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Music as religion

VATSALA VEDANTAM
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TRIBUTE Ustad Vilayat Khan who passed away ten years ago on March 13 was immensely proud of the country and its music. No temptation was good enough to lure him away from his devotion VATSALA VEDANTAM

This is one story I never wrote. It is about an artiste who is no more, he died even before I wrote. I read the obituaries, the tributes to his genius, his mastery of “raagas.” They spoke of his “aalap” and his “gayaki ang.” And how he enhanced various gharanas. All that meant nothing to me. A renowned maestro had shared his dreams with a nondescript journalist. That is all that mattered. All this happened at the Oberoi Hotel in Bangalore.

“We are having breakfast with Ustad Vilayat Khan this morning. Would you like to join?” asked the voice on the phone.

“Would I?! I was there before anybody else

“You may come up to my room if you wish to ask questions,” he said. If I thought he was seeking publicity, I could not have been more wrong. He wanted to talk, but wasn’t even thinking about publishing it.

“What brought you to this city?” I began. His answer took me by surprise. “I came to buy some land.” I did not interrupt him, and he continued: “I want to establish a gurukul here. A small project with just five or six students. Maybe a girl from New Jersey and a boy from Hyderabad. One on one instruction. Just to find out what kind of musician we can train.

“Will you also be there?” I asked.

“Yes. With other teachers who must teach, not preach,” he laughed. And added, “I want a clean place, not a palace. Our dharma teaches us to be happy even if we live in a small temple….”

I wondered what he would teach. “Shastriya sangeeth,” he answered. “It has a vitality that no western influence can corrupt. It never died. It cannot die!” His voice became wistful. “But where have all those players gone? Veena Dhanammal, Giriappa, Doraiswamy Iyengar …..They could make instruments sing.”

“Tell me more about this school,” I said. “Yes. I will teach them not to fuse east and west in music. Each has its own beauty. Our music began centuries ago. It stabilised in Akbar’s time. Music was a religion in those days. Now its all gimmicks. He sounded angry. His mood changed like quicksilver. “Today, we are going through another transition. But we cannot lose our identity. We must preserve our tradition. That is why I want to start a gurukul where the student will learn to ask ‘Who am I?’ That is our dharma.”

When the Singapore Symphony Orchestra offered him a 1000 pounds to play for them, his reply was: ‘Accept me as I come, or reject me!’ “I wanted to show that Indians are proud of their heritage.” I could well believe that. His concerts exuded spirituality “I don’t know how long I will live. I am the eighth generation in my family to carry this torch.”

Ustad Vilayat Khan became distant and fell silent when coffee arrived. He walked over to a washbasin and rinsed his mouth. “One must be clean to say His name,” he said. Then, holding his coffee cup, he began praying softly. The interview was over.

Tributes poured in when he died. The Guardian called him a maverick musician “who famously turned down awards that others lusted after.” A fitting description of an incredible maestro.

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