News & Notes

Festivals in memory of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Festivals in memory of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Shailaja Khanna

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan would have been 100 years old on 14 April 2022. A spate of commemorative festivals are being held in India and California, where the Ali Akbar College of music is releasing his music, as well as hosting online concerts.

In India, the Swara Samrat Festival, founded ten years ago by one of his disciples, Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, is hosting festivals in four cities during the centenary year. A two-day festival was held in Delhi in July, a four-day event in Kolkata in December, two days in Bangalore in January 2023, and finally, in Mumbai in February 2023.

Smaran, a two-day festival, was held in Delhi in December 2022 by the Shriram Foundation, headed by Arun Bharatram, a disciple of maestro Ravi Shankar. One of the biggest festivals in Delhi in 2022 started somewhat unusually at 4 pm, ending around 10 pm. Perhaps Delhi's biting cold was a factor in this decision. Certainly, it was a pleasure to hear afternoon ragas which are not commonly heard at evening concerts.

New Delhi

Sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee opened the festival. Disciple of his father Parthapratim Chatterjee, and then Ali Akbar Khan, Purbayan follows the playing style of Nikhil Banerjee. Very well practised, he usually brings a youthful energy to his recitals, preferring to wow rather than soothe. This concert was different; he made it a point to focus on the slow vilambit aalap for which his gharana (Maihar) is known. In raga Patdeep, Purbayan essayed some impressive meend work on the kharaj (bass string), pleasingly played with a sobriety one does not associate with him. The next two compositions were in teen taal; he pointed out with wry humour that this common taal is becoming a rare one, with most instrumentalists preferring to play gats in Roopa or Jhap taal as the traverse to sam is shorter and perhaps perceived as being easier. The composition of Nikhil Banerjee was particularly appealing; the prolonged crystal clear jhala was a delight. Purbayan's strokes have an appealing weight that amplification cannot fake. Today, many instrumentalists feel light strokes can be disguised by amplification, but this is not true; a 'wazandaar', yet rounded stroke cannot fail to impress. The audience insisting on more, Purbayan obliged with a racy Manj Khamaj in Deepchandi  (14 beats). Purbayan's concert was enhanced by the masterly accompaniment of Yogesh Samsi, doyen of the Punjab gharana.

Sarodist Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, also a disciple of Ali Akbar Khan, though his main guru of 18 years was Bahadur Khan, played next. Appropriately accompanied by Ali Akbar Khan's most devoted friend and accompanist for decades, Swapan Chaudhuri, this concert was a true tribute to the legend. Tejendra played the rare raga Lalita Gauri, which is only performed in the dusk hours. A difficult raga, which can stray into Puriya Dhansasri, Tejendra handled it with care and mastery, playing only an alaap and jor, wisely choosing not to prolong it to avoid either repetition or being unable to maintain its purity rigidly. The vairagya mood of the desolation of this raga, at dusk at the end of the day, was captured so beautifully by the maestro, whose notes tugged at the heartstrings time and time again. He changed the mood completely by somewhat surprisingly playing raga Bihag, which is usually played later in the evening; again, the two gats were in Teen taal. Once again demonstrating why he is considered a torchbearer of this gharana, Tejendra played the intricate raga, Madhu Malati, composed by his guru, which he explained is a combination of Patdeep, Hemavati and Madhuwanti. Swapan Chaudhari, as usual, performed with the grace and elegance for which he is lauded worldwide.          

The evening concluded with Jaipur Attrauli vocalist Ashwini Bhide Deshpande accompanied by Vinod Lele on the tabla and Vinay Mishra on the harmonium. Accompanying her vocally was her disciple Kausar Haji who impressed with her voice, range, and understanding. Ashwini sang the somewhat limited raga Khem Kalyan, but with her mastery one was not aware the raga is considered a small one. With the meticulous unfolding only she can achieve, she created an expansive, beautifully etched picture that soothed. The unusual taal, ada Teen taal had a refreshing difference in gait that added to the concert. In the second composition, attributed to Sadarang, she impressively touched the dhaivat of the taar saptak with ease. (Incidentally, one wonders at the manifold vocal compositions attributed to Sadarang, who primarily was a beenkar; that too in ragas considered comparatively new like Khem Kalyan!) Ashwini concluded the concert with a beautiful dadra in misra Piloo; hers was indeed a most satisfying concert. Vinay Mishra provided finer than usual harmonium accompaniment, he shared frankly that Ashwini always encouraged him to take musical risks.

 The next day started with a succinct one-hour surbahar recital by Kushal Das, of the Maihar gharana. He played the afternoon raga Bhimpalasi, impressing with his work on the kharaj and jhala, played using his little finger in the style of Rudra veena players, adopted by surbahar exponents. His impressive handling of this difficult instrument was laudable, but perhaps his style of playing was like that of a big sitar, with little of the baaj of the surbahar which relies heavily on meend work rather than taans. It appeared he is primarily a sitar player who is proficient enough to also attempt playing on the much more difficult, heavier surbahar. During the tabla accompaniment by Vinod Lele, one wished he had used the more traditional pakhawaj accompaniment or at least played a taal more reminiscent of the pakhawaj, perhaps a dhammar.

Ulhas Kashalkar, as usual, sang a complete concert, showcasing tradition, erudition and mastery. Today he is arguably the finest singer in the North Indian tradition. His first raga was the commonplace Puriya Dhanashri, in which he exhibited in turn drama, masterly aamad and intricate bol taans. The taal was Tilwada (16 beats). His next raga was the Agra gharana special, Barwa, in which he sang in the Agra gharana style, including a dhrupad style auchar, before singing the iconic Baaje more paayaliya in Teen taal. His next raga was a rare one - Shiv Kalyan, which he explained was a combination of Aiman and Shivaranjini; somehow, this did not grip one. Tabla accompaniment by taal yogi, Suresh Talwalkar was, as always masterly, intruding where appropriate, giving a steady theka where required.

N Rajam accompanied by her daughter Sangeeta played raga Gorakh Kalyan, in her usual style, following the voice rather than the tradition of the instrument. Her soothing notes lulled one into an almost soporific hypnotic state; Yogesh Samsi also maintained the mellow mood on the tabla. The duo ended with three compositions in raga Khamajincluding Paluskar's popular Janaki nath sahai.

The festival's grand finale was by Alam Khan, Ali Akbar Khan's elder son from his last wife, Mary. Currently running his father's school in the US, Alam is approaching 40, a serious and traditional sarod player. Well aware of the weight of audience expectations, he has the moral courage not to tweak his music to public expectations of virtuosity on sarod, preferring to play a solid un-flashy type of music that his father is associated with. His music is unpretentious, played with utmost sincerity, and appealing in a lasting way, something you take back well after the concert is over. He played aalap jor jhala in raga Kaunsi Kanhara, a night raga combining Malkauns and Kanhra, both serious pensive ragas. The tonal quality of his instrument is impressive, his mature raga handling equally so, and his sense of proportion even more so. Truly, this is the music of yesteryear; the quiet confident unfolding of a raga without any gimmicks. He seems to follow the intent behind his father, Ali Akbar Khan's words, "Real music is not for wealth, not for honours, not even for the joys of the mind, but is a path for salvation." 

When Alam plays with the tabla, one compares him unfairly to his father. Perhaps one is subconsciously waiting for his father's maverick and expert layakaari, but there cannot be a second Ali Akbar Khan sahib! Playing his father's raga Chandranandan, an extremely complex and intricate combination of four ragas, Alam played the raga with exactitude, impressing with his understanding of the raga.  

His younger brother Manik (Ali Akbar Khan's eighth son) joined Alam in the concluding raga Piloo; he, too, shares his brother's musical temperament and style. Yogesh Samsi accompanied the brothers on the tabla.


The four-day Swar Samrat festival in Kolkata, in its 10th edition, also dedicated to Ali Akbar Khan, saw some spectacular concerts - maestro L Subramaniam was at his mellow best, sharing how his and Ali Akbar Khan's jugalbandis in the West were the first between North and South Indian instrumentalists. Young  Maihar gharana sarodist Indrayudh Majumder impressed with his solid rendition, Niladri Kumar accompanied by Zakir Hussain, unusually played raga Hameer as his main raga, playing with delicacy and understated elegance. His own composed raga Tilak Nat is an amazing piece of music that subtly connects two ragas, Tilak Kamod and the more obscure Nat; he played this beautifully after a briefly etched raga Tilak Kamod.

Amongst the vocalists, Manjusha Patil sang raga Bhoopali with great maturity, Malini Awasthi sang only thumris but with great emotion, bringing the audience to a spontaneous standing ovation. Kolkata has always loved her guru Girija Devi who lived there for many years, and this concert by disciple Malini was authentic vintage Banaras gayaki. Ulhas Kashalkar was as always excellent, as was Ajoy Chakrabarty.

Alam Khan brought many to tears with his wistful rendition of raga Hindol Hem, followed by a beautiful Zila Kafi. There were performances by Rashid Khan, Vishwamohan Bhatt, Kala Ramnath, Omkar Dadarkar, Hari Prasad Chaurasia accompanied by nephew Rakesh, tabla solo by Anindo Chatterjee and santoor by Tarun Bhattacharya, and the sole dance performance by Rama Vaidyanathan.

One of the focus features of the Swar Samrat festivals has been the unusual accompanist and main artist pairings; this edition was no different. Ulhas Kashalkar performed for the first time with Kumar Bose, Ajoy Chakrabarty with the young Vaishnav Yashwant, and Rashid Khan with Swapan Chaudhuri. One was disappointed by the over-amplification of sound but impressed by the opulence of the stage and the overall ambience of the festival. This is, without doubt, today one of the finest classical music festivals in India.