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Indian Odyssey – Ken Zuckerman

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Indian Odyssey – Ken Zuckerman

In the West, which has more than its fair share of Indian classical music aficionados, there are also a few dedicated practitioners of the art Noteworthy among them being Ken Zuckerman, the American-born disciple of sarod player Ali Akbar Khan.

How did the westerner come to develop an interest in Indian sangeet? And what kind of response does he get from audiences back home? Mohan Nadkarni profiles the virtuoso

Zakir Husain told Ken Zuckerman: “If you want to be a successful performer, you must make a name in India first. Otherwise, you won’t be accepted in the West – no matter how well you play.”

MOHAN NADKARNI, The Illustrated Weekly of India, May 6, 1990


How did the westerner come to develop an interest in Indian sangeet?

How did the westerner come to develop an interest in Indian sangeet?

Sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan is not given to indulging in praise, much less false praise. But even he seldom fails to mention Ken Zuckerman, one of his most gifted foreign disciples, with pride and admiration. In fact, not so very long ago, the ustad had declared that one day, Zuckerman would be of great service to the music world thrilling music lovers wherever he played for them. And the validity of these comments has been resoundingly brought home to Zuckerman’s audiences time and again.

Ken Zuckerman, 38, comes from a family of music lovers. American by birth (although the general impression in India is that he is Swiss), he migrated to Switzerland with his parents as a teenager to study medieval and post-medieval western music at the Music Academy in Basel where he still works as a lecturer. “The system has a striking affinity to Indian classical music.” He claims and that fact may have made it easier for him to come to grips with the Indian melodic system.

Zuckerman is an artiste of great sensitivity and impeccable taste – a dedicated virtuoso who remains immersed, like his distinguished mentor, in the pure, sensuous joy of his music which he shares with his listeners in full measure.

The maestro was recently in Bombay in the course of his month-long concert tour of India – a venture that no other foreign exponent of Indian music has undertaken till now. This is his fourth visit to India – beginning with only six concerts during his first visit, four years ago, he followed it up with eight concerts the next year and 12 the year after that. And this time when Zuckerman returned to Basel, it was with 16 concerts to his credit – besides Bombay, where he gave four concerts this time, he played at Calcutta, Durgapur, Jodhpur, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Bangalore.

Has he found these visits professionally fruitful? With a disarming candour, he declares that financially speaking, his earlier visits were dead losses. But, he pleads, as a foreigner wanting to be heard by Indian connoisseurs, money is not paramount on his priority list. “I am happy even if I am able to break even. However, this time my tour has been fruitful and somewhat gainful, too!” he smiles.

Zuckerman comes to India every year to fulfil his “urge for a greater sense of involvement with my music in the company of listeners – and only in India is this possible.” And what about the sponsor scene? Have any sponsors ever taken him for a ride? “Just once in a way.” He replies, “But that doesn’t really matter.”

Does he feel that the opportunities for foreign exponents of Indian music in the West are not as encouraging as one would wish? In Zuckerman’s view, the position, at least now, looks like that, and “perhaps understandably so.” He recalls what Zakir Husain, the young but world-famous tabla virtuoso and his close friend, had told him before he (Zuckerman) embarked on his first concert tour to India: “If you really want to become a successful performer of sarod, you must make a name in India first. Otherwise, you will never be accepted in the West-no matter how well you play. This is also true of Indian artistes who go to perform in the West before establishing themselves in India as serious performers.”

Why, then, are his annual visits to India so brief? According to Zuckerman, his work back home suffers, if he is away on tour for longer periods. He runs an institution in Basel which he has named after his mentor and which is “more of less a one-man show”.

Zuckerman feels he has to be physically present at the place if he is to manage it successfully.

The Ali Akbar College of Music is a centre for the study of Hindustani music, and it was Ali Akbar Khan who founded it in 1985 and asked his protégé to run it. “I keep it going under his inspiration and guidance,” says Zuckerman. Should he need his mentor around, he only has to request him, and Khan Saheb, who stays at San Rafael, takes time off to join his shishya at Basel.

The college has a curriculum of teaching based on the pattern followed at Ali Akbar Khan’s own institution. Classes are regularly held in dhrupad, khayal and thumri in vocal music and in the sarod, sitar, tabla, flute, violin, sarangi, dilruba and guitar in the instrumental section. The curriculum also comprises instruction in the theory and history of Hindustani music. Teaching is imparted at the primary, intermediate and advanced levels, and there are workshops, review sessions and private tutoring to supplement the main courses.

How, then, does Zuckerman run the show single-handedly? It is largely, he says, because of the assistance he gets from a number of visiting artistes who are also teachers – like Swapan Choudhary, a very gifted percussionist based in America who is also at ease with other instruments, vocal music and musical theory. Then there is also the Vienna-based Jitinder Thakur, a leading disciple of Ustad Allah Rakha, who visits Basel on and off to give lessons in tabla playing.

According to Zuckerman, his college is a non-profit institution. Educational and cultural organizations from Switzerland and America support its activities, and donations from various individuals and set-ups also keep flowing in.

At the time of this writer’s visit to Basel, there were 25 to 30 students from different countries on the college roster. The number, however, goes up to 45 when Ali Akbar Khan happens to be there to conduct seminars and weekend courses. Under his guidance, private and group instructions, lecture-demonstrations and concerts are also arranged.

How does Zuckerman view the latter-day attempts at achieving a synthesis of Indian and western music? Rather dismissively, the maestro dubs them mere experiments. “Whether they will take root is a question only time can answer,” he says. To him, they remain experiments which may not merge with what is truly traditional.

A family man, Zuckerman’s wife, Silvia, is not a working woman. She looks after her two young children, both daughters, and runs the household. But she shares her husband’s involvement in sarod music, though “only as a listener. She also encourages me whole-heartedly in my pursuit, and that is very important to me,” concludes the maestro sentimentally.


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