Calling a class taught by Indian sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan a "class" doesn’t quite capture it. Nor does "taught" fully suit what Khan did, for that matter. The sessions he held for 40 years at his Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael are described by those who participated as more like watching Picasso paint every stroke of a treasured work. These weren’t lessons, but rather a full immersion into the creative process of a true master.
“Everyone who’s studied here was completely awestruck by the fact that they were watching him compose,” says Mary Khan, who was married to Khan for 30 years until his death at 87 in 2009, and who continues to run the facility. “Every class for 40 years. It was pretty mind-blowing, especially these compositions that would take seven weeks to complete, going from slow ragas to end up rock 'n' roll fast, as Indian music does.”
Khansahib, as he was known to those close to him, is gone. But the experience is once again available. He diligently recorded the classes from very early on, including videotaping the last 12 years that he taught nearly to his death. Those recordings, now digitized, are the core of materials in the Ali Akbar Khan Library, which sees a grand opening this weekend. It’s a resource unlike any other in the world of Indian music, and a start of a new era for the premiere center for Indian music studies in North America.
[ABOVE: Watch a 1967 clip from the Ali Akbar Khan Library]
The library opening is the culmination of years of work, backed by $375,000 in grants and donations, to present this singular set of materials to students and musicologists. In addition to the class recordings, there are audio and video recordings of more than 900 concerts Khan gave around the world.
“We have more than 8,000 hours at this point, all accessible and easy with a nice interface,” says Mary Khan, who came to the school in 1972, first studying voice and then tabla. “From here on everything else can be included. We have much more to work on, about 12 more years of video of him teaching we have not begun to include.”
Khansahib, born in a small village in what was then East Bengal (now Bangladesh), was long-established as one of the most exciting and accomplished figures in Hindustani music when he opened the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in its original Berkeley location in 1967 — the height of the summer of love. He first came to the U.S. in 1955 at the invitation of violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin and is credited with making the first album of Indian classical music recorded in North America. Together with sitarist Ravi Shankar — a friend, frequent collaborator and brother-in-law — he cultivated a strong place for the music here. Among many key achievements, he performed with Shankar at Madison Square Garden in the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, organized by Shankar and George Harrison.
The college stands as the core of his legacy here, though. It has attracted top teachers and scholars from various Indian regions and traditions, as well as students from jazz, classical and rock seeking to expand their horizons. Tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and his innovative son Zakir Hussain are among those who have had tenure on the faculty, Shankar was there regularly through the years, and the Grateful Dead’s percussionist Mickey Hart has been a strong presence and supporter. Under Mary Khan’s guidance and with tabla master Swapan Chaudhuri heading the faculty, AACM has been committed not to just continuing Khansahib’s legacy, but growing it.
Collecting and digitizing the archives was one thing. Organizing and cataloging… well, that was something else entirely. A small portion of the database will be accessible online via the library’s website, and just putting that together was a huge task, organizing a series of tutorials around the 12 ragas -- the melodic/structural systems that form the spine of Indian classical music -- in a series of tutorials. Those wanting to go deeper, though, will need to visit the library.
“We’re not going to host the whole library online,” she says, noting that at this point it’s a total of eight terabytes of information. “It’s more complicated than people realize, but my husband didn’t want it taught [online]. He wanted it to be a resource, to go along with the physical teaching. His real goal was that people would be teaching his compositions in their full state, that a student could go into the library and listen to him compose in a class he taught. In all his classes he taught with fresh material and composed on the spot. It’s real insight.”
But it’s also meant to be accessible for anyone with interest in the music. On one hand, a German woman working on a thesis on North Indian classical music spent several months last year using the library’s beta version. On the other, hopes are that more casual visitors might book a day to explore the material. This is central to the AACM mission.
“He was so dedicated to continuing it and teaching,” she says. “Even though he’d go on tour every weekend, every break, all winter, he always came back to teaching. And I decided that on my watch I wouldn’t let that disappear.”