Khan, 87, Brought Indian Classical Music To U.S.

Ali Akbar Khan 300

Ali Akbar Khan performs during the Concert For Bangladesh at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1971. Keystone Features/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Keystone Features/Getty Images

World-renowned musician Ali Akbar Khan has died at the age of 87 at his home in Northern California. Khan was nominated for five Grammys and recorded more than 95 albums, including the first by an Indian classical musician in the West.

Khan was born into a legendary north Indian family who served as royal court musicians as far back as the 16th century. Khan began studying music with his father at the age of 3.

His father, Allauddin Khan, remains a towering figure in Indian classical music. He composed over 4,000 pieces and played 200 instruments. His son was expected to carry on as a cultural repository. And he was expected to practice — all day, every day.

Young Ali Akbar Khan was often beaten for lacking dedication. But when he made his professional debut at age 13 in 1935, he was immediately hailed as a virtuoso of the steel-stringed, lutelike instrument called the sarod.

Indian classical music was virtually unknown in the West until violinist Yehudi Menuhin heard Khan give a recital in Delhi. Enchanted, he invited Khan to visit the United States. The music's shimmering serenity was embraced by the counterculture.

Although he toured extensively, Khan was serious about teaching. He opened music colleges in Calcutta, California and Switzerland and taught until just two weeks before his death.

Khan was taught by his father that music should be kept inside the family, pure and undefiled. But Khan welcomed anyone in his music schools, no matter their background. He received a MacArthur "genius grant" and the most prestigious arts awards in India and the U.S. He said that as he aged, he found new energy. And he said his father, even in death, remained a powerful presence.

The subtleties and depths of Indian classical music his father taught him could not be learned in one lifetime, Kahn said. It would take 10 lives, or 500 years, to understand it all.

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