The magician bows out - Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan passes away

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  • Published 20.06.09

With the death of sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the instrumental triumvirate that ruled the golden years of north Indian instrumental music has now only one man standing: Pandit Ravi Shankar. The youngest member, sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, departed years ago.

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar is correctly credited as the first Indian classical musician with export marketing genius. However, it was Ali Akbar and not Ravi Shankar who was the first Indian classical musician to be presented in a big way in the US. Ravi Shankar’s first major concert tour of the US was arranged by Yehudi Menuhin in 1956 whereas that of Ali Akbar was arranged by Menuhin a year earlier, in 1955.

Ali Akbar was featured in the first major Indian classical recital at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and cut the first LP record of Indian classical music in the US (Sindh Bhairavi/ Mishra Pilu, with Chaturlal on the tabla and a spoken introduction by Menuhin). Ali Akbar also performed Indian classical music for the first time on television in the US on Alistair Cooke’s Omnibus.

Although Ali Akbar eventually attracted a sizeable group of pupils and set up the Ali Akbar College of Music in California, the sarod never caught on in the US in the manner the sitar did when Ravi Shankar arrived a year later with the same tabla accompanist.

Back home, there was never any doubt about who was the boss among the three. Ali Akbar generally cut Ravi Shankar down to size in their very popular duets. His duets with Vilayat Khan were few and far between but in them, when the sarod maestro went on his melodic explorations, the most visible among his appreciators was Vilayat himself.

Never one for playing taans, Ali Akbar allowed Vilayat a free run towards the end of the slow gatkari and in the drut gatkari, nodding patronisingly and occasionally stealing the show with a catchy twist to the composition. That is the point: he was forever stealing the show.

Ali Akbar was the most improvisatory and the most inconsistent member of the triumvirate. On a good day, he would play stuff that would leave practically everybody far behind. On a bad day, he would sound much below the other two.

In the beginning, Ali Akbar brought in a sea change by raising the basic pitch of the modified sarod designed by Ustad Alauddin Khan. This opened up its potential resonance and brought in an additional layer of tonal ambience that gave the sound a new character.

The new tonal panorama projected by his sarod also depended substantially on his experimentation and subsequent alteration of the angle at which the plectrum strikes the strings and the timing of the execution of subsequent strokes. This also involved some alteration of the grip used to hold the plectrum.

All this combined to finally produce the soft, round and sustained tone commonly known as the ‘Ali Akbar sound’ which drew maximum support from the sympathetic strings and the additional drone strings in the alap and melodic elaboration.

As a result, the emphasis shifted to melody. In the ustad’s heyday, everything else was subservient to the creation and projection of organically interlinked melodic phrases. This dominance of melody throughout an entire recital led to the downplaying of other material of the traditional repertoire like the varied development of fast stroke patterns.

Though Ali Akbar continued using vigorous stroke cluster variations in rhythmic patterns, especially in the first part of his career, these were usually blended with the melodic progression in a manner that did not make them stand out the way the did in the case of sarod players of traditional styles. Hard-edged fast bolkari calls for skills born out of rigorous practice and is physically taxing. Sarod playing, as such, did become less challenging in this sense in the Ali Akbar Khan style.

However, general listeners were mesmerised by the melodic charm and the new tonal panorama. Common reactions to this style of sarod playing were “Ali Akbar makes the sarod talk” or “the singing tone of Ali Akbar’s sarod”. This tonal and melodic ‘magic’ differentiated Ali Akbar from earlier sarod players, including his father.

From the mid-1940s, his style of sarod-playing bowled the listener over, just as the new approaches of Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan did in the realm of the sitar.