By Arjun Verma
Maestro Ali Akbar Khan is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists in human history. Not only was he a supreme master of his craft, but he also revealed and opened doors to new universes of expression and emotional experience in music. To have been born in the same century and to have heard his music is extremely good fortune; to have learned with him personally is nothing short of a miracle.
I think that many of us who found ourselves at the feet of the Maestro, by whatever means we reached there, felt this sense of being extraordinarily lucky, like we were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Yet this experience repeated, week after week, year after year, as he miraculously repeated his feats of musical genius. For me it sometimes felt like a giddiness that once again, this ultimate musical experience was happening right in front of me. And of course I’m sure that all who were drawn to him can remember the rush of strong emotion we’d experience as he would pull timeless, profound music seemingly out of thin air in front of our eyes, weaving gorgeous melodies for us in each class.
As powerful as his musical gifts were, it was the combination of that genius with a deep, real humanity that moved me so much about Khansahib. In fact, I think it was because he was so genuinely human, and utterly disinterested in facades or pretentiousness, that he was able to reach such a deep level in his music. It also allowed me to feel extremely close to him as a person, and the strength of the relationship I was lucky enough to build with him still supports me to this day.
My father, the late sitarist Roop Verma, was a student of Khansahib’s beginning during his own youth in India. So I grew up listening to Khansahib’s music from a very young age. Even before I met him, his music nourished me in a way that no other art did, and I always gravitated towards it.
Through this family connection I had a chance to meet Baba as an 8-year-old boy, traveling from our home in New York to California for a brief visit. How lucky I was, to have had that opportunity! He was very sweet and encouraging about my musical studies, and though I didn’t meet him again for some years, that experience resonated in my memory strongly.
As a young teenager, I returned with my father to the Ali Akbar College to begin learning with Baba for the first time. By this point I had been training with my father in sitar for 10 years, had performed internationally, and thought I knew more than a thing or two about music. Baba promptly (and in retrospect, rather humorously) revealed to me not only how much of a beginner I still was, but also that there were entire constellations of musical skill, expression, and understanding that I didn’t even know existed!
Those early classes with him were so profound to me—the music so compelling, the community so engaged and dedicated, and the energy of each class so charged—that this one-month visit changed my life.
From that point on I dove deep into searching how I might tap the same musical wellspring as this great maestro. After one more visit with my father, I moved to California and began to study with Baba year-round. Those years feel endless with amazing musical memories and experiences, and yet they also went by quickly. Over the course of that time, I felt that Baba took me apart musically and put me back together, remaking me into a new musician, and really, a new person–yet somehow more authentic to myself. I’m still learning from my time with him, and from the incomprehensibly rich legacy of teachings that he has left behind.
He was a deeply caring teacher, and in a way because of that, he could also be very stern and no-nonsense and would give bluntly honest critiques on a regular basis. This allowed him to show us precisely the direction in which musical growth was to be found, because he didn’t water his teaching down at all. He pointed directly to the truth, musically speaking; showing us, even if we weren’t ready to see it yet, where to find the magic.
In addition, the community of people—students, music lovers, admirers, and friends—that he catalyzed around him worldwide, especially here at the Ali Akbar College, has been the most meaningful community to me in my life. What a wonderful, unusual, and remarkable collection of people! It is through that community as well that he lives on, and that the river of music he shared will continue to flow. Baba has inspired countless other people not only to take up Indian classical music as an art form, but to attempt to bring the same presence and depth of expression to whatever forms of art they do in their lives.
I can say without a doubt that Ali Akbar Khan had the strongest effect on me of anyone I have ever met in my life. For his selfless love and unending musical gifts I am forever grateful, and the only way I can repay the debt I owe him is to participate, in some way, in attempting to see his vision through for the centuries to come, of sharing this most magnificent music with the world, so that it might bring them the same solace, healing, and love that it has brought me.