A disciple turns 90: Pt Rajeev Taranath remembers Ali Akbar Khan : The Tribune India

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A disciple turns 90: Pt Rajeev Taranath remembers Ali Akbar Khan

Pt Rajeev Taranath says music thrives in big cities, but there’s a lack of ‘seriousness of perception’

A disciple turns 90: Pt Rajeev Taranath remembers Ali Akbar Khan

Pt Rajeev Taranath is upbeat about his performance later this month.



Krishnaraj Iyengar

“I am alive today because a man named Ustad Ali Akbar Khan saheb lived and played. Otherwise, not many are alive at 90!” he gushes. Switching fluently from Yemeni Arabic to literary Tamil, from Sanskrit to English, Mysore-based sarod maestro Pandit Rajeev Taranath’s life seems like a nail-biting movie. Having turned 90 this year, he is upbeat about his upcoming performance later this month. The man of many worlds unveils his life of intense musical passion, struggle and fulfillment.

It was a concert of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in Bangalore that shook up 19-year-old Rajeev, who made it his life’s mission to learn under the sarod stalwart. “Khan saheb soared majestically in the sky that night. I just wanted to throw away everything to learn at his feet,” he reminisces. “It was like an impact of lightning which you survive,” he adds. That performance by Khan saheb, he says, was full of drama. “The soft, the hard and the resonant, the noise and the total silence. He knew what to do with silence!”

A scholar of English literature, Taranath renounced his career as an academician to pursue sarod. “My last job was as an English teacher at the Hyderabad Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages. I would have continued if it was not for Pandit Ravi Shankar, who kicked me out of it and pushed me into pursuing my passion for sarod full-time,” he shares.

Hailing from a background of illustrious scholars and progressive social figures, pluralism and social equality have shaped his life deeply. His father, the legendary social reformer Pandit Taranath, was a scholar of Arabic and the Koran. His mother, Sumathi Bai, wrote a book on sex education for teenage girls, way back in her day.

Following his guru, he moved from Bombay to Calcutta, but was overcome with penury and depression. On the dissuading advice of an eminent musician, he decided to sell his sarod and return to Bengaluru. But Ali Akbar Khan persuaded him to hold fort. Pt Rajeev Taranath had no place to stay, spent nights sleeping at bus stands and lived on one meal a day. His friend, a fellow sarod player, introduced him to Probhat Kumar, a famous jeweller of the time, who took him in. He gets emotional as he shares how he offered him shelter during those days of struggle. “I lived with his family for more than six years; they gave me love, food and shelter. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve never been able to learn from Khan saheb,” he says.

The maestro believes that while excellent classical music thrives in India’s big cities, there is a lack of ‘seriousness of perception’. “I am reminded of beer. You go on and on through the thick foam that gathers at the top to realise there’s actually very little beer! Unlike water, it is not an honest drink. Similarly, in our thought, we lack seriousness,” he laughs.

As he sits meditatively unfolding a raga, the subtle nuances of his towering Ustad’s ethereal style envelop one instantly. When asked about his guru bhakti, he says: “My guru is not really in my heart. There is a stent there instead. Rather, he lives in my fingers. When I play well, he is there. But when I play ill, he goes away!”


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