RMIM Archive Article "66".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM/C Archives..
# Subject: Great Master's series
# Great Masters #6:Ustad Ali Akbar Khan - Musician or Magician?
# Posted by: Rajan Parrikar (email@example.com)
# Sources: "Down Melody Lane" (1984) by G.N. Joshi
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
"Trifles make perfection but perfection is no trifle", so goes an
old saying. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan is the personification of per-
fection in music. In this, the sixth episode of the Great Masters
series, G.N. Joshi, formerly of the HMV recording company, shares
some of his thoughts on Ali Akbar Khan. The feature resides in
Joshi's 1984 book, "Down Melody Lane".
Sarod Wizard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
G.N.Joshi's 1984 book, "Down Melody Lane".
I owe deep gratitude to the late Maharaja of Jodhpur for my close
association and friendship with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit
Ravi Shankar. Both of them, too, owe him a great deal. But for
the liberal patronage this generous music loving prince gave to
the duo in their early years, they would not have been what they
are today. Credit goes to both these artists for putting the
classical music of India on the map of world music. lt was Ali
Akbar who, with the enthusiastic support and cooperation of the
great violin player Yehudi Menuhin, cut for the first time in
the late 1950s a long-playing disc of Hindustani music in New
York and acquainted the Western musical world with the bewitch-
ing magic and artistry of our raga-music.
When I first heard Ali Akbar play the sarod he was in his 20s. I
still remember vividly the stunning impact of his playing on the
entire audience. My heart throbbed with the divine touch of his
music and I felt the presence of a future superstar. He stole
the show that night, and from then on it has been an onward
march for him to worldwide fame and popularity.
I met him and heard him again in the year 1945. In the interven-
ing period, he had been groomed with care by his illustrious fa-
ther, the late Ustad Allaudin Khan. Although the sarod has al-
ways been his forte, Ali Akbar learnt to play various instru-
ments in different styles - dhrupad, dhamar and khayal - from his
father, and the percussion instruments pakhawaj and tabla from
his uncle. He was made to practise for a gruelling 15 to 18
hours every day during his training period. No wonder that in
due course he attained the status of an Ustad and emerged a
shining and expertly chiselled model musician of world fame.
After the death of his patron the Maharaja of Jodhpur in an air
crash, Ali Akbar set out to discover new horizons and bring more
people under the spell of his music. Even today he is a globe-
trotter, carrying the blazing torch of Indian classical music to
distant lands. He has founded colleges to teach Indian music in
Japan, Canada and the U.S.A. During my visit to the U.S.A. in
1977 he invited me to give a lecture demonstration in his col-
lege of music, at San Rafael in California. For me it was a re-
vealing experience. The audience that evening consisted of his
American students, one of whom provided me with very competent
accompaniment on the harmonium. The entire group listened to my
discourse and demonstration with appreciation and knowledgeable
Although he has not had any formal academic education, by virtue
of having lived in developed Western countries Ali Akbar Khan
has a very progessive and broad outlook. In the year 1958, he
gave me his wholehearted cooperation in conducting experiments
to determine the moods of different ragas.
The notes of a raga have a character peculiar to itself. While
expounding a melody through the skilful manipulation of these
notes, a performer paints before his listeners an attractive mu-
sical picture of the raga, and during the development carries
them through an emotional experience in keeping with the mood of
that particular raga. Experts in the art of drawing and painting
have also attemptcd pictorial representations of ragas. These
paintings are mostly in miniature and are to be found displayed
in art museums in the big cities of India. They are in varied
style - most prominent being the Rajput, the Mughal and the Ben-
gali styles. In various books written on Indian music both by
foreigners and Indians, these miniatures are displayed to enrich
the attraction of the book with their attractive colours and in-
teresting thematic character. Usually there is, at the top or
bottom of the painting, an ancient Sanskrit or Hindi couplet
describing the raga.
It is interesting to observe that in all these paintings by ar-
tists in different places, at different periods and in different
styles, the subject and objects are almost the same. Usually the
young maiden - lovelorn - is depicted in a garden in full bloom,
in company with a parrot or peacock, a cow or a deer. Occasion-
ally she is with a youth - her lover- or a female companion.
These are painted in a riot of colours, mostly green, yellow,
blue and red. There is no expression on the face of the maiden
and one has to visualize and imagine her mental condition by
reading the couplet and from the established conventions about
the mood attached to the raga. Even if there is a change in the
couplet or in the picture it would not be noticed nor would it
affect the artistic merit of the picture. I felt that all these
paintings were results of the artists' imaginations and had lit-
tle to do with the notes or moods of the ragas. I was therefore
eager to find out if there was any corelation between 'line and
colour' on the one hand and 'music' on the other.
To arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, it was necessary to con-
duct an experiment. I therefore invited a galaxy of painters of
nationwide and international repute to our studios one night. I
explained to them individually the purpose of the get-together
and I brought Ustad Ali Akbar to perform for the experiment. He
was, like me, curious and anxious to know the basis for these
illustrations, hence his ready cooperation. That night he gave a
masterly exposition of Ragas Darbari and Malkauns on his sarod.
During the marathon session lasting over 4 hours he gave very
elaborate treatment to the melodies and put over a superb per-
formance. All the painters present were carried to dizzy heights
of ecstasy and pleasure, When at the end of the performance they
came out of their trance, each of them was overwhelmed by the
respective moods of the 2 ragas.
Towards dawn the mehfil came to an end. Before leaving the
painters promised to send their pictures depicting the moods of
the two ragas in a week or so, but not one of them did so, even
after 3 weeks. When I met them to ask the reason for the delay,
some of them requested me to let them hear a vocal rendering of
the ragas in addition to the instrumental recital they had heard.
'It will then be easier for us to crystallize and express our
ideas in colour,' they said.
I agreed to this and persuaded no less a person than Ustad Bade
Gulam Ali Khan to partake in experiment number two. Khan Saheb
was intrigued by the novel idea of the experiment. He too sang
the same ragas, Darbari Kanada and Malkauns, for two hours each,
before the distinguished gathering of painters. Mr. K. K. Hebbar
the renowned artist was the only one to confess frankly, that it
was impossible for him to draw pictures of the ragas in this
way. All the other artists once again promised to send their
pictures in a few days, but none of them ever did.
The question as to whether these 2 branches of art - painting and
music - are corelated is still undecided and this depresses me
greatly. Whenever Ali Akbar Khan comes to India and meets me,
his first question is whether I have made any fresh findings on
this subject. I still have hopes of conducting another experi-
ment and this time I am going to lay down the condition that the
painters must draw on the spot, while listening to the exposi-
tions of the ragas.
****Insert: Four or five years back, there was a similar "experi-
ment" done with Bhimsen Joshi and M.F. Hussein. I forget the de-
tails of what actually accrued. Would someone care to
Some years ago Ali Akbar wrote the music score for the Bengali
film Kshudhito Pashan (Hungry Stones) which became very popular.
It gives ample proof of Ali Akbar's fantastic imagination. He
played the tape of background music for this film to me, and ex-
plained how he had made full use of various musical instruments.
The skilful blending of the sarangi and sarod was a treat for my
ears. Ever since I heard this combination of instruments, I have
wanted to make a recording of a jugalbandi betveen these two in-
struments. Since 1954 Ali Akbar has been abroad. For the sarangi
I could find no other artist to match him except the famous
sarangi nawaz Pandit Ramnarayan. Both of them have agreed to
make this recording, but as luck will have it, whenever Ali Ak-
bar is on a visit to India Ramnarayan is abroad, and so this
jugalbandi recording has yet to be made.
Ali Akbar, although at the pinnacle of success, is a very simple
and modest person. He prefers to dress in the Indian tradition,
in a long white malmal zabba and snow white pajamas. If an en-
gagement is fixed for 10.30 Ali Akbar will invariably be there
by 10.25. For the recordings he always comes fully decided on
which ragas he will record and on many occasions has presented
entirely new ragas of his own creation. Ragas Chandranandan,
Prabhakali, Gauri-Manjiri, Hindol-Hem, Lajavanti are examples.
Ragas Lajavanti and Prabhakali are his favourites and he has
named his two daughters after them.
While recording is in progress he is so completely absorbed in
his playing that he is oblivious of time. Even so, when I, with
great reluctance, would touch him softly to bring him out of his
trance, he always managed to achieve in a moment a perfect fin-
ish to his performance. This, more than anything else, proves
the complete mastery and control he possesses over his instru-
ments, the swar and the taal.