A devout Hindu and Muslim, Allauddin Khan (born Padma-Vibhusan Acharya Allauddin Khan) was one of the most important North Indian classical musicians of the 20th century. While his musical career spanned more than 100 years, Khan was equally influential as a mentor and teacher of Ravi Shankar; his son Ali Akbar Khan; and his daughter and Shankar's wife, Annapurna Devi. A native of East Bengal (Bangladesh), Khan enjoyed a financially secure childhood. Although his parents had little money, they owned land and many animals. Descended from Mian Tansen, a 16th century musician in the court of Emperor Akbar, the family had close ties to music. Khan's father played sitar while an older brother, Aftabuddin Khan, played flute, harmonium, tabla, pakhawaj, and dotora. As a child, Allauddin Khan would sneak into the family's music room and experiment with his brothers' instruments. Despite his obvious talents, Khan was discouraged from playing music by his father. Running away from home at the age of eight, Khan met up with a group of itinerant musicians that was heading toward Dacca. Telling them that he was an orphan, he was accepted into the group. He soon learned to play Indian drums including tabla, dhol, and pakhawaj, and wind instruments including clarinet, cornet, and trumpet. Leaving the group after six years, Khan traveled to Calcutta and apprenticed himself to a Bengali singer, Nulo Gopal. For the next seven years, he was instructed in the traditional style that emphasized solfeggio, scales, and technique.
Accepting a position as tabla player in the orchestra of the Star Theater, Khan was mentored by conductor Robert Lobo, who introduced him to the Western classical music tradition. Khan often participated in orchestral parties, held by composer Habu Dutt, that combined Western and Indian instrumentation. Although he augmented his meager salary from the Star Theater by playing recitals, Khan struggled financially. He often ate his one meal a day at food dispensaries provided for the poor. Traveling to Muktogacha in eastern Bengal (now East Pakistan) during his early twenties, Khan was awestruck when he attended a performance by Ustad Ahmad Ali, a sarod player in the court of Raja Jagat Kishore. Inspired by what he heard, he convinced Ali to become his guru. For the next four years, he devoted his full attention to learning the sarod. Although he accompanied Ali to Rampur, Khan's playing abilities were so threatening to the senior sarod player that he was instructed to begin playing on his own. Rampur provided an inspiring setting. The center of Hindustani classical music, the city boasted more than 500 musicians who served in the court of the Newab of Rampur.
After studying with many of the city's musicians, Khan managed to meet and convince the most important musician in Rampur, Wazir Khan, to become his guru. During the first two and a half years that he lived under Wazir Khan's control, Khan served as a servant and errand boy. The disillusioning arrangement changed after a letter, telling Khan that his wife, who he had left the day after marrying, had committed suicide, was intercepted by Wazir Khan. With the truth of his tales of being an orphan revealed, Khan was instructed to return home and make amends with his family. Upon his return to Rampur, Khan was promised that Wazir Khan would make him his chief disciple and reveal the secrets of music. He continued to be instructed by Wazir Khan for the next few years and received a blessing when his guru was on his deathbed. Following Wazir Khan's death, Khan began performing on his own. In addition to serving as a court musician to the Maharajah of Maihar, he became the principal of the Maihar College of Music and formed the Maihar Band with 100 orphaned children whom he had taught to play strings, brass, bagpipes, and drums. In 1952, Khan was made a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (National Academy of Performing Arts). Six years later, he received the Padma Bhusan, an honorary title bestowed upon him by the president of the academy.