Ali Akbar Khan
Sarod virtuoso who brought Indian classical music to an international audience.
The sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, who has died aged 87 of a prolonged kidney ailment, was one of the greatest musicians of the Indian subcontinent. A man of few words, introverted, and never given to extravagant flourishes, he was completely absorbed in the music of the classical tradition that he inherited, and that he helped popularise in the west.
Born in the village of Shibpore in the Comilla district of what is now Bangladesh, he took up the instrument that his father, Allauddin Khan, had developed and improved from the rabab of Afghanistan. Smaller than the sitar, the sarod has an unfretted fingerboard made of metal. Of the 25 metal strings, 10 are played, the rest are sympathetic. The strings are plucked with a coconut shell, and both father and son exploited its capacity for glissando effects.
Allauddin had studied with the Rampur court musician Vazir Khan, a descendant of the legendary musician-composer Miyan Tansen, one of the "nine gems" of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Later, Allauddin was employed by the Maharaja of Maihar, and it was there that he started coaching Ali Akbar seriously, thus making him a part of the same musical lineage.
"Baba", as the father was known, was a stern master who often lost his temper, especially when his son failed to concentrate. Another of his pupils was the sitarist Ravi Shankar, who records in his autobiography that Baba was particularly hard on his son while he, Shankar, was always treated most sympathetically. However, once, when Baba was unusually harsh with him, Shankar decided to pack his bags and leave. It was Ali Akbar, two years younger, who pursued him and brought him back. After a meal prepared by Ali Akbar's mother, Madina Begum, Shankar was persuaded to stay. He later married Annapurna Devi, Ali Akbar's younger sister, another gifted musician.
As vocal music forms the basis of all Indian classical music, Ali Akbar was made to spend hours practising the sargams, sol-fa passages, and taans, musical figures. He was never allowed out of the room until his father was satisfied that he had got them right. Percussion and talas, time measures, he learned from his uncle, Fakir Aftabuddin. As Shankar wrote: "Ali Akbar told me he had been compelled to practise for 14 to 16 hours every day, and there were times when Baba tied him to a tree for hours and refused to let him eat if his progress was not satisfactory."
I now realise why Khan was so inhibited verbally. On the few occasions that I met him, he was always the listener, never the authoritative speaker. And when I interviewed him for a BBC TV Asian programme many years ago, it was difficult to get him to speak out. However, when it came to demonstrating a particular raga, it was a different matter.
He would put down his head, almost shut his eyes and concentrate on his instrument, and then produce the most enchanting and divine music. He had the rare genius to draw out the rasa, the colour and inner soul, of a raga, and his raga innovations often combined the characteristics of traditional melody archetypes. When he played he appeared to be oblivious of everything around him. He said that it was through his music that he communicated with the Almighty.
In his early 20s, Khan became music director of All-India Radio in Lucknow. Then, as a Mumbai-based composer, he scored many films, among them Chetan Anand's Aandhiyan (Storms, 1952), Sayajit Ray's Devi (The Goddess, 1960), the Merchant Ivory production - their first feature film - The Householder (1963) and Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1993).
Khan recorded celebrated duets with Shankar, the violinist L Subramaniam, and the sitarist Vilayat Khan, as well as many western musicians. His long relationship with Yehudi Menuhin dated back to the Edinburgh Festival of the 1950s, and it was Menuhin who brought about Khan's debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955. The following year, Khan established a college in Kolkata and started teaching in the US, where he settled. His San Rafael college in California later opened a branch in Basel, Switzerland. In 1971, he and Shankar formed part of the star line-up for the concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, New York, organised by George Harrison.
Khan - often given the honorific of "master" as Ustad Ali Akbar Khan - was awarded the National Heritage fellowship of the US and the Padma Vibhushan of India. He is survived by his third wife, Mary; seven sons, of whom Aashish and Alam Khan are sarod players; and four daughters.
• Ali Akbar Khan, sarod player and composer, born 14 April 1922; died 19 June 2009