Ali Akbar Khan, the revered Indian-born musician who moved to Marin County and popularized his country's music for successive generations of Americans, died Thursday night at his San Anselmo home from complications of kidney disease. He was 87.
Along with sitar player Ravi Shankar, with whom he performed and recorded, Mr. Khan was responsible for bringing classical Indian music to the attention of audiences worldwide. Mr. Khan was a master of the sarod, the fretless 25-string instrument that produces a panoply of evocative sounds - from dronelike touches to complicated twangs that seem to reverberate from the ether. Guitarist Carlos Santana once said that a single note of Khan's sarod "goes right to my heart," while classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin - who prompted Mr. Khan to first visit the United States in 1955 - once called the sarodist "the greatest musician in the world."
Like Shankar, Mr. Khan crossed over into pop culture popularity. In 1971, he
teamed with Shankar to open George Harrison's 1971 Bangladesh fundraising
concert at New York's Madison Square Garden. On stage at the concert, Mr. Khan sat cross-legged next to tabla player Alla Rakha and Shankar - a 20-minute performance with an ascending musical climax that had the audience interrupting with applause and standing on its feet. In gratitude, Mr. Khan tucked his hands in front of him in a classic namaste bow.
"Khansahib" to his admirers, and "baba" to his students and offspring, Mr. Khan founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley in 1967, moving it to
Fairfax in 1968 and then to San Rafael, where Mr. Khan was teaching until two weeks ago. Although confined to his home as his kidney disease worsened in the past two weeks, Mr. Khan was giving lessons until the night before he died, said Alam Khan, the sarodist's 26-year-old son, who also plays the instrument.
"We put him in a chair, and from the chair, he told us to bring a harmonium (an accordion-like instrument), and we played it, and he began to sing to us and began to teach," Alam said on Friday. "The whole room was filled with students and family. We were all weeping."
Mr. Khan, who had been on kidney dialysis for five years, last performed in
public in 2006 in Berkeley, said Alam, who - along with Khan's other surviving
offspring - will carry on the family's centuries-long musical heritage. The
Khan family traces its musical lineage more than 500 years, to the mid-16th
century musician Mian Tansen, who was the favored Delhi court singer of the
Mughal emperor Akbar. Mr. Khan's father, the sarodist Allauddin Khan, lived to
be 110 and was - like Ali Akbar Khan - one of Indian music's most widely hailed figures.
Ali Akbar Khan first played the sarod at 3 years of age, and - under his dad's
strict tutelage - was soon practicing 18 hours a day. One of Mr. Khan's
proudest moments came when his father gave him the title of "Swara Samrat," which means "Emperor of Melody." Mr. Khan put up many photos of his father at the Akbar College of Music, where more than 10,000 students have taken classes since it opened. It was Mr. Khan's teaching at the college - more than his scores of acclaimed concerts and recordings around the world - that gave him the greatest pleasure, said Alam.
Mr. Khan received a raft of prominent awards in his lifetime, including a
MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (commonly called a "genius grant") in 1991, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (that was presented to him by Hillary Clinton at the White House) in 1997.
Mr. Khan is survived by his immediate family - Mary Khan, his wife of more than 30 years; Alam, who turns 27 on Monday; son Manik, 23; daughter Madina, 17 - and children from two previous marriages.
In April 2002, Mr. Khan's family, friends and fans crowded into the Marin
Veterans Memorial Auditorium for an 80th birthday bash that featured dancers, musicians, and speeches - all given while Mr. Khan sat in a wicker chair on stage. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took drum lessons at Mr. Khan's college the first year it opened, said at the celebration that, "All the people who studied there - it changed all our lives. Khan embodies the pure spirit of music; it's not just the notes, it's the spirit. Every time I listen to him, he takes me there."
That spirit will continue in the more than 100 recordings that Mr. Khan left
behind, and in the many musicians - like Alam and Hart - who will continue to
play concerts in memory of Ali Akbar Khan.
The funeral is Sunday at noon at Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery in San Rafael.