"When you love music, it is like being with a lover; you never want to let her go for a moment," said Ali Akbar Khan, a smile wrinkling his face. For 20 years, starting at age 3, he didn't let go: he practiced his instrument, the sarod, 18 hours a day.
Now he is acclaimed as India's greatest living musician. He has received every major artistic award his country can bestow and has been given the rare title of "lotus-adorned master." Ali Akbar Khan is something of a legend.
Last night, a reception was held in his honor at the One Washington Circle Hotel and many of the leaders of Washington's Indian community came to meet him and celebrate the occasion of his appearance at Lisner auditorium tonight.
A hush fell over the party when he arrived and a crowd gathered around. Mrs. Darshan Krishna, founder of the India School which is sponsoring the concert, said "I first saw him 15 years ago in Australia. We have been trying to bring him here for a long time and we feel we are very lucky."
For Ali Akbar Khan, the adulation seemed slight when compared to the importance of his music. With a silent group of admirers surrounding him, he spoke quietly of the transcendental nature of music.
"Music is the language of God," he said. "There are many ways to approach God, yoga for instance, but music is the shortest route. The ragas (melodies) I play are like mantras that put people in touch with the Divine. When you speak different languages, people do not always understand, but everyone understands music."
In fact, Ali Akbar Khan has broken cultural as well as musical barriers. After his initial performance in this country in 1955, he released the first western recording of Indian classical music and gave the first televised performance of that music on Alistair Cooke's "Omnibus." He also established, in 1965, the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, Calif., to teach Indian music to young American musicians.
"My students are very devoted," he said, "but in India it is much different. There, you start in childhood and after about 20 years of practicing the ragas, you begin to search for the beauty within the notes, the beauty that comes from the heart."
"My father taught me music the way most parents teach their children to speak. He was 110 years old when he died, and up until that time he played constantly, sometimes 23 hours a day. For me, music is like food. When you need it, you don't have to explain why, because it is basic to life."