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ALI AKBAR KHAN, 87

Bengali Musician Ali Akbar Khan Dies at 87

Musician Ali Akbar Khan was a virtuoso of the sarod, a 25-string instrument in the lute family.
Musician Ali Akbar Khan was a virtuoso of the sarod, a 25-string instrument in the lute family. (By Lawson Knight)
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By Robert E. Thomason
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ali Akbar Khan, 87, a Bengali musician who was regarded as one of the finest artists of Indian classical music who helped popularize the genre in the West through appearances on television, record and stage, died June 18 at his home in San Anselmo, Calif., of a kidney ailment.

The son of a revered musician and teacher, Mr. Khan began intensive training as a child and partnered with sitar player Ravi Shankar -- his future brother-in-law -- performing duets throughout India.

Mr. Khan was a virtuoso of the sarod, a 25-string instrument in the lute family. His chosen musical genre is based in part on the concept of the raga, which consists of improvised music based on a variety of scales. From these scales, or permutations of them, Indian musicians follow traditional forms but add their own inflections and feeling.

The late American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became one of his earliest champions in the West, said he considered Mr. Khan "an absolute genius, the greatest musician in the world."

Mr. Khan was appointed court musician to the maharaja of Jodhpur in 1943, and his international career launched under Menuhin, who organized a showcase of Indian music at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955 and featured the sarodist.

About that time, Angel Records released Mr. Khan's first Western recordings of Indian music. His appearance on broadcaster Alistair Cooke's network television program "Omnibus" marked one of the first times Indian classical music was performed live on Western television.

"When I came in '55, because I was in Indian dress, people on the street in New York came out of the bars and shops and followed us," Mr. Khan told the publication Asian Week. "They asked me, 'Who are you? Where are you from?' When I said, 'India,' some of them didn't even know where it was. Or others who knew I was a musician asked funny questions like, 'How can you play music in India with all the tigers and snakes and monkeys you have to fight off?' "

As Indian culture and music began to infuse Western pop culture in the 1960s, widespread interest in musicians such as Mr. Khan grew. In 1967, he established the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley, Calif., which he later moved to Marin County, north of San Francisco. He taught there while maintaining a schedule of performances and recordings such as "Shree Rag" and "Misra Piloo," both of which brought him critical acclaim.

In 1971, a civil war transformed Mr. Khan's homeland, called East Pakistan at the time, into the independent country of Bangladesh. The war created an immense humanitarian crisis among the already poor population. Former Beatles guitarist George Harrison, a student and performer of Indian music, assembled a number of musicians for a relief benefit concert held at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Khan and Shankar, whose divorce from Mr. Khan's sister strained their relationship, performed at the Concert for Bangladesh with musicians including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. An album and film of the concert were later released.

In an interview many years later, Mr. Khan said he had bad memories of the Madison Square Garden event. "That was not music but I'd say a war of music," he told Reuters in 2007, adding at one point he stuffed toilet paper in his ears to block out the noise.

Mr. Khan was born April 14, 1922, in British-controlled East Bengal, now Bangladesh. His family claimed a musical lineage that stretched back to a 16th-century court musician of the Mogul Emperor Akbar.

His father, Allauddin Khan, was regarded as one of the foremost Indian musicians of his time and had reportedly mastered more than 200 instruments. He said his father, who lived to be more than 100 and also taught Shankar, was "very strict. He never played with me, he never laughed, never smiled. He was a tiger. I wanted love from him. . . . The motive was that if you show that, too much love, then I was spoiled. At that time I was very angry, but now I am grateful."

The younger Khan debuted publicly at 13 and as a young man earned the designation "ustad," or master musician. He went on to compose his own ragas, a striking accomplishment because ragas are typically handed down by tradition. Over the years, Mr. Khan also composed scores for Indian films such as Satyajit Ray's "Devi" (1960) and the early Merchant-Ivory collaboration "The Householder" (1963).

Survivors include his wife, Mary, and 11 children from several previous wives. He said that in writing his family history, he surprised Mary when he admitted to a marriage that lasted a day. He called it "an accident. I didn't like the lady at all."

In 1991, Mr. Khan received a MacArthur Fellowship, widely known as the "genius" grant. He later received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He once wrote of the sarod, "If you practice for ten years, you may begin to please yourself, after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, after 30 years you may please even your guru, but you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist -- then you may please even God."


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