wish and began to write music scores for films. He also contributed in film director Chetan Anand's Aandhiyan (1952), Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960), and Tapan Sinha's Hungry Stones ((1960). Later he composed music for Ismail Merchant-James Ivory's film The Householder (1963), and Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1993). While in Bombay, once he also won the "Best Musician of the Year" award.
  • Yehudi Menuhin was eager to introduce Indian classical music to the Western audience. At his invitation, Ali Akbar Khan came to the USA and successfully performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955.
  • In 1956, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. In 1967, he opened a branch of this college in California, USA. In 1985, another branch was opened in Basel, Switzerland.
  • On August 1, 1971, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was one of the performers of the "Concert for Bangladesh", organized by singer George Harrison and sitarist Ravi Shankar at the Madison Square Gardens in New York. This concert raised funds for East Pakistani (Bangladeshi) refugees in India during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. Among important performers were: Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, Kamala Chakravorty, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and others.
  • He was the first to have his long-play record of Indian classical music in the USA.
  • Between 1970 and 1998, he was nominated several times for the Grammy Award in the USA for his music.
  • The government of India granted him the Padma Bhushan as well as Padma Vibhushan awards for his lasting contribution to Indian classical music spanning 50 years.
  • The MacArthur Foundation in the USA granted him, the first Indian, its fellowship ('genius grant') in 1991. The National Endowment for the Arts in the USA also granted him a National Heritage Fellowship in 1997.
  • In 1997, he performed at the United Nations headquarters in New York and also at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independence of India.
At his death, the great Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal, who was in Russia at the time, in a message praised him as "undoubtedly the greatest musician of the twentieth century."

Thrice married, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan has seven sons and four daughters. His last wife, Mary, is an American. For the last four decades, he was living in the USA.

One of his famous quotes is: "If you practise for ten years, you may begin to please yourself, after twenty years you may become a performer and please the audience, after thirty years you may please even your guru, but you must practise for many more years before you finally become a true artist -- then you may please even God." Bookmark and Share