by Jeff Kaliss (This article was originally published in 2000)
His 80th birthday is being feted tomorrow with a day-long tribute from teachers and students of his Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. For 35 years, he’s shared with them the beauty and wisdom of North Indian classical music.
But octogenarian Ali Akbar Khan, the College’s founder, is a young and humble man by family standards. His father, Baba Allaudhin Khan, lived to the age of 110, after having learned thousands of centuries-old compositions called ragas, invented the first-ever notation system for the ragas, mastered a variety of Indian and Western instruments on which to play them, and served as guru and teacher to both Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar, the pair most responsible for introducing his nation’s ancient music to the West. Madina Khan, Baba’s wife and Ali Akbar’s mother, survived to 105.
“This music give you life, food for your thought, and it make you healthy in your mind and body and soul,” declares Ali Akbar, who speaks in idiosyncratic English and is properly addressed by his honorific, Khansahib. As well as possibly helping to prolong life, the music might seem to stand in for birthday cake at Saturday’s eight-hour gala concert at the Marin Veterans’ Auditorium. Helping to serve it up, at the end of the evening, will be Khansahib’s eldest son from his first marriage, Aashish Khan, who’s 64, and Alam Khan, his 19-year-old son with third wife Mary Khan, who organized the celebration. Aashish and Alam will duo on sarode, the 20-plus-stringed Indian instrument they learned from their father.
Khansahib himself began study as a child, working years on a single raga and plucking his sarode for hours each day. “My fingers would start bleeding,” he recalls, “and my father used to say, ‘Don’t worry, let them bleed. You practice.’ Ultimately, he developed the strong fingernails required by the sarode, which has a more masculine, percussive sound than the sitar, the other chief Indian stringed instrument on which Ravi Shankar is the best-known virtuoso.
Advised by Baba to transport the tradition beyond India, Khansahib accepted an invitation from late San Francisco-bred virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin to visit the U.S. in 1955, where he promoted the unfamiliar musical sounds and structure through concerts, recordings, and a tv appearance. During the following decade, some Indian instruments and forms were adopted into rock ‘n’ roll, and Khansahib, who’d established his first College of Music in Calcutta in 1956, decided to place another in Berkeley in 1967.
Ensuing political demonstrations and fear of physical harm to his students prompted a move across the Bay to Marin in the following year, but it took a while to find a permanent home.
“We were at a church in Terra Linda, a few Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps and a shopping center in Fairfax, and at the Seminary building in San Anselmo,” recalls Mary Khan, who joined the College as a student of tabla (percussion) and kathak (dance) when she was a teenager, 30 years ago.
In 1971, Khansahib joined sitarist Ravi Shankar, tabla master Alla Rakah, and tanpura (string drone) player Kamala Chakravarty onstage at Madison Square Garden as an opening act for an evening of rock stars, assembled as The Concert for Bangla Desh by George Harrison, rock’s biggest exponent of Indian music. Over the next decade, musicians from both rock and jazz gathered to study at Khansahib’s College and/or to collaborate with him. In 1974 he was able to purchase the present site, formerly a bridge club for retired persons on West End Avenue on the outskirts of San Rafael. Zakir Hussain, son of Alla Rakah, became the College’s director of percussion and the foremost proponent of tabla in jazz and rock.
Pranesh Khan, a tabla player and former director of the College, recalls that the hippy fascination with Indian music was something of a mixed blessing, “because it made it flakey, into dope smoking and all that, and the result was that we all had to face problems with customs and immigration.” The scrutiny was a nuisance to the College’s store, which became the prime source of quality imported Indian instruments, recordings, videotapes, and books, as well as a repair service.
An influx of Western classical players seemed more in keeping with the College’s sober approach to its mission. “Besides sitar, sarod, and tabla, which are the three basic instruments, people came to learn cello, violin, viola, guitar, harp, and double bass,” notes Pranesh. “They already knew the instruments, but they wanted to enhance their knowledge or incorporate what they learned from Indian music.”
Unlike most Western institutions, the College welcomes students of all ages, and its prestige is not reflected in high tuition costs or in a roster of celebrity alumni. In fact, both tuition and instrument rental costs have been kept low, and the most devoted students remain students, in the presence of the master, for decades. In this spirit, the College is assembling a collection of recordings and notations of Khansahib’s 35 years of lessons and performances, alongside notebooks maintained by his own teacher, Baba, catalogued in a database that will be accessible through the Internet.
With the help of a sizeable donation from Peninsula entrepreneurs Kenwal and Ann Rekhi and other fundraising, the College plans to purchase a building in central San Rafael to house a comprehensive library and the store, which is pushing the limits of its present location. Renovations will continue at the West End Avenue building, where Khansahib still puts in many hours of instruction each week.
“I’ve seen other teachers, and the way my father teaches, noone else does that,” claims Pranesh. “One thing is, he’s approachable, and others hide behind a shield.” And Khansahib’s strong Hindu faith is not something he feels a need to impose on the curriculum, though “musicians, by studying, get drawn into the music and go into meditation without consciously trying to do it,” Pranesh reports.
When son Alam started attending beginning instrumental class at the College as a child (as his 16-year-old brother Manik and ten-year-old sister Madina now do), his father was careful “to show all the students that I am not teaching Alam privately something different.” But Khansahib’s and Mary Khan’s satisfaction with Alam’s progress is signaled by their production of a concert recording of Alam and Khansahib, released last month on their AMMP (Alam Madina Music Productions) label. “From Father to Son” features the title players on sarode, accompanied by Swapan Chaudhuri, now director of percussion at the College.
The recording is as much a testimony to pedagogy as it is to the majesty of the music. “It’s Big Lion teaching Young Lion how to move,” explains Khansahib about the sarode interaction. “Maybe on the next note, [Alam] is going to put it wrong, and I am ready, at once I jump there and he gets the idea, he gets the note, and I leave him.”
In the evening portion of tomorrow’s concert, there will be a host of the College’s past and present teachers, some of who have gone on to their own fame, including Chaudhuri, Hussain, bansuri (flute) virtuoso G.S. Sachdev, violinist Sisirkana Chowdhury, and kathak dance troupe leader Chitresh Das. The afternoon’s offerings will showcase students and Khansahib’s breadth of composition, with performances by the College Orchestra and Tabla Ensemble, a South Indian duo, and the New Maihar Band, named for the group of orphans assembled by Baba to play for his employer, the Maharaj of Maihar.
“What I believe is that god arranges everything, including which family you’re born to” testifies Khansahib, whose own family continues to contribute to the world’s musical treasures.. “You’re born so many times, and god has some hope that you’re going to help, making everyone happy.”
(Ali Akbar Khan’s 80th Birthday Gala Tribute takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, at the Marin Veterans’ Auditorium in San Rafael. Tickets are $60 preferred seating, $40 general for one session, $40 preferred and $25 general for one session only. For tickets, visit or phone the Auditorium box office at (415) 472-3500. For program details and other information, phone the Ali Akbar College of Music at (415) 454-6264 or click on http://www.aacm.org/fest.html .)