Memories of an uncompromising Ustad
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Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and flutist Pannalal Ghosh were frequent visitors at 41, Pali Hill in the early '50s, when the entire Anand family dwelt there. There were excellent evenings of intellectual discussions and music along with steaming cups of tea and coffee which they shared along with Chetan, Uma, Dev Anand as well as K.A. Abbas, Guru Dutt and Raj Khosla. Such an intellectual gathering was unheard in the Mumbai film industry during those days.
Chetan Anand, who introduced Pandit Ravi Shankar as a music director in his maiden film, Neecha Nagar also introduced Ustad Ali Akbar Khan as a composer in his third film, Aandhiyan in 1952. For this heavy theme based on a true story, all the three maestros, Khan, Shankar and Ghosh composed the background with resounding success. Remembers Lata Mangeshkar, "I was deeply touched when Ustad Ali Akbar Khan requested me to sing the title song of Aandhiyan penned by renowned lyricist, Narendra Sharma. I cried after recording the title song, Aye kisi ki shaadmani, which he composed so well with minimum number of instruments emphasizing on my voice and delivery during the mukhdas and antaras. I did not charge producer Dev Anand a single penny for the song."
Both Aandhiyan and Humsafar, films from Navketan had rich music by Khan though they flopped miserably. In fact, after watching Aandhiyan, which was India's first official entry along with Do Bigha Zamin and Awara at the Venice, Moscow and Peking Film Festivals, internationally famous British critic, John Joseph described the music of Aandhiyan as lyrical and soul twisting with a rare somber effect.
Khan played the sarod for which music director Hemant Kumar gave him a free hand in Ferry in 1955. Remembers Dev Anand, the male protagonist of Aandhiyan, Humsafar and Ferry, "I was nervous to play the sarod in Ferry as I never played any musical instrument earlier. Cinematographer Ajay Kar created wonders with the close shots as I played the sarod and what a magnificent composition Ustadji made. I can still visualise him composing with total devotion, his eyes red, creating a divine atmosphere."
Chetan Anand again utilised the musical services of Khan for his classic Anjali in 1956. Remembers M.S. Sathyu, chief assistant and art director of Anjali, "For the 800 feet sequence in which Nimmi tries desperately to break the meditation of Chetan Anand, Ustadji composed four unparallel tunes as he was too impressed with the sequence. We opted for the third tune and he also agreed to it. Throughout his career, Ustadji shared his best rapport with Chetan Anand, who used to address him as Alubhai."
Khan's tryst with the iconic Satyajit Ray in Devi in 1960, was not very memorable. In fact, he was very upset that Ray restricted his compositions and even went on record stating, "I doubt how much of Indian classical music Ray understood. He was more of a dictator and I never enjoyed working with him though he was India's best director." The mature and thorough gentleman that Ray was, he did not bear any grudge against the uncompromising Ustad and only said, "The compositions of Khan were brilliant. I had to control him as he went over board and cinema is a very different medium compared to performing on stage."
With Tapan Sinha, Khan struck a warm rapport whilst composing for the Tagore classic, Khudito Pashan which Sinha directed with expertise. He created wonders with his sarod, bamboo flute, tabla and other folk instruments as well as utilising the golden voice of Hemant Kumar to perfection for the Tagore melody, Saghana gahana rati in the Bangla film.
When James Ivory and Ismail Merchant opted for him to compose for their maiden venture, The Householder in English, Khan took it up as a challenge and delivered more than what was expected of him. Paying him a glorious tribute, Shashi Kapoor, hero of The Householder says, "Khansaab's background score in The Householder was marvellous with the perfect usage of the sarod, English flute, violin and also the piano. He proved he was equally at ease with western musical instruments."
Though Khan composed the background score for Bernando Bertolucci's Little Buddha was in no way memorable. Ustadji himself confessed, "It was only on the persuasion of a highly-talented filmmaker like Bertolucci that I composed for Little Buddha. By then I had no interest in films and was totally committed to the upliftment of Indian classical music in its purest form throughout the world."
But Khan's association with Hindi cinema resulted in strained relations with his father, Baba Alauddin Khan, who disowned him after he started composing for films. When asked about his association with Hindi cinema, the musician would often say, "My father declared me his tyajya putra."
Nevertheless, Khan understood the limitations of classical musicians in film music very well and considered, Anil Biswas, Naushad, S.D. Burman and Madan Mohan as priceless composers. According to him, "Chand dole, Mohe bhool gaye sawariya, Hum bekhudi mein and Hoke majboor mujhe stand testimony of the greatness of each of their compositions. None of my tunes can match their compositions."