Among the country’s finest sitarists, Arvind Parikh’s music and life is shaped by his unbroken commitment to his guru. Recalling his association with the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan, he says his music is entirely his guru’s

This is perhaps one of the most charming stories from the world of music. It is about two legendary artistes, one a wild and passionate pursuer of music with every stroke spelling brilliance, and the other, a devoted student who took forward the legacy of his great guru with his exceptional artistry. The most fascinating aspect of this guru-shishya duo is that when they met, they both were of the same age – all of 17! Arvind Parikh, one of the greatest living sitarists of the country, recounts this incident that changed the course of his life 70 years ago. He narrates it with a striking warmth that you begin to imagine you were a part of it.

“I first saw him first at my friend Subodh’s house in Mumbai, he was in a light-blue kurta with a cigarette in hand,” recalls Arvind Parikh. “I had gone to give my auditions in Mumbai All India Radio and during that visit had expressed my wish to learn from Vilayat Khan saab to my friend Subodh. He immediately said, ‘Want to meet him? He’s coming home for tea this evening!’.” That evening when Arvind Parikh went to Subodh’s house he could hardly believe that another young man of his age was the great maestro he was seeking. “Play for me,” Vilayat Khan saab had said, “and I, who had till then thought that my musicianship was outstanding and of course had to be some Khan, and not a mere Parikh, realised that I had a long journey to undertake.” Khan saab pointed out the shortcomings, nevertheless, he immediately called someone in the AIR and said ‘my student is coming for audition’ and of course, Arvind Parikh not only became an auditioned artiste of AIR, but also his disciple which the Ustad himself announced.

Coming from a wealthy Gujarathi family of businessmen inclined spiritually and artistically, there were a lot of instruments in the Parikh household in Ahmedabad. Arvind Parikh could play several instruments including the violin and flute which he played with considerable competence. In fact, Arvind Parikh’s mother was a painter and a painting teacher used to come home to teach the young Arvind as well. “I created such a masterpiece that my teacher was shocked and stopped teaching me!” he reminisces laughing. An avid listener of the radio, Arvind Parikh listened to great music by great masters in those days. “I was so inspired by Ustad Vilayat Khan saab’s sitar that something within me said that he had to be my guru and sitar was the instrument I had to pursue. I was also listening to a lot of Pandit Ravi Shankar on the radio but I was drawn more towards Vilayat Khan saab. I feel that these things are shaped more by one’s destiny and there are hardly any logical answers to them…,” explains Arvind Parikh, who left Ahmedabad and went to Mumbai to pursue music in 1944.

That first chance meeting was the beginning of a momentous guru-shishya relationship, and also an enduring friendship between the two. Khan saab and Arvind Parikh came from two strikingly different worlds – the guru from a traditional Muslim family and with the loss of his father fairly early in life, there was no one to support them. Arvind Parikh however, came from the most comfortable circumstances and had hardly been exposed to any difficulty in his life. The young Arvind was shocked to see the “tiny hole” in which Khan saab lived in Colaba. A sari hung as partition and Khan saab’s mother sat behind it. “He was under tremendous emotional, financial and physical stress. He was in such bad shape that he wasn’t even sure if they could have a cup of tea the next morning,” recounts Arvind Parikh. “I lived in plenty and had no problem spending on him. This gave him emotional comfort and we gradually developed a close bond with each other.” Many people tried to dissuade Arvind Parikh from learning from Khan saab – “Why do you want to learn from a thumriwallah?” – but nothing changed between the two. “Even with all the difficulties that life had heaped on him, he was a man of no compromise. Even if he had no penny for tomorrow, he wouldn’t abandon his beliefs. He was a man of principles, and couldn’t care more for anything else,” speaks Arvind Parikh with reverence towards his guru who refused awards and opportunities, unwilling to put his values on the sacrificial altar.

Arvind Parikh became Khan saab’s trusted lieutenant. For 20 years they met each other every single day and spent the evenings together. He shared everything with Arvind Parikh and implicitly believed that he would solve all his problems. In fact, many times he would even ask him what he should play in a concert. “My devotion for him was boundless. With bated breath, I used to stand in the balcony waiting for his bus to come. I was obsessed.” Arvind Parikh says he had a huge “crush” on his guru and many a times even condoned his wrong doings blinded by his love for the maestro.

If it was possible to have a style and thinking entirely of his own even after being groomed by a titan, Arvind Parikh feels that it was because Khan saab allowed it to flower.

“He was a gyaan margi. He was the centre and would surrender to none except the medium. I was a bhakti margi, I found my music through total surrender. I play Vilayat Khan, but in a different mode. The vidya he has imparted to me has been converted into my music with my gyaan. As far as my music is concerned, he is my only influence,” he says categorically.

A rendition, says Arvind Parikh, is like telling a story that has a beginning and unfolds gradually paragraph by paragraph before reaching the end. There has to be bawat (content) and tareeka (expression). Without substantial content music is reduced to mere excitement rather than introspection and meditation, he argues.

For someone who studied under a hardcore practitioner, how did Arvind Parikh’s interest in musicology develop? “All India Radio is my first guru. I used to carefully listen and by the age of 12, I could make notations of all the ensembles that were being played on radio. This, I used to play on my violin. I used to do this so seriously that my swar gyan became perfect. In fact, I still have four books full of notations from those days.”

Khan saab’s taalim was no different from the tutelage other masters of those times imparted. It was based on assimilation and no questions were asked. “I would think about every little instruction that my guru gave during the lessons and wonder why he had said so. Gradually, all the techniques and dimensions of his music opened up to me and I wrote a trainer’s manual,” he explains. “However, the manual is useless if your being is not filled with great devotion when you touch the instrument.” The other legendary musician with whom Arvind Parikh had a very close relationship was Ustad Amir Khan. “He would always say, ‘Arvind Bhai, socho bhee…’… While Amir Khan saab believed that riyaz was important, he also stressed on the importance of thinking music.” The ‘why’ in Arvind Parikh was encouraged by Amir Khan saab, who gave him small tips that led Arvind Parikh to find the big answers. He insisted that every phrase, sung or played, should have meaning, and the movement of every single note should also have a basis, even when it is coloured by intuition. “Amir Khan was an extraordinary, intense man and musician,” says Arvind Parikh, recalling the time he spent with him.

Unlike his guru Vilayat Khan saab, Arvind Parikh loves teaching. “I love people, and have a passion to teach. I have about 72 students, and I have classes every single day. I work very hard on my students,” explains the 87-year-old Arvind Parikh, who headed the Indian Musicological Society for a long time. This successful businessman, who is the chairperson of Lemuir Group, says that his music is the coming together of hard work, intellectual engagement and destiny. “Of course, without God’s kindness nothing can be achieved.”