The late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sons, the attractive Alam Khan and Manik Khan, are in India for three weeks to play at a series of concerts in the memory of their father, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. The US-based soft-spoken musicians, both sarod players, are the youngest sons of the maestro with his last wife, Mary Khan. Alam, four years elder to Manik, is more aware of the musical heritage he carries. Manik engagingly smiles more often.
“It is our first overseas trip after the pandemic, but coming to play in India in our father’s centenary year was important,” Alam says. The Ali Akbar Khan College, established by Khan himself in Berkeley, California, in 1967 — it later moved to its current location in San Rafael, California — has had a series of online concerts beamed worldwide throughout the centenary year.
“Unreleased recordings of our father are available online for a limited period and the commemoration will culminate in a concert at the college on his birthday, April 14. We have also initiated a 24-hour Raga Radio, where one can hear recordings of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in the raga appropriate for the hour, no matter the time zone you are tuning in from. Our mother was very keen on this,” says Alam.
Speaking about their link with India, Alam says, “Our world was where Baba was. It was not really linked with a place or a country, but I do have a contextual musical link too, as I remember things that I learnt in Maihar, Kolkata and Mumbai. It was important for him to come every year, as it is for both of us.”
Manik says they are always keen to play in India. “Baba loved India. He never ever turned his back on his country even though he chose to live in America. Our music originates from here, there is an undeniable connection. We are so happy that the government of West Bengal is naming a road in Kolkata after him on December 16. I will be present to represent the family. Baba would have been so touched,” he adds.
Alam, however, says that somehow each trip to India so far has been all about music; he has not been able to explore the country. “One day, I would love to just explore the untouched India, parts where nature prevails and man has not taken over yet. I remember my father telling me that when he was growing up at Maihar (in Satna, Madhya Pradesh), they could hear the train approaching from miles away; it was such a quiet place. India has changed so much in the years I have been visiting,” he notes.
As sons of the man feted as the “greatest instrumentalist of the 20th century” by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, they realise the audience expectations from them. “If you belong to a musical bloodline, there have to be expectations, and I think expectations can be crippling. As I was too young, the weight of expectations was initially borne entirely by Alam. As I grew up, I voluntarily took the burden back, so to speak. We all want our great musical tradition to go on, and we have to try our best to uphold the tradition as best as we can,” says Manik. Alam adds: “I am 40 now and our tradition is ingrained in me; music resonated within me always. Baba always used to say, ‘Don’t play if you are not happy, I want you to be happy.’ But actually, playing music is my thing.”
The conversation veers towards titles such as Ustad. Born and brought up in the US, Alam and Manik don’t really understand the relevance of these in today’s times. “It depends on who judges you and calls you Ustad or Pandit. I think young musicians being called that sounds a bit weird,” says Alam.
Manik says that when the Maharaja of Jodhpur gave the title to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who was in his 20s, their grandfather, the legendary Allauddin Khan, wasn’t too happy about it. Alam says their father too preferred being referred to as the maestro in the West or ‘Swara Samrat’, the title his father gave him, back home.
The two have a packed month ahead. “The first big concert is in Delhi on December 11, organised by the SRF Foundation. The Swara Samrat Festival, to be held at Kolkata from December 15 to 18, is being organised for some years now. I am excited about playing there at Baba’s centenary celebrations on December 18. I have never been to Pune or Goa and am very excited about concerts there too,” says Alam.
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