Desert Island #16: Ali Akbar Khan, Darbari Kanada

In this series, I’ve tried to select recordings that stand out not just for their melodic geometry, but also for a sense of individualized expression, a mark of the musician that serves as, to borrow a phrase, an aural self-portrait. Of the great instrumentalists, Ali Akbar Khan’s genius lay in the shadows, in the middle and lower tones and, most tellingly, in descending movements. These qualities are on ample display in his best renditions of the traditional Darbari Kanada. In its default form, the raga comes with a heavy dose of “darbar”: the sombre, lamp-lit heaviness of its eponymous royal courts — think Vilayat Khan’s classic alap, characterized by a certain romantic richness. Ali Akbar, by contrast, strips away this courtly baggage, exposing the lonely, searching core of the raga. The sarod’s mellow, deep and clear sound aids this project, yet as is common in the case of Ali Akbar, no other sarod Darbari sounds like his, in a list that includes greats such as Radhika Mohan Maitra and Bahadur Khan. This Darbari dives deeper into itself, caught up in its own interiority.

Several of Ali Akbar Khan’s early recordings reveal this sustained urge to charge into the solitary depths of the raga, to make even the most innocuous material an acutely personal vehicle for romance, whimsy, or a brooding darkness (not necessarily separately). In Darbari, at least, this urge never left him. The alap from the 1950s (below), recorded when he was roughly as old as his son Alam is now (or for that matter I am now), is as fine an example as any of what an introspective young man in somewhat turbulent circumstances is capable of. But fast forward three decades to 1986, and this Darbari sounds as inward and troubled as ever. The 7-minute 1986 alap is also the most insightful precis of the raga I know of.

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