July 16, 2011

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – A Guru Purnima Remembrance

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
April 14, 1922 – June 18, 2009

Having just dedicated last night’s New York City kirtan to the beloved memory of my guru in the art of raga, my heart and mind turn to the fantastic offerings he made during the 42 years he dedicated himself to teaching so many of us from all over the world. Even on the very last day of his life, he offered one last lesson in the raagini (a female raga) known as Durga, perhaps calling on the protection of the Goddess as he prepared to make his transition …

“Music is like a river or stream that has come down to us through time, bringing nurture to man’s soul. From the past masters, this music flowed to my father and through him to me. I want to keep this stream flowing. I don’t want it to die. It must spread all over the world.”
-Ali Akbar Khan

“Ustad Ali Akbar Khan embodied the very pinnacle of our great classical music tradition. In his hands, the sarod was an instrument that expressed with unsurpassed beauty and eloquence the noblest aspirations and deepest yearnings of the human soul.”

-Indira Gandhi

On June 18, 2009, Ali Akbar Khan left his body, thus leaving a truly unfillable void in the world of Indian Classical music. To say the least, having the privilege of sitting with him was one of the great blessings of my life. For those of you who weren’t blessed to hear him, let me just say that learning from him was akin to being able to be in the company of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. Khansahib (as we students called him) had an unbelievable connection with the absolute essence of music itself.

Over the years, he showed an unparalleled mastery of music, deep knowledge and wisdom, an exquisite understanding of the sacred nature of musical vibration, and, perhaps most of all, an unswerving desire to share the magic of it all with so many of us enthusiastic (but often quite clueless) Westerners. He literally lived that passion until the day he passed; in the last two days of his life, he continued to teach his sons and those students who were able to be at his bedside.

During my studies with him years ago, I was also able to visit with him many times at his home. His irresistible and often beautifully irreverent sense of humor would be coupled with incredible insights into the nature of sadhana and the breadth, depth and power of music. In his youth he would often practice 14, 16, or even 18 hours a day. He also shared many stories that made almost palpable what it was like to grow up under the tutelage of his father Allaudin Khan, who was also Ravi Shankar’s guru and widely regarded as the greatest Indian musical saint in hundreds of years .

Khansahib’s connection with and reverence for the ocean of sacred sound were beyond compare, reminding so many of us of the absolutely limitless potential and abundance of music. Each and every time I lift my bow to play the esraj, prepare to play the tabla, or open my mouth to sing, it is my unspoken prayer that what I can share will reflect even a small fraction of the gifts lavished on me by Khansahib and the great Zakir Hussain (from whom I studied tabla).

When he played, Khansahib poured every ounce of his energy and intention into making each instant of the music all that it could be … even as he would begin the first few notes of his alap (musical invocation) at the beginning of a performance, every note would be so perfectly and exquisitely THAT note that tears came to my eyes. In my view, Khansahib could express more in one such note than many musicians can in a lifetime…

And now, each time I see and hear musicians give themselves completely and unreservedly to music (as his son Alam did so beautifully at a concert honoring his memory in Portland), I can close my eyes and feel Khansahib’s joy as he loses himself in the endless gifts of Saraswati.

Khansahib, you will be missed more than it is possible to express in words. I pray that those of us who were blessed to be in your presence can continue to give ourselves to the music in the same spirit you did, and thus ensure that your music and your gifts will continue to flow into the world.

With SO much love and gratitude,

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