Indian Classical Music Masters – A Family Connection

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An old joke goes as follows: A young music student, visiting New York City, asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer comes quickly: “Practice.” To become—and stay—great in music (or any arts) requires constant practice and devotion. In Indian classical music, the road may be even steeper. Take the cases of Ustad Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

At the age of 10, Shankar began touring with his older brother Uday’s dance company alongside Anna Pavlova’s Russian Ballet Company in the 1930’s. He visited Palestine, Lebanon, and Greece, traveling first class aboard the S.S. Normandie and other glamorous cruise ships. Young Shankar was a dandy and dilettante who danced and played the tabla and sitar, mostly for audiences who had never heard Indian classical music.

Upon his return to India—after a sojourn in Paris where he hung out with Picasso, Hemingway, Cocteau and le tout Paris—Shankar decided to take up Hindustani (North Indian) classical music in earnest. He spent the next 6 years under the strict tutelage of Baba Allaudin Khan, practicing the sitar in a sweltering cement hut, with scorpions serving as constant companions and his audience. Shankar once told me that perfecting raga demanded absolute surrender to your teacher (guru). A 1971 documentary about Ravi Shankar called Raga includes a powerful scene in which Shankar reunites with his guru after many years of separation. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

The late Ali Akbar Khan, master of the sarod (sibling of the sitar), also studied under the very same musical guru, Baba Allaudin Khan, who happened to be his father. There were long days of practice and sometimes beatings. Whether sitar or sarod, the Indian classical musician must master 26-note scales and complex rhythms called talas that are memorized by singing before attempting to play them.

There is often a family connection between the guru and student, as the parent passes the torch to the next generation. In this Spotify playlist, we showcase compositions by Ali Akbar Khan and his son Alam Khan, plus Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar.

  1. Ali Akbar Khan, “Chandranandan” – This first track by Ali Akbar Khan is a new version of a famous piece that served as my introduction to the sarod. I first heard it on a 1966 World Pacific LP called Sound of the Sarod.
  2. Alam Khan, “Kaushi Kanra Alap” – We next hear son Alam play an alap (the slow introductory part of a raga) from his new album Immersion. Alam used to play guitar in a rock band before following in his father’s footsteps as a sarod master. He studied at his father’s music school, the Ali Akbar College of Music, in San Rafael, California. Classical Indian music was once the exclusive province of the Brahmin class, but the Ali Akbar School of Music opened up the genre to everybody.
  3. Alam Khan, “Becoming” – Alam doesn’t shy away from non-traditional musical forms. This track comes from an earlier EP called Vignettes in a crossover style. He has collaborated with a variety of artists from Tedeschi Trucks Band to Karsh Kale to Bob Weir.
  4. Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, “Bangalore Yaman Kalyan” – We next hear an early evening raga from father and daughter recorded in Bangalore, India in 2012, at Ravi’s last concert. There are morning ragas, afternoon ragas, and evening ragas. Ragas, many of them hundreds of years old, can fit every mood and emotion with infinite subtlety.
  5. Anoushka Shankar, “Fathers” – We close the playlist with a short piece by Anoushka from her album Traces of You, a musical remembrance of her father who passed away in December 2012. Anoushka took up the sitar and, like her famous father, has explored new directions, working with Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale, and top flamenco musicians.

Banner image of Alam Khan courtesy of AMMP (Alam Madina Music Productions).