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No compromises in his art

Ustad Vilayat Khan was a larger-than-life mercurial personality, remembers GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.


"HE died unaccompanied by the usual media noises, which in itself shows the calibre of the man," says an old world connoisseur, admiringly. "He did not receive the recognition he deserved," admits a fellow artiste, ruefully. A chagrinned musicologist confesses, "I know more about Pandit Ravi Shankar than about his equally great, perhaps greater, contemporary."

In a sense these voices summed up the life of Ustad Vilayat Khan, of unimpeachable musical lineage, uncompromising towards the art he practised. Awesomely brilliant in technique, yet capable of making you forget all that virtuosity in the emotion he evoked on the strings, a man who brought a lump to your throat when he broke into singing now and then... It is difficult to speak of Ustad Vilayat Khan without running into superlatives.

When he died of lung cancer (March 13) at 76, not only his music, but many doughty values died with him, never mind that he had also been childish, even mulish, often at the wrong times.

The man was a paradox; that was his bane and his charm. He knew that on the sitar he was peerless; that this did not bring razzmatazzish celebrity status was to him both a matter of pride and resentment. His acrimonious feuds with contemporary and "international star" Ravi Shankar are too well known to be repeated here. In calmer moments Khansaheb could admit that the combat was stupid.

Vilayat Khan could turn down National awards because he felt that the selectors were not competent judges of his music, and yet get annoyed when the Bharat Ratna went to Pandit Ravi Shankar. Early in his career he boycotted the AIR in protest against its audition policies. "With fewer disciples, few recordings, radio/TV recitals, and dislike of the media, how could he be as well known as Panditji?" shrugs sitarist nephew Shahed Parwez, to whom Khansaheb remains the ideal musician. What he doesn't mention is the mood swing from the honeysweet to the irascible. Ask Khansaheb for an interview at a Delhi hotel and he says, "Don't want to waste time on ignoramuses. Can you sing the shuddh and tivra madhyam correctly'." You comply, hoping that your giggles will not make the notes wobble. Nodding, he says, "Not here, come to Dehra Dun and stay in my house for a few days. I will tell you the story of my life." You fix the dates and turn up at his house in Clement Town and he announces, "You can't stay here, we have guests." So you find a hotel and return to a house with non-existent guests. But Dr. Jekyll greets you now, all hospitable conviviality. Nothing can stop the flood of words either, though he does say (luckily without insisting), "You are going to make a name with my interview. You should pay me."

You never know what you will get from him. He can handle Yaman, the king of raags, with a majesty that opens door after door into chambers of royal magnificence. A lighter, thumri-flavoured Gaara will take you to a riverside ramble under silvery shadows. In his alap, he will suddenly light upon a phrase of oceanic might or gossamer daintiness, and bring off loving variations, where unknown dimensions emerged in slow splendour. He rarely lost track of melody even in the highest speeds. He had a second home in the U.S., but his music remained steadfastly classical. He also scored the music for Satyajit Ray's "Jalsaghar" and Merchant-Ivory's "Guru".


Khansaheb was very proud of maintaining the tradition he had inherited from his Mughal ancestors, from the legendary Tansen down to great-grandfather Sahebdad Khan, grandfather Imdad Khan and father Inayat Khan. His Ittawa gharana prioritised the bigger, deep-toned surbahar; the sitar was more a "plaything". Poignantly he would recount how his mother Bashiran Begum insisted that he should play the sitar, reserving the family instrument for the less gifted younger brother Imrat, their years of jugalbandi ending with iron curtains between them. More tearfully he would recount how his mother "stabbed him to the core" when she banned singing for him, because she thought it would be disloyal to the family of instrumentalists she had married into, especially as she came from a clan of vocalists.

The traditionalist was innovator too. Having lost his father at 10, the boy ran away to the AIR in Delhi, and found paternal care in the station director who arranged for his stay in a garage, and gave monthly recitals to the boy's paternal uncle Wahid Khan (sitar/surbahar) and maternal grandfather Bande Husain Khan (vocalist) so that they could come to Delhi to tutor him. That is how young Vilayat became equally proficient in singing and playing. Learning was no easy process, but the mother stemmed the tides of despair. Besides, "I had to create my own method because I couldn't play like my father, also because existing methods could not reproduce the intricate, intense vocal glides of my grandfather."

The crafting of the gayaki ang (vocal style) involved modification of the instrument itself, along with playing techniques. Persevering through criticism and misunderstandings, the young man achieved the lyrical fluidity he wanted until the sitar took the might of his right hand strokes, and curved into the intricate oscillations of the human voice. Finally fellow musicians conceded that Vilayatkhani baaj not only replicated the voice on the sitar, but that few vocalists could make their voices sing as his strings did.

His courtly Urdu promoted his tendency to romanticise things. When asked why Hindustani music assigns a particular time for singing each raag, he launched into his vision of every raag with its own light and colour, radiating rays in a circle which revolved into the tides of the day and night. He could take a childlike delight in a shawl sent to him by Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, put it round himself at once, and start singing "Vatapi ganapatim". No, he didn't care for taking raags from one system into another, but there was something about Hamsadhvani, simple-seeming, but with subtle glints, like a woman pushing her hair back to show her face in a different light. Mischievously he could add, "Your nishad is very difficult, but I can do it, this is how it goes in Kalyani, Kiravani, Charukesi... I have heard Carnatic music in childhood from Jayammal, (Balasaraswati's mother) you know!"

His love of fast driving and sports cars, his craze for haute couture, urge for collecting everything from guns to chandeliers, gourmet tastes, his horsemanship, proficiency at the billiards table, swimming pool and ball room, were all part of his larger-than-life, quicksilver personality.

Stories of his warmth and folly became part of the growing legend as Vilayat Khan ended up insisting that he was — or had to be — the highest paid Indian musician. His first marriage — with the woman he fell in love with on the dance floor — was to break up with the ustad's growing demands for submissiveness. Son Shujaat, himself a sitar player today, weathered bitter estrangement, but was to say after the father's death that he had wonderful memories to cherish. Khansaheb's generous spirit was known to friends, and to a few lifetime disciples like Arvind Parikh.

The grief on Ravi Shankar's face was very real when he paid a brief obituary tribute, "A great musician". Vilayat Khan would have been happy to hear the wistful note in his fellow musician's voice.

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