By Tracy Verma
Happy 100th Birthday to beloved Khansahib, Baba Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. My life totally changed the night he performed in Burlington, VT on October 12, 1977. Little did I know that I’d meet my future husband, Roop Verma, who came to town to see Khansahib perform before Roop started his own tour. Roop stayed in my landlord’s guest room for artists, as he had a non profit performing arts center called Mountain Greenery. I missed the concert studying for a thermodynamics exam. But I knew the moment I met Roop, that I would marry him someday.
The music he played for me the next morning after I returned from my exam, inspired by Baba’s concert, opened my heart to the fathomless depths of this musical tradition.
Roop Ji started studying from Baba at age 16. And when our son, Arjun, was nearly 16, we entrusted his musical training to Baba after he had studied sitar with his Papa for over 10 years. I will never forget how Baba honored Roop Ji and me in front of other students at his Ali Akbar College of Music, with the love and trust we had in him to take over Arjun’s serious musical studies. He blessed Arjun greatly in that moment. I’ve proudly witnessed Arjun’s musical dedication and career blossoming after Baba’s tutelage.
Baba blessed our daughter, Uma, when we asked for his blessing that she be admitted to Clarkson University to study Aeronautical Engineering with full scholarship. “It is done,” he simply stated. Shortly afterwards we received that letter of acceptance with full scholarship.
I have many happy memories of quality time spent with Baba and his family, especially as our children were growing up. Like when he’d pull out his father’s musical challenges to clap or sing as a game of rhythm or melody.
I remember every concert I heard him play from Lowell, MA in January 1978 to the Civic Center in San Rafael around 2005. His music was an out of this world, connect to the cosmos experience. His personality was quiet and introspective before concerts, as I recall before his concert in Philadelphia in 1980, when Roop Ji and I sat quietly with him for most of the day before his performance, my young mind struggling to understand the depth of the silence as we sat together. Later I would come to experience silence after having more exposure to this divine music.
He was so down to earth it surprised me, for someone of his stature. He loved it when his beloved wife, Mary, would wear shorts! Roop Ji, on the other hand, wouldn’t let me be seen in public wearing shorts, unless we were visiting my parents in Cleveland!
He was soft spoken and humble. While backstage at Carnegie Hall before his concert with Pandit Ravi Shankar, who dominated the conversation with his outgoing wit, every now and then Baba would convey an observation or joke that would make us witness to his brilliance and sense presence.
I was fortunate to attend a few of his classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music, where it felt literally like heaven on earth. His music was amazing. Add to that a teaching style that would present in words and analogies a great clarity of images of, for example, an idyllic romantic scene in ancient India in exquisite detail, which you could see and feel in the melody he was teaching.
I’m eternally grateful to Baba for all his blessings to me and my family. I’m grateful to Mary Khan especially for devoted efforts to keep Baba’s music alive through the Ali Akbar College of Music, www.AACM.org, and the following two precious resources www.aliakbarkhanlibrary.com and as of today, www.AliAkbarkhan.org. I appreciate Alam, Manik, and Madina, whom I’ve witnessed growing up to be worthy of the great lineage they inherited, each in their own unique way. And I’m hopeful for the next generation they’ve contributed to the world.