Influential Sarod Maestro Ali Akbar Khan Dies at 88

One of the masters of Hindustani classical music, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, died June 18 in San Anselmo (California) of a kidney ailment. The sarod maestro was 88. "Our most beloved Khansahib passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family on Thursday evening," said a press release posted on Ali Akbar Khan’s web site. "Khansahib had been a dialysis patient since 2004, and had been enduring numerous health issues ever since. The great Maestro had continued his music teachings publically at the Ali Akbar College until just weeks ago, and continued to teach music at home until the day he died."

The Hindu newspaper in India reported that India’s Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed her condolences in  a letter sent to Ali Akbar Khan’s wife, Mary Khan. Ms. Gandhi said: “Ustad Ali Akbar Khan embodied the very pinnacle of our great classical music tradition. In his hands, the sarod was an instrument that expressed with unsurpassed beauty and eloquence the noblest aspirations and deepest yearnings of the human soul.”

"We mourn the loss of one of the world’s greatest sarod maestros, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib," said Indian musician Ashwin Batish. "His legacy to the music community at large will never be forgotten. He leaves us with a rich heritage and a better understanding of this finest of arts called music. His students number thousands and efforts  generated by his school, the Ali Akbar College of Music, will no doubt carry on the teaching and legacy of this musical gem. May his soul rest in peace."

Born in 1922 in British-controlled East Bengal (now Bangladesh) Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s family traced their gharana (ancestral tradition) to Mian Tansen, the 16th century musical genius and court musician to Emperor Akbar. Ali Akbar Khan’s father, the late Padma Vibhusan Acharya Dr. Allauddin Khan, was acknowledged as the greatest figure in North Indian music in the 20th century.

Ali Akbar Khan, a.k.a. Khansahib, began his studies in music at the age of three. He studied vocal music from his father and drums from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. His father also trained him on several other instruments, but decided finally that had to concentrate on the sarod and on vocal. For over twenty years, he trained and practiced 18 hours a day. After that, his father continued to teach Khansahib until he was over 100 years old, and left behind such a wealth of material that Khansahib feels he is still learning new things from it. Since his father’s death in 1972, Khansahib has continued his father’s tradition, that of the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Maihar and Rampur, India.

Ali Akbar Khan gave his first public performance in Allahabad at age thirteen. In his early twenties, he made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label, and the following year, he became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. He worked there for seven years until the Maharaja’s untimely death. The state of Jodhpur bestowed upon him his first title, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. Many years later, he received the title of Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem at the Jodhpur Palace’s Golden Jubilee Celebration in 1993.

At the request of Lord Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan first visited the United States in 1955. He made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, and the first television performance of Indian music, on Allistair Cooke’s Omnibus, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960’s.

Khansahib founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, in 1956. Later, recognizing the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students, he began teaching in the United States in 1965. In 1967, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, which moved to Marin County, California, the following year. He maintained a teaching schedule of 6 classes a week for 9 months of the year. Khansahib also opened a branch of his college in Basel, Switzerland, run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman, where he taught yearly during his world tours.

Khansahib composed and recorded music for films throughout his career. He composed extensively in India beginning with "Aandhiyan" by Chetan Anand (1953) and went on to create music for "House Holder" by Ivory/Merchant (their first film), "Khudita Pashan" (or "Hungry Stone") for which he won the "Best Musician of the Year" award, "Devi" by Satyajit Ray, and, in America, "Little Buddha" by Bernardo Bertolucci.

1997 was a landmark year for Ali Akbar Khan. In February, he was the second recipient to receive the Asian Paints Shiromani Award – Hall of Fame, following filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He celebrated his 75th birthday in April and the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM)’s 30th anniversary in June. In August of that year, the Indian Embassy requested Khansahib to perform at the United Nations in New York and at Kennedy Center in Washington DC; both performances were in celebration of the 50th year of India’s Independence. In September, Ali Akbar Khan was chosen to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was presented by Mrs. Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in the White House.

When Ali Akbar Khan first received the title of Ustad as a relatively young man, his father merely laughed. But later, when the patriarch was a centenarian, he told his son one day that he was very proud of him: "I am so pleased with your work in music that I will do something which is very rare. As your Guru and father, I am giving you a title, Swara Samrat (Emperor of Melody)."

Learning the ragas and mastering the instrument were both difficult challenges. Ali Akbar sais, "If you practice for 10 years, you may please yourself, after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, after 30 years you may please even your guru, but you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist-then you may please even God."

The memorial service and burial for Ustad Ali Akbar Khan will be held at Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery (2500 5th Ave, San Rafael, CA 94901), Sunday, June 21st at noon, followed by a gathering at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM). Due to the overwhelming amount of phone calls, the school representatives request that all all correspondence be sent via email to

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to AACM for the Ali Akbar Khan Library at

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan is survived by his wife Mary, 11 children, and an extraordinary musical legacy that includes the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California.

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central


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