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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

Swara across the seas

December 05, 2007

People kept coming into the large, cavernous hall lined with musical instruments. It was a crowd unlike anything I had seen in America before: Toddlers and senior citizens, young shaven heads with trimmed beards and natural baldies with gray stubbles.

Some were familiar celebrity faces: Ustad Zakir Hussain, here, conversing with his easy charm with a teenager in a bright batik dress; Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, there, accepting the greetings of a kaftan clad, curly haired redhead, Americans in salwars and sarees, Indians in jeans and bandhgalas. All looking relaxed and radiant, a friendly and fraternal ambience permeating the place, and food ranging from gulab jamuns to apple pies, being continually brought in by scores of people. Or should I say droves of devotees?

Yes, there was devotion in the air, but this was not a temple. We were at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, a pretty suburb, just north of San Francisco and the occasion was the 85th birthday earlier this year of Khansahib Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. His friends, fellow musicians, well-wishers and above all, generations of students had come to celebrate, to have a good party and to get his blessings.

For anyone interested in the East-West cultural encounter and specially the introduction of Indian classical music to the West, a visit to the college and paying respect to Khansahib is in the nature of a pilgrimage. This is what I was doing on that day, not for the first time, but each time with increasing admiration for what had been started and built here.

Sure, there are famous names and celebrity figures who have taken Indian music to the West. The names of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain spring readily to the mind, and in the last decades also others: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Jasraj and others, in the Hindustani music pantheon. But ask any of them about sustained institution building, dedication and complete devotion to the students irrespective of race, region, religion, gender, and why, even talent and inclination -- the name of Khansahib emerges as the most beloved and revered figure. Not only now but for the last 40 years in the West alone and even longer if we trace his entire teaching career.

Swar Samrat, an honour conferred on him by his father, itself a very unusual gesture is the only title that Khansahib cares for among his long list of awards and recognition. When one considers the spread of the swara across the seas, he has truly been a samrat.

Like many great legends of Indian classical music, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's story of bringing the East and the West together in music does not start with him, but goes back in time. His father Baba Allaudddin Khan (1862 TO 1972) had run away from Dhaka to Calcutta and is believed to have played over two hundred instruments, from the humble drum to the sublime sarod.

As a court musician he is known as the spirit of the Maihar gharana. He was also a great teacher and among his disciples: his son Ali Akbar, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, daughter Annapoorna Devi (earlier married to Ravi Shankar), the flutist Pannalal Ghosh and many others with formidable reputations.

It is not entirely surprising therefore that young Ali Akbar had an exposure to varied instruments -- Indian and Western -- from age three. He could play a number of them, but eventually came to concentrate on vocal and sarod. But early training had made it possible that he could eventually become a master teacher.

It was Yehudi Menuhin, the celebrated violinist and lover of all genres of music, who invited Ali Akbar to America in 1955, much before Indian music came to be known in the West. The first ever Western LP recording of Hindustani music was also by him and appropriately enough in Raag Bhairavi, a morning raag thus signalling 'The dawn of Indian music in the West,' the title of a book.

Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar thereafter became periodic visitors to the West giving concerts occasionally.

Something was happening in America from the mid-sixties which enhanced the appeal of India to Western sensibility, particularly among the youth. It could be the restlessness and turmoil, the disenchantment with the war in Vietnam, the search for truth -- be it through genuine meditation or the Dum Maro Dum route, or the love for the esoteric and the eclectic. The links between Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles, the use of the sitar in Western music, the spread of Yoga -- all these are well known memories of that time.

By 1967 Khansahib was at the peak of his musical career and already had a school in Calcutta. But it was his destiny that like his father he should become a Guru, a 'Baba', and in the process attempt something altogether new: to bring Indian music, always taught in a guru-shishya parampara to a classroom atmosphere with Western students. And what better place to start this than in San Francisco, the city ever ready to experiment, open and receptive to all influences, liberal and artistic to its core. In 1967, the Ali Akbar College of music was started in California, where it continues to this day.

For me, fond of music, but ignorant and untutored, several aspects of the college and of Khansahib are fascinating. A visit to the college and a look at its history shows, above all, total immersion and dedication to music, disregarding all divides. No, this is not artificial 'fusion' between the East and the West, a popular word these days. It is something else: a belief that pure music is truly universal and is transcendent. That it is essentially meditative, peaceful and spiritual.

One can readily see several aspects of this transcendence in the college.

First, any one familiar with classical Hindustani music knows already that religion in the conventional sense has little place in it. Its history and heritage itself has been shaped by both Sanskritic and Persian influences. The photographs in the college bear testimony to this. Goddess Saraswati adorns the wall prominently, next to photographs of the Kaaba at Mecca.

I am reminded of the statement of an elderly Muslim musician in 1948, after the trauma of Partition: 'If only one member of each family had studied music, this tragedy would not have happened.' What was implied was that music would have given a sense of equanimity, love and otherworldliness across the religious divide, calming seething minds.

Secondly, a disregard for nationalities. Over the years, a large number of students have passed through the portals of the college and they have come from everywhere. Thirdly, there seems to be a transcendence of genres. I have heard noted jazz masters, concert pianists, drummers and scholarly ethno-musicologists say how they became curious about the raga and the rhythm of Indian music in the sixties and then got to learn about it from Khansahib.

What they could hear immediately were the elements of pure music and Khansahib's love for musicians, irrespective of where they came from. In time artists like Zakir Hussain, Kala Ramnath, Swapan Chaudhuri or the Kathak maestro Chitresh Das, all one time students came to perform with a range of Western musicians from classical to jazz to tap dance.

How has this transcendence of ethnicities, nationalities, even genres, come about?During a recent event, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, the director of percussion at the college was speaking about his early days of playing the tabla with Khansahib. He said sometimes the structuring of the raag, of the melody and the beat patterns, were so intricate that it was a challenge to keep up with the master; he had to struggle. 'How do you keep true to the cycle? Isn't it complex?' he asked. 'No, it is very simple,' said Khan Sahib, 'it is all one, one, One.'

The musical mathematics of this is beyond my comprehension, but the message about the essence of naad seemed simple and yet mystical: it is Pure, Absolute, without division, Divine.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash