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Melodies That Transcend Borders

Updated: Mar 1

As a tribute to the importance of Nāṭya Śāstra (ancient performing arts) in all of its present forms, the North Bay Hindu Center hosts its annual music performance Sanskriti. Our long-lasting collaboration with the Ali Akbar College of Music has both historic and local significance to the enduring legacy of our classical Indian music culture. We are proud to share these stories with you in anticipation of our show Vasant Sanskriti | Shiva Sandhya on March 9 from 6-8 PM in Santa Rosa. Buy your tickets today.

The name Ustad Ali Akbar Khan evokes more than just a musician; it conjures a melody that transcends borders, an echo of the ethereal notes of the Sarode resonating far beyond his native India. Lauded as a maestro and respectfully called Khansahib, his legacy extends far beyond his masterful playing. It lives on in the vibrant melodies emanating from the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) nestled in Marin County, California, but also in the countless lives and generations he touched and the global stage he graced by introducing Indian classical music to the world.

Born in 1922, music permeated Khansahib's life from a young age. Under the tutelage of his father, the legendary Allauddin Khan, he began his journey at the tender age of three. Rigorous training became his way of life, his dedication fueled by his father's demanding yet nurturing guidance. This fostered not only exceptional mastery but also a profound understanding of the intricate world of Indian classical music.

A Father-Son Bond and Early Aspirations

Khansahib's profound relationship with his father resonated deeply with those he touched. Current AACM Sitar instructor, Arjun Verma, carries a legacy intertwined with Khansahib's. Meeting the maestro as an eight-year-old boy, he was exposed to Khansahib's music at a young age through his father, the world-renowned Sitar player Roop Verma, who was also a student of Khansahib. 

"Even before I met him," Verma says, "his music nourished me in a way that no other art did."

Khansahib's musical prowess blossomed early, captivating audiences in India with soulful performances in his teens. His ambition, however, transcended geographical boundaries. He yearned to share the richness of this ancient tradition beyond his homeland, embarking on a global mission of cultural exchange.

Khan's Impact Beyond the AACM

  • Trailblazing Performer: In the 1950s and 1960s, Khansahib became a pioneering performer, captivating audiences at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall in New York. His performances were more than exhibitions of skill; they were bridges built between cultures, fostering understanding and appreciation through the universal language of music.

  • Cross-Cultural Collaborator: Khansahib's spirit of openness extended beyond solo performances. He actively sought collaborations with renowned Western musicians like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, further breaking down cultural barriers and enriching the tapestry of musical expression.

  • Educational Catalyst: Recognizing the growing global interest in Indian classical music, Khansahib established branches of the AACM in Calcutta, India (1956) and Basel, Switzerland (1983). These institutions broadened the reach of his teachings, providing opportunities for international students to delve deep into the tradition.

  • Enduring Legacy Through Recordings: Khansahib's extensive discography played a crucial role in introducing Indian classical music to a global audience. His recordings, spanning decades, are cherished by music lovers worldwide and continue to serve as valuable resources for students and scholars, offering a window into the soul of a master musician and his timeless art.

The Ali Akbar College of Music: A Cultural Bridge

In 1967, Khansahib's vision materialized in the form of the Ali Akbar College of Music. It wasn't just a music school; it was a cultural bridge, fostering a space where aspiring musicians from all backgrounds could immerse themselves in the intricacies of Indian classical music. Khansahib believed in nurturing talent wherever he found it, fostering a unique and diverse learning environment.

Personal Experiences and Continued Legacy

Jaye Ayyar, a Board member of the North Bay Hindu Center, vividly describes her experience attending vocal classes led by the legend himself for several years as "thrilling and awe-inspiring." She recalls sitting on the floor with around 60 students, many of them accomplished singers and musicians from the Bay Area and beyond. Khansahib's unique teaching style, a hallmark of the AACM, emphasized strengthening fundamental skills through demanding Sargam (singing notes), improvisation exercises and a strong foundation in Taal (rhythm) and understanding the essence of Indian Raaga (melody). The AACM became a beacon for aspiring musicians, both from India and around the globe. Khansahib personally led classes for over four decades, instilling his students with the same dedication and passion that defined his own journey.

Born in Italy to a musically-inclined father, Montino Bourbon first explored music through the piano during his childhood. Upon immigrating to America, he discovered a newfound passion for stringed instruments, beginning with the ukulele. In 1963, after joining the army in El Paso, Texas, he first heard Indian music. "While in the army, I listened to various artists including Ravi Shankar. When I got out of the army I was introduced to the music of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and immediately realized that he was one of the greatest musicians of all time." Bourbon, who later founded his own Academy of Universal Music in Santa Barbara, spent two decades teaching Indian classical and folk music. He also led large drum groups and conducted seminars at the Braille Institute, all fueled by the foundation in Indian classical music he received at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) from 1967 to 1979. “I’m a gandha-bandha shagird (when the teacher formally accepts the student as an apprentice) of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. The opportunity to study with such a great master, who just poured it out, is unparalleled. It was like trying to drink a waterfall of nectar. There really was no one like him musically.” Bourbon spent 12 years under the tutelage of Khansahib. He further enriched his studies with harmonium and Tabla lessons from the legendary Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh, and even completed a semester under the renowned Tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain. “Over 10,000 people went through the doors of that college. Some stayed for a semester, some stayed for a longer time like myself. I was one of the obsessed ones.”

Saraswati Resides in Him

Today, the AACM continues to carry the torch, ensuring that the mesmerizing melodies of the Sarode and Khansahib's profound legacy resonate for generations to come. 

Visiting the AACM is an experience that transcends mere music lessons. It's a journey into the heart of a centuries-old tradition, guided by the enduring spirit of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. It's a testament to the power of music to bridge cultural divides, foster understanding, and leave an enduring mark on the world.

Locally, Radhe Gopinath had the opportunity to provide her daughter, Ishko, with vocal lessons from Manik Khan, Ali Akbar Khan's son. Manik, who teaches the Sarode and Vocals, proved to be an exceptional teacher, dedicating himself to Ishko's growth with five days of weekly lessons. Beyond his dedication, he shone as a truly remarkable individual, radiating grace and exuding kindness and compassion that seemed woven into his very being.

“Saraswati resided in him in a way that you could not separate the music from the person,” says Gopinath. “The times were magical, he would choose the Raaga based on the hour, the time of day. I felt so blessed to experience such tremendous talent at close quarters.”

Saraswati truly resides throughout the entire AACM faculty, which is led by the legendary two-time Grammy nominee and respected Director of Percussion Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Director of Instrumental Music and son of Khansahib Alam Khan, in addition to past and future Sanskriti performers such as Arjun Verma (Sitar), Manik Khan (Sarode / Vocals), Jim Santi Owen (Tabla) and Nilan Chaudhuri (Tabla). 

Highly-honored, Yet Grounded

"As powerful as his musical gifts were, it was the combination of that genius with a deep, real humanity that moved me so much about Khansahib," says Verma. Throughout his life, Khansahib accumulated a plethora of accolades, including esteemed awards like the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan from India, the MacArthur Fellowship (becoming the first Indian musician to receive the "genius grant"), and the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship (the highest honor in the US traditional arts). He also garnered five Grammy nominations, showcasing his international recognition.

"In fact, I think it was because he was so genuinely human, and utterly disinterested in facades or pretentiousness, that he was able to reach such a deep level in his music. It also allowed me to feel extremely close to him as a person, and the strength of the relationship I was lucky enough to build with him still supports me to this day." This sentiment is repeated by Khansahib's students and is a testament to his legacy and the success of AACM. I think that many of us who found ourselves at the feet of the Maestro, by whatever means we reached there, felt this sense of being extraordinarily lucky, like we were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon,” says Verma. “Yet this experience repeated, week after week, year after year, as he miraculously repeated his feats of musical genius.”

Though Khansahib is no longer with us, his legacy resonates even stronger through the next generation of teachers and students. These eager musicians find themselves immersed in the enduring musical genius of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, ensuring his influence continues to inspire and shape future generations.

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