Dear Baba, it is so hard to realize that you are no longer with us. After 37 years, you have been as much a part of my life as my parents. You have been a second father to me, a guru and the most important teacher and spiritual guide I ever had. With love, respect, devotion and sadness, I am now searching for a way to bid farewell to you and to ease the pain that is in my heart.
But why all this pain? Actually I am happy for you. You have had an incredible and long life, spanning epochs and continents. You have fulfilled your father’s wish to "spread this music as far as the sun and moon shine." You have given the gift of your music to audiences all over the world. For over 70 years, and in spite of ill health recently, you have continued to inspire thousands of students with your teaching and sense of duty and commitment to passing on this great tradition. You have taught us right up to your last breath. I am so happy and fortunate to have been with you for a significant part of your long journey.
So how is it that with so much to be happy about, I am still so sad? I am sad because I miss you terribly. I miss your patient and devoted teaching. I miss your unique presence and wisdom. I miss your sense of humour. I miss your compassion and love for all your students and family. I even miss your complaining. And perhaps most of all, I miss your incomparable music. I miss that one note, which only you can produce, that wipes away all words and thoughts, and puts me into a state of silent and deep listening, peaceful contemplation and joy.
I am flooded by memories of all the time I spent with you over the years, from the first moment I saw you perform in 1971 to the last incredibly poignant lesson you gave us only hours before you passed away.. Somewhere during that first concert, it was as if a bolt of lightning hit me with the power of your music -- so deep, so compelling and so spontaneous. I had to find out where this came from. I made the pilgrimage to your college in California and as soon as I began studying with you, I knew that this was the music I had been searching for my whole life. All questions of what to do, why, how to survive, all faded into the background. All I wanted was to be in your presence, learning this beautiful and rich tradition.
One day, after having studied for several years, you surprised me by greeting me with my name. I was so happy and touched that in spite of the hundreds of students coming and going, you were getting to know me at the same that I was becoming more and more immersed in learning from you. Then there was the time when during a vocal class, you requested each one of us to sing alone. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, you insisted that we use the microphone and you had the volume turned all the way up. There was no escape, although we all wanted to melt and disappear into the carpet. One by one we all tried and after I sang you said, "Very good, you are better. But you must get better still." It was a rare compliment, the first and one of the few you ever gave me directly. After cherishing it for a moment, I again dove into what seemed like an ocean of your knowledge, so often with a feeling that I would never get much deeper than the surface.
Years went by and whenever I felt like I made a little progress, I immediately had the sinking feeling that the ocean of your music was getting deeper all the time. Sometimes I despaired that I would fail, but you always taught us with such patience and inspiration that the pure joy of working in your presence renewed my hope.
In 1985, after seeing the growing interest for your music in Switzerland, you recommended that I open a branch of the Ali Akbar College in Basel. I felt so honoured that you would trust me with this endeavour and at the same time, I was afraid of the challenge. In December, just after the birth of my first daughter, you arrived for the first of what would turn out to be many memorable seminars and European concert tours. But there were some growing pains and I made some mistakes. One evening you were so upset that you spent several hours lambasting me. You constructed this "composition" as musically as one of your performances. The main theme was, "But Ken, how could you do this to me?" After each variation, during which you would elaborate how I had messed things up, you would always come back to the main theme, "But Ken, how could you…" I was devastated and at one point broke down in tears. And then, almost as if you were waiting for that breaking point, you said, "Ken, I’m doing this because I love you and I want you to grow". I replied that you could have just told me what you wanted earlier. You then said, "It doesn’t matter what I say -- you have to know what I want." I looked at you, first in disbelief, and then I understood that you were inviting me to change my entire view of the world. I slowly realized that you were demanding that I perceive something more subtle than just your words, to hear more of the microtones in-between the notes and to sense the rhythms that are hidden in the shadows of the beats. From then on, everything was different and I felt closer than ever to you and your teaching.
How can I ever thank you for all you have given me? During the last few years you repeatedly requested me to continue your work and keep the Ali Akbar College going. I promise that I will do my best to pass on to others whatever small amount of your vast knowledge I have been able to grasp. I also promise that I will go on exploring the infinite ways that you taught us of expressing ragas on the sarod and I will always try to please the hearts of music lovers everywhere. Baba, even though I will no longer be able to hear what you say, I promise that I will always try to understand and follow what you want.
With love, deep respect and
Your disciple always,
Ken Zuckerman has been a disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan since 1972. He lives in Switzerland where he directs the Ali Akbar College of Music in Basel. He is also a professor at the Music Conservatory of Basel, where he gives courses in North Indian classical music and Western music from the Middle Ages. He performs extensively in Europe, India and the USA. A slightly shorter version of this appears in print.