Ali Akbar Khan: A Musical Centenary

In his centenary, Ali Akbar Khan will be remembered as Dev Anand rightly said he was a musical saint who created divine melodies on sarod with his eyes closed. When he opened his eyes, they were red

Ali Akbar Khan was recording the bhajan, Ghanshyam Ki Aakhen for Aandhiyan (1952) rendered by Laxmi Shankar. Writer, and director, Chetan Anand asked his Alubhai (the sarod maestro to add a traditional rhythm to the devotional song. The ustad obliged with the use of a khol in the song which created the desired effect. For his debut, Aandhiyan Ali Akbar Khan roped in Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Pannlal Ghosh (flute) to compose the background score. Lata Mangeshkar moved to tears singing the title song Hai Kahin Par Shadmani did not charge a single penny.

The sarod legend always considered Aandhiyan closest to his heart as far film music was concerned. He also composed music for Navketan’s, Humsafar (1953). Though Anadi Nath Banerjee was the director, Chetan Anand supervised the musical score and acted in the film. Ali Akbar Khan used a rare fusion of the sarod and violin to compose a score for an emotional scene of Humsafar.

The Ustad had a brotherly feeling for Dev Anand whom he termed a “Cowboy.” So when composer Hemant Kumar requested the legend to perform the sarod in a scene from Ferry (1955) where Dev Anand would be seen playing it, he did so free of cost. Ali Akbar Khan taught the subtle nuances of the sarod to Dev Anand who along with Hemant Kumar’s son Ritesh on the tabla (played by Shantaprasad) canned the sequence in two takes for director Hemen Gupta.

In his directorial venture Anjali (1956) based on Gautam Buddha’s 2500th birth anniversary, Chetan Anand again took the help of Ali Akbar Khan. In an 800 feet scene where Nimmi tries to break the meditation of Chetan Anand, Ali Akbar Khan was emotionally inspired. He composed four different scores. Chetan Anand opted for the second one though Jaidev was the official composer of Anjali.

Appreciating Ali Akbar Khan’s work in Aandhian, Satyajit Ray assigned him to compose for Devi (1960). As the language of cinema demands, Satyajit Ray controlled the use of music strictly. The results were superb but the non-compromising Ustad strongly protested. He even challenged the Indian classical music sense of Satyajit Ray. The thorough gentleman that he was, Satyajit Ray never retorted against this criticism.

Ali Akbar Khan and Tapan Sinha struck a good rapport working together in Khudito Pashan (1960) and Jhinder Bandi (1966). In Khudito Pashan, Ali Akbar Khan wielded the baton as Hemanta Mukherjee rendered the immortal Tagore number, Saghana Ghana Ratri in his golden voice. In Jhinder Bandi, the maestro combined sarod with bamboo flute and Indian drums well to compose the scores.

Ali Akbar Khan was at his creative best in the English and Hindi versions of Son-Et-Lumet for the Red Fort in 1963. A light, shadow and sound experiment for the Ministry of Tourism was brilliantly directed by Chetan Anand. Ali Akbar Khan’s scores for both versions were masterpieces of fusion music praised by even Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Jar.

An all-time memorable yet controlled score by Ali Akbar Khan was for Ritwik Ghatak’s, Ajantrik in 1958. There were memorable uses of the sarod, cellos and flute in Ajantrik. For his score in Householder, 1964, an Ivory Merchant English film, the ustad created some unforgettable musical montages with Indian classic and western symphonies.

His last score was for Bernardo Bertolucc’s, The Little Buddha 1996. Though tired by then he did his best and made some interesting musical improvisations. In his centenary, the Ustad will be remembered as Dev Anand rightly said he was a musical saint who created divine melodies on sarod with his eyes closed. When he opened his eyes, they were red.

Ranjan Das Gupta

is a Kolkata-based independent journalist. He has been doing freelance work for more than 3 decades and writes on arts & culture, cinema, politics, healthcare and education

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