Ali Akbar Khan: Bio

"For us, as a family, music is like food. When you need it you don't have to explain why, because it is basic to life."

-Ali Akbar Khan

The classical music of North India is an uplifting and extraordinary music, dating back thousands of years. Ali Akbar Khan is one of today's most accomplished Indian classical musicians. Considered a "National Living Treasure" in India, he is admired by both Eastern and Western musicians for his brilliant compositions and his mastery of the sarode (a beautiful, 25-stringed Indian instrument). Concert violinist the late Lord Yehudi Menuhin called Ali Akbar Khan, "An absolute genius...the greatest musician in the world," and many have considered him the "Indian Johann Sebastian Bach."

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's family traces its gharana (ancestral tradition) to Mian Tansen, a 16th century musical genius and court musician of Emperor Akbar. Ali Akbar Khan's father, the late Padma Vibhusan Acharya Dr. Allauddin Khan, was acknowledged as the greatest figure in North Indian music in this century.

Born in 1922 in East Bengal (Bangladesh), Ali Akbar Khan (Khansahib) began his studies in music at the age of three. He studied vocal music from his father and drums from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. His father also trained him on several other instruments, but decided finally that he must concentrate on the sarode and on vocal. For over twenty years, he trained and practiced 18 hours a day. After that, his father continued to teach Khansahib until he was over 100 years old, and left behind such a wealth of material that Khansahib feels he is still learning new things from it. Since his father's death in 1972, Khansahib has continued his father's tradition, that of the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Maihar and Rampur, India.

Ali Akbar Khan gave his first public performance in Allahabad at age thirteen. In his early twenties, he made his first recording in Lucknow for the HMV label, and the next year, he became the court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. He worked there for seven years until the Maharaja's untimely death. The state of Jodhpur bestowed upon him his first title, that of Ustad, or Master Musician. Many years later, he received the title of Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem at the Jodhpur Palace's Golden Jubilee Celebraton in 1993.

At the request of Lord Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan first visited the United States in 1955 and performed an unprecedented concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also made the first Western LP recording of Indian classical music, and the first television performance of Indian music, on Allistair Cooke's Omnibus, sowing the seed for the wave of popularity of Indian music in the 1960's.

Khansahib founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, in 1956. Later, recognizing the extraordinary interest and abilities of his Western students, he began teaching in America in 1965. In 1967, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, which moved to Marin County, California, the following year. He currently maintains a teaching schedule of 6 classes a week for 9 months of the year. Khansahib also opened a branch of his college in Basel, Switzerland, run by his disciple Ken Zuckerman, where he teaches yearly during his world tour. Ali Akbar Khan continues to tour extensively in Asia, Europe, The Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Khansahib has composed and recorded music for films throughout his career. He composed extensively in India beginning with "Aandhiyan" by Chetan Anand (1953) and went on to create music for "House Holder" by Ivory/Merchant (their first film), "Khudita Pashan" (or "Hungry Stone") for which he won the "Best Musician of the Year" award, "Devi" by Satyajit Ray, and, in America, "Little Buddha" by Bernardo Bertolucci.

1997 was a landmark year for Ali Akbar Khan. In February, he was the second recipient to receive the Asian Paints Shiromani Award - Hall of Fame, following filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He celebrated his 75th birthday in April and AACM's 30th anniversary in June. In August, the Indian Embassy requested Khansahib to perform at the United Nations in New York and at Kennedy Center in Washington DC; both performances were in celebration of the 50th year of India's Independence. In September, Ali Akbar Khan was chosen to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was presented by Mrs. Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in the White House.

When Ali Akbar Khan first received the title of Ustad as a relatively young man, his father merely laughed. But later, when the patriarch was a centenarian, he told his son one day that he was very proud of him: "I am so pleased with your work in music that I will do something which is very rare. As your Guru and father, I am giving you a title, Swara Samrat (Emperor of Melody)." Khansahib feels most fortunate to have received this blessing from his father, mother, and uncle.



Ali Akbar Khan and his family, and in particular his father Sri Baba Allauddin Khansahib, have created vast written, recorded, and oral records of music in their tradition known as the Sri Baba Allauddin Seni Gharana of Rampur and Maihar, India. On June 14th 1994, The Ali Akbar Khan Foundation was created in order to fund the Baba Allauddin Institute, a library and archive to preserve and make available these materials to future generations. The oldest reel to reel tapes of performances in the collection have already been preserved on new master tapes.

In old times, there were no written records of music notation in India, only the words of the songs. After learning Western classical music notation when he was young, Baba Allauddin Khan created the first written notation of Indian music. He also went on to invent orchestral compositions in classical ragas with harmony, which was new to India. The Institute is currently scanning and printing copies of over 100 composition books of Baba Allauddin Khan which were brought over from his home in Maihar, India. They are simultaneously being transcribed, cataloged and translated into English by one of Khansahib's senior disciples, Smt. Sisirkana Dhar Choudhury. Khansahib's wife, Mary, his sons, Alam and Manik and his secretary, Karuna Davy, are all actively working on the archives. This project alone encompasses over 10,000 compositions from the 16th through the 20th century including; 360 different exercises for voice and instruments, old traditional--and Baba Allauddin's own--compositions in Tantrakaru style, songs in dhrupad style and old taranas, and a great variety of talas (rhythm cycles). All of the materials are quite rare and much of it is in a state of continuous physical deterioration, so financial help is needed urgently if the Institute is to succeed in preserving this music for future generations.

Another equally extensive project will be to preserve and transcribe the recordings of Khansahib's own classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music where he has taught for over 33 years, and continues to teach today. In this year 2000, plans are forming to remodel and expand the college building in San Rafael to include a larger performance space, multi-media library and archive storage, offices, and classrooms.




  • Released first western LP recording of Indian classical music: Music of India; Morning & Evening Ragas on Angel label
  • First Indian musician to perform on US television: Omnibus with Allistair Cooke


  • Best Musician of the Year Award for film music - Hungry Stones (Taipan Sinha)
  • Released one album


  • Released two albums


  • President of India award, India's highest award for the arts
  • Released one album


  • Released one album


  • Released five albums


  • Performed at Carnegie Hall and Newport Jazz Festival
  • The President of India award, for the second time
  • Released five albums


  • Released four albums


  • The Grand Prix du Disque
  • Released two albums


  • Released four albums


  • GRAMMY Nomination for Shree Rag
  • Released one album


  • Montery Jazz Festival
  • Gold Disc award for Concert for Bangladesh sales,recorded at Madison Square Garden
  • Padma Bhusan award from the Government of India
  • Released one album


  • Released two albums


  • Degree of Doctor of Literature - Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, India
  • Released two albums


  • Degree of Doctor of Literature - University of Dacca, Bangladesh
  • Released threee albums


  • Released one album


  • Released one album


  • Released six albums


  • Released three albums


  • Released four albums


  • GRAMMY Nomination for Misra Piloo
  • Released two albums


  • Degree of Doctor of Letters - University of Delhi, India
  • Released four albums


  • Released three albums


  • Released six albums


  • Padma Vibhusan award - the highest honor presented to a civilian in India
  • Released one video


  • Released five albums


  • Kalidas Sanman award - by the Madya Pradesh Academy of Music and Fine Arts
  • Honorary Doctorate Degree in Arts from the California Institute of the Arts
  • First Indian musician to receive MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("genius grant")
  • Released one album


  • The Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Award in London


  • The Bill Graham Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Music Awards Foundation (Bammies)
  • Titles: Hathi Saropao and Dowari Tajeem, from Maharaja of Jodhpur


  • Founded the Ali Akbar Khan Foundation and Baba Allauddin Khan Institute


  • Released one album


  • GRAMMY Nomination for Then and Now
  • Released two albums


  • GRAMMY Nomination for Legacy for


  • GRAMMY Nomination for Passing on the Tradition
  • Doctorate Degree - Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, India (pioneered and founded by Tagore)
  • Governor's Award for Outstanding Achievement from NARAS (National Academy
    of Recording Arts and Science)
  • Indira Gandhi Gold Plaque from the Asiatic Society of Calcutta
  • Compositions commissioned - Meet the Composer / Arts Endowment Commissioning Music / USA - and performed by Khansahib's new AACM Orchestra (made up of 40 senior students and guest artists--vocalists and instrumentalists on a variety of Indian and Western instruments), conducted by Khansahib
  • October 18th "Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Day" as proclaimed by Willie L. Brown Jr., Mayor of San Francisco


  • "Sangeet Samman" title from the Dover Lane Music Conference in Calcutta
  • Appointment: Adjunct Professor to the Department of Music at the University of
    California at Santa Cruz


  • Degree of Doctor of Musical Arts, Honoris Causa from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (in May)

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