Discipleship, Indian-Style

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I recently listened (again) to a classic raga by the late Ali Akbar Khan called “Chandranadan”.  Actually it wasn’t really a raga, since it was just 21 minutes long, much shorter than a typical raga. Hearing it brings back memories for me; it was one of the first pieces of Indian music I ever heard, going back to a 1966 World Pacific lp called “Sound of the Sarod”, which I bought while in college. It’s an amazing, elegant, and finely filigreed piece, also fierce and passionate.

Ali Akbar (akbar means “great”) is an apt middle name. Few Indian musicians have soared higher. His father, Baba Allaudin Khan, was one of the greatest Indian music gurus. He taught both Ravi Shankar and his son how to be great masters. And both his son and Ravi had to work incredibly hard to get there.

The guru-disciple relationship goes way back in Indian music. The guru becomes both muse, parent, and disciplinarian. It is a powerful relationship practically unmatched in any other music, including jazz and European classical music.


In Indian music, such discipleship demands complete surrender, devotion, and commitment. For Ravi Shankar, it meant leaving the luxury life spent on tour with his older brother Uday’s dance company, travelling the world as a young dandy in the 1930s on luxury liners like the S.S. Normandie and Queen Mary. Sol Hurok teamed his Indian dance troupe up with Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s company. Ravi lived in 1930’s Paris hanging out with Picasso, Cocteau, Brancusi and other art superstars. Ravi decided to give up this life, returned to India, and submitted to Baba. He wore simple clothing, practiced 8-10 hours a day for eight years. Only then did Baba tell him that he ready to perform in public.


Ali Akbar Khan followed a similar path. His father and grandfather were also great musicians and teachers. They all lived until they were over 100 years old. Ali didn’t want to live that long, and drinking copious amounts of whiskey and smoking a pack a day until his 80s helped him achieve an earlier demise. Unlike Ravi, he didn’t tour but rather founded a school of Indian music in Marin County, California. Ravi moved to Encinitas, California.

In the DVD biography of Ravi Shankar titled, Raga, there is a segment where Ravi, already the most famous Indian musician in the world, returns to India to visit Baba Allaudin Khan. Taking the train to the village, and arriving at his guru’s house, we see Ravi prostrating himself, hugging Baba’s ankles and kissing his feet. Everybody is crying. It is such a compelling moment of a great man’s respect for a man, though less famous, was even greater.

People talk about Amy Chua and Tiger Moms, just like they used to talk about Ballet Mothers. With great Indian musicians, we go several levels further. Here, there is no coercion. The student submits in a totally absolute way. It’s something you can feel when you listen to great classical Indian music, a great blend of technical mastery, fiendishly complex rhythms, and improvisatory genius. There are few musics, if any, that can match it.