Happy Birthday Baba - Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Question: How do you lengthen a line without touching it?

Answer: By simply drawing a parallel, shorter line, below it.

Baba (Ali Akbar Khan)’s being is all about this other parallel – wordless   but for the purest sounds emanating from his sarode, where rhythm equates logic and timing, and melody – philosophy …

Perfect, practiced, mastered to a meticulous meld … Personal, deeply personal to every individual privileged enough to have experienced it… The rest is a welcome diversion. Awards, PR and marketing strategies are welcomed with childlike curiosity and wonder. They are humored and entertained. But they cannot be full time employees.

Why? Because the maestro will not compromise principles ... not for fame, nor for fortune, not even for a lark.

He has a job to do and a Muse to follow full time. He must keep the sheer treasure of his father’s music alive, keep its exacting standards intact and remain true to his one beloved. In the few, measured words he will allow himself from time to time, he says: “This kind of music is simply not for entertainment. It is a way of self realization; of finding bliss within”.

It’s true. I tried to play his music during a dinner for friends and had to switch it off, because the music diverts/disturbs/haunts and elevates … all at one go. On one occasion, I wept through Basant Mukhari, totally deaf to a joke that was being shared at the time.

That did it. I renewed acquaintance with the fact that this is music that simply will not entertain … and certainly not during loud, friendly dinners where nobody wants tears in their soup.

In the way of a Saadhak in Swar Samadhi; a man who discovered his centre a long time ago … Baba, at 85, remains gainfully employed … making music, teaching music, cooking and cleaning and gardening and nurturing students to a perfection that is not available elsewhere.  

And there, in the large hall of his school in San Francisco, you can hear him singing and yelling and cracking up his students with comparisons of their flailing efforts to the most trivial, often scatological everyday booboos. For example “Oh you monkeys” Baba growls in mock rage, “why do you sound like leaking toilets?”  

I’ve watched students 15 years old, awestruck and shiny eyed, lined up to greet their grand mentor as he walks in, stick, speed and focus on the chair in front of him and the essay ahead. Not a moment to lose in small chat now. Inner clock is outer clock and one missed quarter beat messes up the whole melody. This same mentor will later, over tea, be laughing with his students and paying deep attention to their concerns.

The non profit “Ali Akbar College” in San Rafael, California runs true to Gurukul principles set in place by Baba Allauddin. Over its 40 plus years in existence, it has seen over a hundred thousand students come – some with service rendered to make up for fees they couldn’t afford. Over 10,000 students have become professional musicians and yet, somehow, the true profit for the Maestro/founder remains in the teaching and the creating of discerning audiences.      

It’s as if someone took every last cell in Baba’s mind, body and spirit and filled it to brimming with one thing, and this one thing is manifest in everything about him.  

That someone was Dadu – Baba Allauddin Khan, who spared neither rod, nor constant, 24 hour effort in infusing music into his only son. A few years ago, Baba told me, “ you know … I hated your Dadu. He literally beat music into me. I wanted to run away and become a train driver. Then one day I discovered I loved music and fell in love with my father.”  

Baba Allauddin Khan mentored some of the greatest musicians India has known. They include Annapoorna Devi (Baba’s sister, my aunt and ex-wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar), Pandit Ravi Shankar, Timir Baran, Pannalal Ghosh, music director Roshan,  Sharan Rani, Bahadur Khan, my brothers Aashish Khan and Dhyanesh Khan, Jyotin Bhattacharya, Nikhil Banerjee and many, many others. But his stick was for Baba and Baba alone.  As were the tears rolling down his face whenever he heard his son perform on the radio.

Last year, when I visited Uma Anand (widow of film maker Chetan Anand), she recounted an incident involving my grandfather and father at their family home.

Baba had been recording for Aandhiyan. Dadu got to hear a composition and was moved to tears. “How does he do that? I didn’t teach him that. Even I can’t do what he does!” Later that evening, Baba played a small concert at the Anand home. Dadu’s tears fell unabated, utterly moved by his son’s intuitive artistry.

“How did you feel when he did that, Baba?” I asked my father over the phone. Baba laughed. “I was surprised. But some years later he called me to his bedside and told me - I bless you and honour you as Swar Samraat. .. On this day I cried, because I knew there would be no award and no reward to compare with what my Guru had just given me.”

Baba had spoken, a little more than usual … but then, he speaks a lot more than usual when the subject is musical.

In that one moment, I understood why Baba ceded his title “Ustad”, why he does what he does with such fastidiousness and why he is so detached from the glitter and glitz of showbiz. What does it matter to someone who has the ultimate validation of his own mentor and father!

My younger brother Aalam, a gorgeous hunk and very, very promising young Sarodist, used to be a regular clothes horse as a little boy. Now he couldn’t care less what he wears. “What’s a few yards of fabric, Lajodidi!”

He’s barely into his twenties but the perceptional infusion clearly shows … even in these times of surpluses and brand consciousnesses and designer do’s and economic compulsions and media circuses.

The parallel is alive and thriving … lengthier and wiser, in spite of mute!

Perceptive of its potential, sensitively mindful of change … this parallel is the one to watch as it grows sturdy wings to come home just like other old forgotten riches and traditions.  

As I turn around and gaze at this seemingly sudden burst of popularity and recognition India has gained in the West, I know that it didn’t happen on the instant.

It took years upon years to build the bridge that is now declared open.

Ali Akbar Khan has invested a good part of his lifetime creating his part of this bridge. He was the first Indian classical musician to visit the US in 1955 at the behest of his friend and violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the first to appear on the Omnibus Show, the first artiste to cut a long-playing album of Indian music, and the first artiste to have worked on a fusion album that coupled English translations of Baudelaire’s poems read by actress Yvette Mimieux, and his own compositions exposing the mood of each poem… this from a musician whose own knowledge of English, then, was limited but whose sensitivity to emotional nuances created a profoundly stirring score for the recording.  

 With the Ali Akbar College, a popular landmark for residents of Berkeley and San Francisco, Baba established a base that created a recurring audience that has since matured into a very discerning audience. The college also paved the way for other Indian musicians to visit, perform and teach. Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shankar Ghosh and Swapan Chowdhary made their beginnings as resident teachers at the AACM and the vsiting performers have included some of the best known names in Indian Classical Music from the North and the South. 

Ali Akbar Khan’s best known student is of course R.D. Burman – a legendary icon in Indian Film Music, but there is Jai Uttal who has carved a very special place for himself in alternative/new age or Buddha Bar music as it is popularly known. His student George Ruckert heads the Music department at MIT, while Ken Zuckermann heads the AACM in Basel Switzerland and is a celebrated Sarodist in his own right. Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, violinist Sisirkona Dar Chowdhary, his sons Aashish and Aalam are performing stalwarts – with Aashishda heading the music department of prestigious Cal Arts. Baba also taught music director Jaidev who worked as his assistant for years and whose music bears the distinct stamp of the Maihar Gharana and Baba’s influence.

And then, there’s Asha Didi … Asha Bhosle … Baba’s spiritual daughter and protégé, my Didi/Boudi/Didima … 

The best things are achieved in focused, active silence. Seeds sprout unseen, beneath the earth, and grow into fruit bearing trees.

And the heavier the load of fruit, the more the tree bows …

Thus silence… thus gratitude and humility! That’s the stuff of greatness, often forgotten in our brash world.

Baba’s near-wordlessness has goaded me into being his voice on his 85th birthday. It is a privilege and one I cherish with every fibre in my being. As for Baba! Music. This is what Baba does best and what he loves most.


And those who dare … flock to him, to learn, to hear him and discover that their hearing, perceptions and lives have changed forever.

My fate was sealed the day I was born – his daughter Lajwanti, named after a melody he composed as I reposed, blissfully listening, in my mother’s womb.

My mother and father met while both were at the court of Maharaja Hanumant Singh of Jodhpur. They fell in love and what followed was a long drawn courtship, there in the Baradari of beautiful Umaid Bhavan,

Hanumant Singhji and my father were close friends. They started the radio station in Jodhpur, made plans to create a great conservatory of music and an auditorium but the plans came to a sudden end with Baapji (Hanumant Singhji’s tragic death in an air crash). Baba broke his heart and moved to Bombay; there to begin his film career with Navketan. But the stories of their great friendship are part of Jodhpur’s folklore and during the Umaid Bhavan Jubilee celebrations an auditorium was built and named after Baba.  

Baba and I have been knit close from our first moment, and forever - he my eternal mentor and hero, my shelter from Ma’s temper, the world, and Dadu (Baba Allauddin Khan)’s teasing. In turn, I remain Baba’s chatterbox, his happy listener, his trouble maker and rebel, his shadow and his sounding board. As far as he is concerned, I am forever five years old and as silly as he’s known me to be. As far as I am concerned, I worship him. Always did and always will. 

I spent my childhood following him through concert halls, ever at his beck and call on stage; through recording studios in Bombay and Calcutta, meeting some of our finest musicians and discovering a vast, extended and very affectionate familial community forever linked in sound; throughout our homes spread across Maihar, Bombay, Calcutta, Jaipur and later San Francisco. 

I remember once how when I rushed over to greet him and the family dog Rocky and I had a minor race to the steps … he stood a while grinning at the pair we made (my hair was cut in bangs that had grown wildly over my eyes) “You and Rocky seem to be my principal greeters, ” Baba had laughed. In response I went paws up, bangs down and “wuff, wuff” which made him laugh some more.

Last year, when Baba was really ill, I called him up to say “My Baba … you’re going to be just fine. Honest. Not one hair on your head will be bent,” (Aapka to ek baal bhi baanka nahin hoga) he started laughing again ... “Haan. Sir par baal hi nahin hain to baanka kya hoga! Yes nothing will bend because my head has no hair to bend”.

Tears streaming, we both laughed heartily. He is his wonderful self and I can bask in the sheer joy of him. We all can.

Someone just called and told me something about Baba winning the President’s award in India.

How good. Perfect timing ... for another brood of our young to get curious and go delving to discover … great music!

Will this award make any difference to Baba? Does this award make any difference to any of us?  

Each da feels good, feels productive, feels like one to celebrate!

After a while achievements cease to matter… all one looks at is how one lived and what one did to give back to Mother Earth and our world. Distances cease to matter after a while. After a while one learns that spirits commune more often than frames.

If one listens, truly listens, silence holds more communications than words.  And if one reads between the lines, what matters most is that we have lived and loved and built for honour.

In the serenity of these days sauntering over to Baba’s 85th birthday, in the quiet of my own spirit and the deepening stillness of knowing that nothing in life happens by accident; that there truly is a grand design to which each being contribute; that the world comes full circle to itself … I wish my Baba the tallest mountain of a life and thriving oceans of good health and being, and doing.     

Happy Birthday Baba.

Happy New Year!

(Excerpts from A Life In Five by Lajo Gupta)


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