Artists on a Mission

by George Heymont – The Huffington Post
(Excerpt from article)

Two hugely inspirational documentaries that recently screened at the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (Third i) examine artists who have found themselves (quite unexpectedly) on a mission that may well keep them occupied for the rest of their lives.

Directed by Joshua Dylan Mellars, much of Play Like A Lion is devoted to celebrating the life and music of Ali Akbar Khan, the beloved Hindustani classical musician who died in 2009 at the age of 87. Recognized internationally as an expert in performing on the sarod, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music (first in Calcutta in 1956, then in Berkeley in 1967, and again in 1985 in Basel, Switzerland).

At the age of 16 Ali Akbar Khan accompanied Ravi Shankar in concert. Four years later, he became a court musician for the Maharajah of Jodhpur, Hanwant Singh. He came to America in 1955 at the invitation of Yehudi Menuhin and, during a long career of touring and teaching, received a MacArthur fellowship and, in 1997, the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

While Play Like A Lion does a superb job of documenting Ali Akbar Khan’s life, it is more intensely focused on preserving and publicizing a family’s devotion to the classical music of Northern India. A prolific musician, Ali Akbar Khan also had seven sons and four daughters (his eldest son, Aashish Khan, is now in his 70s). One of his youngest sons, Alam, has taken on the responsibility of preserving and disseminating his father’s contributions to the Maihar gharana school of Hindustani classical music, which includes some ragas that have been passed down since the 16th century.

Thanks to the fine camera work by Joshua Dylan Mellars, Play Like A Lion captures the rich colors of India as well as Ali Akbar’s rich musical coloring. Shots taken at Indian music festivals, in private gardens, and at royal receptions burst with the kind of vivid splendor one anticipates from a professional travelogue.

The sounds heard in Play Like A Lion come from a very different tradition than Western European music. Ali Akbar Khan (who frequently told students that he could make them cry with one note) was revered by musicians far and wide. The documentary includes deeply personal testimonials from Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart, a member of Grateful Dead.

Alam (who began his musical training at the age of seven) accompanied his father onstage during international tours between 1996 and 2006. The documentary follows Alam from Berkeley to India as he visits some of his ailing father’s favorite places and performs for Indian audiences. Following his father’s wishes, Alam now teaches advanced instrumental and vocal classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael and has dedicated his life to preserving, performing. and teaching this music to the world.

Play Like A Lion is an intriguing documentary about a musical tradition unknown to many Americans and how a revered maestro’s son chooses to devote his life to continuing his family’s musical tradition.