LA JOLLA — India's most noted sarod player, Ustad (which means master musician) Ali Akbar Khan, was about to sit down to a lavish and leisurely Indian repast. The 65-year-old musician recounted the above story of his father's tutelage, however, without so much as a tinge of bitterness or implicit criticism.
As heir to the accumulated tradition of a musical dynasty that traces its roots to a 16th-Century court instrumentalist, Khan's filial devotion was more than mere adherence to the respectful mores of Indian society.
Like sitar player Ravi Shankar, Khan has long been an ambassador of Indian classical music to the West. He has performed in this country since 1955, has made numerous recordings, and 20 years ago established a school for Indian music in Marin County, where he now resides. He plays in La Jolla tonight.
In spite of the vast differences--both structural and philosophical--between Western and Indian music, Khan has made virtuosi out of some of his Occidental students. A few, he said, are even invited to perform in India.
The complexities of Indian music are both its charm and its challenge. Khan spent 20 years learning his father's art, although at the age of 9 he was allowed to perform with his father in festivals. Khan explained that his father, Allauddin Khan, played 200 instruments and lived to be 110. Having started his son on several different instruments, Allauddin Kahn selected the sarod as the one his son would master.
"I had to learn 5,000 to 10,000 pieces before my father would let me begin composing on my own," Khan said. He noted that classical Indian music has 75,000 ragas--in terms of Western music, a raga is something between a scale and a melody--and 365 different rhythms.
The sarod is a member of the lute family, with a long, unfretted neck. Khan's father was responsible for the sarod's present design, which he enlarged to accommodate 25 metal strings. Only 10 of the strings are plucked; the other 15 vibrate sympathetically along the sarod's teak body. According to Khan, the goat-skin head is made from the hide of animals sacrificed in Indian temples. His instrument was made for him by his uncle 55 years ago and, like Stradivarius cellos, rates its own adjacent airline seat when Khan flies to a performance.
Khan could not erase an air of disdain for what he called the "hippie days" of the late 1960s, when Indian music and culture were all the rage. "They were not serious about music," Khan said. "After two years of study, George Harrison of the Beatles walked away from Indian music. It was just a fad for them."
Unlike Occidental performers, Khan does not choose his musical program before he plays a concert. "It all depends on the time of day, the atmosphere and the audience." The metaphysics surrounding Indian music does not mesh neatly with Western notions of causality. When a reporter asked Khan what would happen if he played a morning raga at night, he replied with bemused exasperation, "It would be like having breakfast at dinnertime."
The Khan dynasty is in little danger of extinction. Three of his four sons are performers. The oldest two play the sarod, and his third son is a master of the Indian tabla (drums). The "black sheep," he said, is an engineer.
With percussionist Swapan Chaudhuri, Khan will perform at 8 tonight in UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium. Their performance of north Indian classical music is presented by San Diego's Raga Ranjani music school and UCSD's Sangam organization of Indian students, with assistance from the California Arts Council.