Fame is ephemeral. Nobody knew that better than Ustad Vilayat Khan, the legendary sitar player who passed away in 2004. His youngest son Hidayat Khan, growing up as the son of this famous musician, was used to many comforts and luxuries. Hearing his son one day brag to his friends in Maryland, the Ustad packed him off to a small neighbourhood Indian restaurant to play the sitar for people eating tikka and kebab. Some guests would even shout out to him “Bhaiya zara rokoge to main khana kha sakaunga!” ( Stop, so I can eat my food!)
Living through the humiliation, the young musician learned to take all life has to offer, and even became friends with the waiters and patrons. Today Hidayat Khan, based in New Jersey, has come a long way but he remembers the main lesson his father taught him: “Humility”.
The humility has stood him in good stead for, through ups and downs, he has gone places. He’s had a great many performances over the years with noted Western musicians like Ronny Woods of the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Richie Sambora, the guitarist with Jon Bon Jovi. He has collaborated with many big names such as Darryl Jones of Rolling Stones, Will.I.Am and Usher.
His recent recordings on itunes include Celestial Ragas with Sabir Khan and Rakesh Chaurasia, Yaman, Ziver and Sanwariya, all released over the last two years. This November he is performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynston Marsalis, and in December at the Times of India Literary Fest in Mumbai, as well as the Concert in Dhaka for children born with AIDS.
While Vilayat Khan's four children are continuing his legacy in different ways, Hidayat Khan has created the Ustad Vilayat Khan Foundation, a not-for profit organization in his father's memory. The inaugural concert was held at the Indian Consulate on the Ustad's 85th birth anniversary this year.
Here Hidayat Khan talks about growing up as his father's son, the tough years and learning to create a voice of his own, with his father's blessings.
Tell us about life with your father in the U.S.
A: My father was a very complicated person, as most geniuses are, but most people who didn’t know him personally do not know that he was a really chilled out, fun-loving, cool enough person to hang out with. However, I had a complicated relationship with him because he was not just my father but my guru and ustad, so you had to sort of adapt to understanding and learning when he was your father, when he was your guru, and when he was ustad because our lives were not just our lives, our lives were constantly surrounded by people.
Can you share a memory of how you first learnt the power of music?
A: When you belong to a family like mine, music starts before you even realize it, before you are born. My father used to make my mother listen to certain kinds of music when she was pregnant with me and he made her play it in the car so the child gets that from the mother itself. So our music, sort of, training starts at that point, and this is not just a unique experience that I have gone through; most families that come from musical heritage have gone through it. Our training starts before we even know it.
I have a sitar in the house which is a toy sitar, it is the oldest instrument I think we have, almost 150 years old and that little toy sitar is so small that if you are about four of five years old it is too small for you! That’s how early we started and it is completely beat up by all my cousins, my brother, my uncles, everyone in the family it has been passed around; whoever had a kid the sitar was given to them and they started playing on it and it all was fun and games and it was not serious, it was nothing like that. So it was just a very natural thing to do, like you learn how to walk.
Was it hard having your father as a teacher, and what was the lifelong lesson that you learned from him?
A: This was very hard, to have your father as your guru and ustad at the same time - sometimes it is a strain on a father and son relationship because you are constantly battling all the different avenues and it is difficult. But as human beings you deal with whatever situation you are put into, you learn to adapt.
About two or three years before he passed away, we were in Calcutta, and all of my colleagues, my age musicians, were performing all over the place while I was just not doing much at all. And they were getting the big concerts, lot of reviews in newspapers and TV and all of that, so this took a lot of guts for us to go up to our father and our ustad and speak our mind. I really mustered up the courage, I went up to him and I said “Abba, hook me up also, it would take just one call!" And he said “Yeah, sure beta”. He said go get your sitar. I said okay. So I went, got my sitar and he made me sit down in his room, and taught me for about three hours.
Sham chali, waqt chala gaya, baat guzar gayi, we went about our business, again next couple of days I said you know what, I need to get down to the bottom of this, because I need that, I mean I am sitting at home, I am doing small time concerts, begging people for concerts and nobody is giving me, whereas I see everyone around me is doing the biggest, that is what I want to be doing. So again I went up to him and he said the same thing - bring a sitar and this happened about 2-3 times, after the third time he said I know what you are looking for. After he teaches me the two hours, he said that this is the biggest promotion I can give you.
The day you will stand up, you will stand up on your own two feet. The day you get a concert you will know it is on your merit and not because you are the son of Ustad Vilayat Khan and he said, “Today I am here, tomorrow I am not going to be around.”
At that time it didn’t make sense to me at all, and now it has been about 7-8 years he is no more and slowly, I am building my career on my merit. I feel very slowly I am getting the recognition and concerts and work and I see myself growing as a musician and I am seeing that transition from being a student to becoming an individual to hopefully someday growing and becoming the leader myself where I have people following me. And I feel this happened on my own strength and accord.
I have made several mistakes, but it is because I have been sort of carving my own path and as a result I have been able to be creative and almost like a river that bends where there are rocks in the way and it goes accordingly and takes its own shape and form.
Q. Share your best memory of performing with your father
A: One of the last tours of Europe we did with Pandit Kishan Maharajji on tabla was an unbelievable experience, to be on the stage with them both. Kishan Maharajji gave me a lot of love and he treated me like his son. Once during a performance, he moved his tabla closer to me and said, “ Ka baat ha babua, ka baat hai!” in encouragement.
And then I saw my father’s face, it was a moment like I had never seen, of him looking at me with so much pride and that was just one of those magical sort of moments that has been captured in my brain.
After that we played several concerts together and his role as a musician completely transformed and he started almost taking a backseat in our performances. He was very sort of relaxed, obviously the concert was his and he said now I am not worried, you are going to handle the whole thing, and his entire body language changed. I mean for him to say something to us was just impossible but he would express his happiness in ways like this. And that sort of just meant the world to me.
Q: What do you think in the long run, when you look back, is the best gift that your father gave you?
A:Humility is one very important lesson that I learnt and the other lesson that I learnt was that enjoy life and don’t take things that seriously, I mean have fun, enjoy life, whatever it is. Hard times are not forever, good times are not forever.