As a literature professor in India who specialized in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Rajeev Taranath kept his passion for music on the down low. A disciple of Ali Akbar Khan, the unsurpassed master of the lute-like sarod and a giant of 20th-century classical Hindustani music, he jealously guarded his free time, shedding faculty positions whenever administrative responsibilities started to impinge upon his musical devotion.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he held teaching gigs at more than a dozen universities, “but I was always trying to find more time to practice and improve,” says Taranath, 84, who plays a classical recital Tuesday at Freight & Salvage with Udayraj Karpur, a tabla veteran who joined the sarod master on his 2003 album Reflections Around Noon. Rising Hindustani vocalist Jayanti Sahasrabuddhe plays an opening set accompanied by Vivek Datar on harmonium and Udayraj Karpur on tabla.
“Finally, Pandit Ravi Shankar came to Hyderabad, where I was working in a fairly good academic position,” Taranath recalls. “He said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Get back to your practice and profession!’ He made me resign, with the pressure of love. That was in 1982. So here I am, still doing that.”
Surprisingly, here often means Berkeley, where Taranath lives about a third of the year, when he’s not in India or touring. Recognized as one of the finest Hindustani musicians, he’s received just about every major honor in his field, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of Hindustani Instrumental music. As a composer he contributed scores to several acclaimed films, such as 1970’s “Samskara” and 1977’s “Kanchana Sita” and M. T. Vasudevan Nair’s award-winning 1991 “Kadavu.”
He was drawn to the Bay Area by the presence of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib, whose Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in San Rafael continues to inculcate hundreds of people into North Indian classical music. Taranath first came to the Bay Area in 1989 with a Ford Foundation grant to continue studying with his guru, a relationship that lasted until Khan’s death in 2009. As Khan’s oldest living sarod disciple he continues to propagate his teachings, “a matter of sacred duty,” he says.
Khan had changed the course of his life while Taranath was growing up in Bangalore, a southern city far from the center of Hindustani music. His first exposure to the sarod via gramophone recordings left him with a strong aversion to the instrument, which the young Taranath felt was played “in a rather aggressive style,” he says. But years later he heard Khan, “which took me to an entirely different realm of sound. I think, arguably, Ali Akbar Khan discovered the value of tone on the instrument, and his instrument spoke with his kind of music, which simply entranced.”
Years later he ended up studying with Khan, living with his guru and absorbing his approach to music and life. But when it came time to choose a career, he took an academic path, writing his doctoral dissertation on the imagery in Eliot’s poetry. One reason that Taranath didn’t plunge into a career in music was his father. A physician and highly respected classical vocalist who was his son’s first music teacher, he hoped that Taranath would follow him into the study of Ayurvedic medicine (despite his son’s early recognition as a vocal prodigy).
“He wanted to sensitize me to rhythm mainly, melody was subsidiary,” Taranath says. “He was an expert at examining and reading the pulse, and going on to diagnose and prescribe a treatment.”
Only 10 years old when his father died, Taranath decided to study English in college because his fluency in the language meant he still had time to focus on music. But the uncertainty of a musical career steered him toward teaching English lit, and he spent decades in academia before Ravi Shankar offered a course correction.
His North American career blossomed after his Ford Foundation work at the AACM, studying the Maihar gharana tradition founded by Khan’s legendary father, Ustad Allaudin Khan. He credits another friend he made during his years at the AACM with boosting his career in the West. Leslie Schneider, a longtime Berkeley resident, had been drawn to the school by her love of Hindustani music. She studied vocals with Ali Akbar Khan and ended up spending many years as the college’s bookkeeper.
Struck by the beauty of Taranath’s music and feeling he should be better known she started booking gigs for him around the continent, which is how “he started touring a lot in the early 1990s,” Schneider says. “I watched a very special relationship between him and Khansahib, certain things about their connection and the focus and intensity it takes to pursue this music to the fullest. Their relationship was so powerful, just witnessing it was one of life’s big lessons for me.”
It’s a relationship that Taranath honors with each transporting performance.
Recommended gig: Mokoomba at Freight & Salvage
Mokoomba is one of Zimbabwe’s most popular bands, and the six-piece combo plays Freight & Salvage on May 24. The group released its third album in February, Luyando, a stripped down, mostly acoustic project that combines pan-African styles with the local and traditional sounds they also grew up listening to in Victoria Falls, a diverse border town near Botswana and Zambia.