Ali Akbar Khan dies at 87; sarod player helped bring Indian music to U.S.

Maestro Ali Akbar Khan, the master Indian musician and composer who was a pivotal figure in introducing the music of his homeland to the West, has died. He was 87.

The legendary sarod player and teacher died of kidney failure Thursday night at his home in the Bay Area city of San Anselmo, according to an announcement on the website of the Ali Akbar College of Music, Khan’s teaching facility in northern California. The announcement said Khan had been a dialysis patient since 2004 but was still teaching at the college until just two weeks ago.

Considered a “National Living Treasure” in India, Khan was the first Indian musician to be honored by the MacArthur Foundation with its so-called genius grant, which he received in 1991.

He was also awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, the highest U.S. honor in traditional arts, in 1997.

He recorded more than 95 albums, was nominated for five Grammy Awards and composed scores for both Indian and Western movies, including the 1963 Merchant-Ivory film “The Householder” and the 1993 Bernardo Bertolucci film “Little Buddha.”

But to many, his influence was in expanding the appeal of Indian music.

“He was instrumental in transforming Indian music into an international tradition in a way that was unprecedented,” said David Trasoff of Los Angeles, a senior student of Khan’s who has studied north Indian classical music and sarod performance for the last 36 years.

“What he attempted to do and, I believe, succeeded in doing was to transplant this very deep musical tradition by committing himself to a level of teaching that resulted in a number of proteges who have gone on to present this music throughout the world,” Trasoff said.

Khan was born April 14, 1922, in Shivpur, East Bengal (now Bangladesh). He began playing the sarod -- a 25-stringed instrument that is similar to the Middle Eastern oud -- and other instruments as a young boy. His father was Ustad Allauddin Khan, widely considered the greatest figure in north Indian music in the 20th century.

Under his father’s tutelage, Khan’s training was rigid, vigorous and sometimes brutal, with sessions often lasting 18 hours a day. He would study with his father for decades.

“I started to learn this music at the same time I began to talk,” Khan told music writer Don Heckman in The Times some years ago. “So it is as natural to me as speaking. It’s not something I have to think about any more than I have to think about the words I’m saying.”

He made his first public performance at 14 in Allahabad, and in his early 20s made his first recordings and became a court musician for the maharajah of Jodhpur, a post he held for seven years until the maharajah’s death.

In the early 1950s, the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin visited India and became keenly aware of the power of Indian music. Menuhin invited renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar to the United States in 1955 to present a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But Shankar declined, and a reluctant Khan -- whom Menuhin called “the greatest musician in the world” -- took his place.

“I didn’t want to come at all,” Khan told The Times. “I wanted to open a college in Calcutta . . . and when I came here, people didn’t have any idea that India had some kind of classical music. . . . But I played and I liked the audiences, and I think they liked me.”

The concert was seen as a key introduction of Indian music to the West. While in New York, Khan also made his first U.S. recording of Indian classical music on Angel Records and gave the first performance of Indian music on Alistair Cooke’s program “Omnibus,” which was then on CBS-TV.

Upon returning to India, Khan opened his college in Calcutta. It closed in the 1960s.

In 1965 and 1966, he was invited back to the United States to teach under the auspices of the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley.

From that foundation, he was encouraged to start the Ali Akbar College of Music, initially in Berkeley and then in Marin County. Over the years, he has trained an estimated 10,000 Americans on the sarod and the tradition of northern Indian music. In 1985, he opened an extension of his music college in Basel, Switzerland.

“I teach what I learned from my father,” Khan told The Times. “The same system, with the same traditional purity. The same kind of devotion, the same love for music has to be built up. And that can only happen when it comes from the heart. Otherwise, music doesn’t last. It doesn’t stay.”

Khan is survived by his wife, Mary, and his 11 surviving children from his present and two former marriages. Three of his sons, Aashish, who teaches Indian music at the California Institute of the Arts, and Alam and Manik, are sarod players.

A memorial service and burial will take place Sunday at Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery, 2500 5th Ave., San Rafael.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Ali Akbar College of Music for the Ali Akbar Khan Library.