I started learning music in India at the age of nine years old. I arrived in Berkeley, California, in March 1974, having married my husband, Raj Sahai, who worked as an engineer in San Francisco. A month after my arrival, I learned that Ustad Ali Akbar Khan lived in Marin County and had a school of Indian classical music. I had not yet learned to drive a car. The Ali Akbar College of Music (“AACM”) was located in the Bothin Center in the Western part of Marin County. I had to take three bus rides, making two connections to get there, which took almost two hours each way. But I knew it was a rare opportunity—after all, where would I get a chance to learn music from such a genius, already a legend by that time in India? So, I began to go to AACM three times a week. It gave me all the incentive to learn to drive a car quickly, and that was for the first time in my life. After 8 years of learning music with him, practicing every day for 4 to 6 hours, came a moment of such joy for me; I can hardly describe the feeling when I read what Khan Saheb wrote for me:
”Rita Sahai has a bright future before her. She has been a student of mine for eight years, showing a rare talent and a sweet voice. I know her years of hard practice will show in charming and delightful programs wherever she performs.” – Ali Akbar Khan, September 1982
In my life, I have been blessed with having three great Gurus. The first was Pt. Rama Shankar Mishra-ji, the disciple of Pt. Balwant Rai Bhatt, who was the main disciple of the legendary musician, Pt. Omkar Nath Thakur-ji. Pt. Rama Shankar Mishra-ji laid the foundation of Indian classical music in me at the age of nine, when I started learning with him. The second Guru was my professor in college, while I did my Masters’ degree in Sanskrit—Padma-Shree Dr. Kapil Dev Dwivedi. That was in literature; however, music and literature are both expressions of human heart and human condition, one in words, the other in emotions.
In September 1974, I met the most important of all of my Gurus, who accepted me as his disciple—the great artist who was honored with three (Padma-Shri, Padma-Bhushan, Padma-Vibhushan) awards: legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Saheb, with whom my musical training and education continued in the US for the next 32 years.
The lessons I learnt from Khan Saheb
Khan Saheb was very punctual. Once I was only one minute late for my appointment with him, but that was not good for him. He said, ”how can you do music when you cannot land on Sum [the first beat of the taal]? Even 1/10th of a second off makes you miss the Sum.”
Soon after I joined the college in 1974, Khan Saheb had a recording session at KQED TV studio in San Francisco, and he asked me to play Tanpura for him. The recording director asked him if he needed a signal to let him know that 15 seconds were left for the set 16-minute recording piece. Khan Saheb said it was not necessary. I looked at my wristwatch to note the time of start. When he finished playing, I looked at my watch again. He finished exactly on the allotted 16 minutes to the second. That’s how well he knew time.
2. Being true to purity of notes [sur] and Raga
After few years training under his guidance, Khan Saheb suggested that I should professionally record, what would turn out to be the first CD of my music. Well, after a long and very hard work, I completed my recording and asked for his review. He said it was all fine, but at one place my Sur [note] was for just 1/10th of a second not perfectly in tune. So, he said the whole recording had to be done again. And to my great surprise he himself arranged a studio, and came and stayed for the whole recording session. He even tuned my Tanpura. Such was his dedication to perfection in music. I learned what it meant to be a professional musician.
3. Humility and respect for other musicians & artists
Despite his decades of illustrious career, well recognized all over the world, he always said, even in his sixties, that he was still learning. He often said in the classes he taught that his father came in his dreams and taught him the new composition that he was going to teach us in that class.
4. The musical dialogues with Khan Saheb
It always happened while he was teaching how to expand the raga in Alaap, that he would sing a very complicated musical phrase of notes and, in response, I would sing to answer him with a varying phrase. He liked this musical dialogue in music, even though of course I could not be at his high level. This would go on for some time. It was his way to challenge his senior students, and I really enjoyed the challenge.
5. His message
He told us to take the good from your Guru, not the bad sides. You learn his good habits, not his bad ones. Don’t smoke if the Guru does. His creativity flowed in thoughts outside of music, in conversations, in food, in humor. There was so much to learn from him.
6. A most memorable personal experience
I was fortunate to be at his many birthday celebrations, but one of them was very special for me. I recall that once I called Khan Saheb on his birthday to give him my best wishes, and now having known him for many years, I also told him that I am coming to see him for his birthday, and that I would not take no for an answer from him! He, without a moment of hesitation, said, “come over,” and so I got ready in a hurry, very excited. Two hours later when I arrived at his house, he gave me a most wonderful surprise: his famous Bengali Khichadi which he had cooked just for me! Not only he had prepared it but also asked me to sit down at the dining table and he served me in a plate. It was his birthday and he treated me! Why? Because he knew my coming meant that I held him in great affection and of course respect, and that there was a genuine, unbreakable bond between him and me, which only the ancient music of India that he taught could sustain in an otherwise thoroughly alienated world of commercial relations. I know others have had similar experiences with him, so I was not the only one. That was what he was in essence: a genuine human being, not only a famous musician. It remains one of the most very memorable days of my life.
I love you, Khan Saheb. You are always in our hearts.
Berkeley April 1, 2022