Are you ready for an improbable epic? One filled with flighty imagination, hippie-cultured young people, and far-reaching cultural explorations? A tale dominated by consummate artist of the old school, whose background and training were often challenged by a totally new environment? Well then, here comes the story of the great Indian maestro Ali Akbar Khan, whose journey into the psychedelic culture of the 1960s resulted in the founding of a very major institution for transmitting an ancient artistic musical heritage. And, this year being his 100th birth anniversary makes it appropriate to tell the story now.
Well, maybe you’d better amend your preconceptions of this story, because the following tale is about more than personalities, my own included. Okay, I liberally sprinkle the following narrative with aspects of my own story, since it is a part of the continuum—the transplanting of a great artistic tradition. The sower, the seed, and the soil all play a part. So, yes, this is the story of a facet of Ali Akbar’s illustrious period of giving over of his art to the students in America in a period which celebrated, and continues to do so, the inheritance of the spiritual traditions of Asia, yea, “the mysterious East” in the words of yore.
And when the word “transplanting” came to my imagination, I immediately thought of the motto of the state of Connecticut, where I spent my earliest years: Qui transtulit sustinet, literally, “he who transplanted sustains.” Couldn’t have said it better! Ali Akbar Khan, in this brief history, transplanted not only himself, but a literature and way of musical thought that still attracts students the world over—indeed, throughout the USA, Canada, Europe (and Russia), Africa, the Middle East, Australia, China, and Japan. So, what is it, how is it, who is it, where are they? These are the questions that we can only begin to explore herein.
The metaphor “sower-seed-soil” works well here. The “sower,” Ali Akbar Khansahib (the suffix -sahib, “master,” is pronounced in one syllable, almost like the car, Saab), is simply referred to as “Khansahib” hereafter; although there are many, many Khansahibs, for the music masters of the old feudal courts took the name Khan to indicate that theirs was a royal appointment. The “seed” was of course the music and the literature, in this case a huge inheritance that Khansahib received from his illustrious father, Allauddin Khan(-sahib), one of the giants of the earlier twentieth century who was a teacher of a slew of prominent musicians, including Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, V.G.Jog, Timir Baran, Indranil Bhattacharya, Pannallal Ghosh, and many others. And the “soil” was us, among whom I have conveniently focused on myself to tell the story of one to whom this musical tradition was painstakingly imparted.
Well, I must acknowledge that I somewhat humbly assume this role, because I was one of many that received the blessings and training of this incredible teacher. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s words ring in my ear: “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great!” Nevertheless, I’ll assume the role for the sake of telling the story, since my take on it is probably as valid as any, if not in the specific details of so many other students.
A very important and extensive part of the story is the transplanting of the music, and this will entail my going into various historical, cultural, theoretical, and practical dimensions of Khansahib’s teaching. One might find much of this information logged in other published accounts, but insofar as this history is unique in its timing, musical, and cultural dimensions, it is a story very deserving of retelling in the following perspective.
And I can imagine Khansahib, in imparting this training to largely uninformed students, received a major education asking himself: “What do they need to know?” “How much of the lore of the music should be strewn with the musical lessons?” “Must I start from the very beginning, or can I assume, because they are usually of a post-adolescent age group, and many have had western training and experience, that they already know something about music?” I’m sure that these and other questions swirled around his mind, especially as he gained his own experience by sitting in front of us. For any teacher in his position, it was a rugged mountain to climb, but I certainly hope to establish in this short narrative, that he was both up to it on a daily basis, and mastered the communication of knowledge of this awesome tradition.
The communication in the main was purely musical, and many of us who heard him either in person or in recording were more than willing to sit and absorb his teachings. For Khansahib played his mastery: that of expounding ragas big and small, and developing them in a way that convincingly displayed a rare mastery not only of “Indian music,” but of music beyond cultural boundaries. In this, he shared a lot in common with Beethoven, including the latter’s famous dictum, “music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”