‘My father is a huge part of my identity’

Comparisons may be inevitable, but Alam Khan, son of sarod legend Ali Akbar Khan, has carved a niche for himself

Published - April 12, 2018 04:26 pm IST

 Alam Khan, son of sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Alam Khan, son of sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Yehudi Menuhin once described the late sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan as “the greatest instrumentalist of the 20th century”. While that was most befitting, it is anyone’s guess how daunting it must be to inherit such a legacy. Expectations and comparisons never recede. Alam Khan has experienced it all but never lost his poise even in the most trying times.

Born and raised in the U.S., Alam lives in California and now teaches advanced instrumental classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael besides pursuing an active career as a performing musician and caring for his new born, Micah. He may not be a frequent performer in India but those who have heard him play will tell you that he reminds them of his illustrious father. In a review published in this paper in 2014, critic Kuldeep Kumar says, “Alam is standing on the threshold of greatness”.

From 1996 to 2006, he accompanied his father at concerts all over the world while also pursuing a musical career as a soloist. His collaborations with the Grammy winning Tedeschi Trucks Band, The San Francisco and Fremont symphonies, film composer and performer Michael Andrews exhibits his interests in various genres of music. He is also a founding member and primary composer of the world music group ‘Grand Tapestry’. Alam has just released ‘Immersion’, a new classical music album after a gap of many years. Excerpts from an interview:

What is special about the album?

I wanted to release a purely classical recording since I haven’t in a number of years. I have been focusing on collaborative and contemporary projects . I have also been teaching and performing Indian classical music. Classical is my ‘light house’, my guiding light and foundation upon which I create all types of music. One key aspect of a classical recording is that it gives listeners opportunity to soak in the myriad sounds of the sarod. I chose to play several ragas that had been on my mind for the weeks and months prior to the recording session. Raga Kaushi Kanra is the first piece on the album. I recorded ‘Immersion’ as I would have performed live. The pieces move through improvisatory expositions, and pre-composed gats (themes). The ragas, though all night time-related, range from deeply contemplative to lighter and brighter as the album progresses, much like a concert. I am accompanied by the traditional combination of tabla (Indranil Mallick) and tanpura (Benjamin Araki).

Do listeners care about albums anymore?

I think that people definitely buy albums, although more probably stream them in various ways. Whichever way, I know that albums are being listened to all the time. If it’s not an album, it is singles and different ways of releasing tracks.

Tell us how it was growing up with your father and learning music from him?

That question requires an involved answer since it was a huge part of my life and identity. Basically, what I can say is that it was a blessing growing up with him and having him as my father and guru. He was an absolute genius and a divine channel through which the most profound and soul-moving music was created.

He taught me many compositions in several ragas, and what he always said was that the feeling and approach was most important. I feel that I truly am a disciple of my father’s style of playing. Of course, there is the Maihar Gharana, but that doesn’t mean the same thing these days. There are many players of the Maihar Gharana who didn’t learn from my father. Many don’t sound like the Maihar Gharana I learned. There is a great difference in the playing of those who learned directly from my father. He had such a distinct sound, power, approach, and imaginative quality to his music. I will always be grateful to him and do not think I can ever repay what he has given me.

You barely perform in India these days while your father visited almost every year. Do you feel accepted in India?

I performed in India for many years and definitely miss the audience and atmosphere. I still get regular offers to perform and I hope to be able to accept them soon. There are a number of reasons why I haven’t travelled to India in the last few years, which are mainly personal. In the meantime, people in India can hopefully enjoy my music online.

Do you think being heir to a legacy is an advantage or, perhaps, a shortcoming at times?

It is quite a lot of responsibility and I am finding my way how to best shoulder it. Being his son, it has certainly opened doors for me, but what people don’t understand is the other side of that. If I play well, people have said well of course I do, and chalk it all up to being in my DNA. It’s almost as if they expect it, and all of my own hard work as a student is taken for granted. If I play poorly, then people say I am nothing like my father and the apple has fallen far from the tree. People can be cruel and throw out all kinds of comments without understanding much about the music, or the personal lives of the musicians. That being said, I play what I am able. If my father gave me his approval and believed in me, then that is the most important recognition I will ever need.

You also teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music at San Rafael. Can every performing artiste also become a teacher?

I became a teacher exactly two weeks after my father passed away because I needed to step in and continue his classes. It has been quite an experience teaching, and it has forced me to look deeply at many questions that students pose to me. I have learned so much myself through teaching. I hope to guide future generations in the style of my father’s sarod playing. No, I do not think every performing artiste can be a teacher. You have to have the patience, knowledge, and care to do it. Many don’t have these qualities or are too self-absorbed. Perhaps with maturity and time all artistes can become teachers. I don’t know...

You grew up listening to all kinds of music in the U.S. How did that influence your musical sensibilities?

When I was young, I listened to a lot of grunge music from Seattle like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam etc. There were many other bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Silverchair, Tool, Stone Temple Pilots and more. I was also introduced to older music by my mother like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Jethro Tull amongst others. I discovered Indie hip hop later in my teen years and found it to be raw, powerful and deeply influential like the music coming from Seattle. At the same time I was studying sarod with my father. It was like I was living two separate yet connected musical lives. I even brought a laptop on tour to India with my father and would make hip hop music when we weren’t performing. Fast forward many years, I founded Grand Tapestry with Indie Hip-hop legend Eligh and Salar Nader. I believe in that music very much and think it speaks to my unique musical soul.. When I compose different types of music with sarod, I feel it’s a more fitting way of creating something that is my own.

Your mother Mary Khan played a key role in making your father's music available and also produced some of your early albums. Tell us about her role in your life.

My mother is an incredible and selfless woman, who has done more for my father, the college, and our music than anyone will ever know. I am so blessed to have her and without her support and guidance, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have . She created the Ali Akbar Khan library, ran our family record label AMMP, and has been the director of the Ali Akbar College of Music for many years.

Other than your father, whose music do you listen to?

I listen and appreciate many older and modern players for their technique and for a different perspective and approach. For raga, aesthetic, tone, soul, feel, and magic, it’s always been my Baba for me. He was and will always be my king. He is the true Swara Samrat .

Stalwart of Maihar-Senia Gharana

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan endeared Indian classical music and the sarod in particular to both eastern and western audiences. Born in 1922, his studies in music began at the tender age of three under his father, the great Ustad Allauddin Khan, known as a hard taskmaster. When he was thirteen, he played his first public concert in Allahabad. He also served as a court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur. In 1955, Lord Yehudi Menuhin invited him to the U.S. for the first time to play a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He moved to California eventually. He played many jugalbandi concerts with Pt. Ravi Shankar. Ali Akbar also trained many well-known musicians. Recipient of Padma Vibhushan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan passed away in 2009

(Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune and writes on art and culture)

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