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Ustad Vilayat Khan and His Frenemy

Every musician makes choices, and Vilayat Khan had very deliberately chosen a certain path, one that looked within for depth rather than beyond, one that was solitary rather than collaborative.

Vilayat Khan did not merely play his sitar. He sang through it. It was this distinctive quality that made him, arguably, a finer player than his lifelong adversary — Ravi Shankar.

Perhaps every great artiste or sportsman needs a rival — someone to shadow box with, to bring out the best in them, to pull them out of complacency, to create a sense of self against a second-best. Vilayat Khan first met the person who would be his bête noire in Delhi, sometime in the 1940s, when he was a teenager working at All India Radio. The encounter took place in the home of the Shriram–Shankarlal family.

The Sixth String Of Vilayat Khan,
Namita Devidayal,
Context, 2018

They lived on Curzon Road, in two adjoining palatial houses separated by a skating rink, a swimming pool and a goat pen. Apart from building industrial empires, the Shriram– Shankarlals were generous supporters of the performing arts, inspired by an exciting new nationalist fervour. Having musicians teach them and stay in their home was as much a status symbol as owning an imported car.

The sitar first found its way into the Curzon Road home when some members of the family started learning from Baba Allauddin Khan. A corner room in the big house came to be known as ‘Baba ka kamra’, a space where he stayed, practised and taught. But since Baba couldn’t be in Delhi for long stretches, as his proxy he brought in the bright young student who would eventually become his son-in-law.

His name was Ravi Shankar.

One afternoon, Baba, his daughter Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar and some of the Shrirams were sitting around the big horseshoe-shaped rosewood dining table in the house when Lala Shriram’s young son Bharat Ram switched on the wireless radio. It crackled into the room and, within seconds, all conversation came to a halt because of the scintillating strumming that emerged from the box. It was raga Pilu. The final bits were breathtaking.

‘Subhanallah!’ Baba said softly into the silence that followed the performance. ‘Who is this?’

‘Let’s find out. We can send for the artiste. The station is only five minutes away,’ said Bharat Ram.

The family Dodge was sent to Akashvani Bhavan. It returned with a handsome young man, wearing a black kurta, loose pajamas and rimless spectacles. He said his salaams and didn’t smile much.

‘You are Enayat’s elder son?’

‘Yes, Baba.’

‘Your hand is supremely pakka, my boy. Well played.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I know your father is no more, God bless his soul, but if you ever want to continue your training, please come to me. It will be my privilege to teach the great Enayatbhai’s son. We have spent so many wonderful times together.’

‘Yes, Baba, certainly. Thank you.’

Vilayat Khan never returned to learn from him. But he did go across to the house a couple of times to play ping-pong with Bharat Ram’s eldest son Vinay, who had by then become Ravi Shankar’s devoted student.

On a brilliant afternoon sometime in early 1947, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and the Shrirams were sitting around the same rosewood table, chatting about the imminence of Indian independence. Four bearers stood behind them, still as statues. Among those present was Lala Shriram’s daughter-in-law, Sumitra Charat Ram, who would soon become patron queen of the performing arts.

Vilayat Khan. Credit: The Vilayat Khan Family

‘Lalaji, India is getting its independence, let us mark this great day with a grand musical celebration,’ said Ravi Shankar.

Lala Shankarlal, the music lover in the family, nodded enthusiastically.

‘It’s a great idea, Robu-da,’ said Sumitra Charat Ram. ‘You will, of course, perform. And who else shall we get?’ She turned around and addressed one of the bearers. ‘Shamsher Singh, can you please bring a pen?’

They drew up a list, getting more and more excited with each name they wrote down: every one of them the biggest musicians of the time. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Mushtaq Husain Khan.

The concert was held on the eve of Independence in the grand hall of their home. The entire house was lit up as if it were a wedding. From five in the evening, horse carriages and foreign cars filed into the massive portico, ferrying Delhi’s elite—musicians, businessmen, politicians. One guest whispered to his wife that this was the house where Jawaharlal Nehru once hid in the basement to escape the British.

They called the event ‘Jhankar’. It was such an enormous success that the family started hosting the festival on a regular basis at different historic venues across Delhi, including the Red Fort and the Constitution Club, where it became more or less permanently fixed. Within a few years, the Shrirams had formed the Bharatiya Kala Kendra, a performing arts academy, and the Jhankar Festival became a permanent annual feature. This was where India’s greatest artistes performed to an audience of passionate connoisseurs.

It was at a Jhankar concert in 1952 that Vilayat Khan stormed in to play with Ravi Shankar, pushing their relationship to a point from which there was no going back. Vilayat Khan was declared the de facto victor in the battle of the sitars.

As for the relationship between Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan and the Shriram–Shankarlal family, that too slowly morphed into a triangle of ambivalent love. The Shrirams were devoted to Ravi Shankar. They were equally in awe of the genius of Vilayat Khan—but not enough, according to the maestro himself.

Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan had two things in common— mastery over their instrument and unabashed self-absorption. But they came from very different worlds, which perhaps shaped the way they approached their music….

The elegant long-necked sitar was not always so popular. Like most things in India, this instrument has various origin stories. One school of thought attributes its invention to Amir Khusrau, the mystic musician who came to India in the thirteenth century, bringing with him elements from Persia. Another suggests that it is a descendent of the rudra veena or the been, an old Indian instrument often found in images of gods, for it has similar physical attributes—long-stemmed, wooden, with two gourds on either side.

The contemporary sitar has a wooden stem and the gourd is made of dried pumpkin. It is played by plucking with a plectrum or mizrab. There are six strings and numerous additional sympathetic or tarab strings under the main strings, pulled over a small flat bridge called jawari. These are tuned to the particular raga being played to enrich the sound. There are usually twenty frets along the stem.

Around the mid-nineteenth century, an instrument that loosely fell between the veena and the sitar also came into being—the surbahar, a bass sitar, with a heavier, more sombre sound. The surbahar is to the sitar what the cello might be to the violin…

Most sitar players were also trained to play the surbahar. Alauddin Khan chose to teach the surbahar to his daughter Annapurna Devi. While they were married, she and Ravi Shankar performed many duets of sitar and surbahar.

The wise Basheeran Begum had decided very early on that her elder son Vilayat would play the sitar and her younger, Imrat, the surbahar, demarcating territories, much as a patriarch might carve out two separate land holdings for his sons. By doing this, she also ensured that the legacy of both instruments stayed alive…

Over the years, the surbahar receded from the public imagination. It was the sitar that eventually caught on, because of its versatility and easy melodic qualities. By the mid-twentieth century, the two major streams of sitar were the Maihar gharana, represented by Ravi Shankar, and the Etawah gharana, named after the original home of Vilayat Khan’s ancestors. Other stylistic schools in sitar include the Indore gharana, the contemporary master of which was Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. There was also Nikhil Banerjee, a master sitar player whose music has been described as a happy medium between the Vilayat Khan and the Ravi Shankar schools.

Yet, for the world at large, the sitar became synonymous with two words: Raaaavi Shankerr, which is how the Western world said his name.

Because they were contemporaries, Ravi Shankar—or, more specifically, his maddening fame—remained an undercurrent in Vilayat’s life. Even though music lovers discreetly spoke of Vilayat Khan’s music with more reverence, the masses were not as discerning. This would often drive Khansahib crazy. Over the years, his bitter references to Ravi Shankar became legendary and people just learned to roll their eyes or take sides.

And yet, both had tremendous respect for each other. While researching this book, I kept trying to find that sensational angle which would transform a boring biography into a page-turner, and the one that seemed most obvious was the rivalry between the two sitar players, which I could fashion into an epic story, as Milos Forman did with Antonio Salieri and Amadeus Mozart in the film Amadeus.

But then I realised that every musician makes choices, and Vilayat Khan had very deliberately chosen a certain path, one that looked within for depth rather than beyond, one that was solitary rather than collaborative. It would not lead to sharing record sleeves with famous pop stars, and it would not make him famous among the musically naive. But it is what he chose. He served as a reminder that there are spaces more intoxicating than fame. As Hans Utter wrote, compared to Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan made his life and art ‘a narrative of resistance’.

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In 2000, the Indian government announced Ravi Shankar’s Bharat Ratna. The front page of The Times of India carried a controversial piece in which Pandit Jasraj, one of India’s most highly regarded singers, declared publicly that Vilayat Khan deserved India’s principal award over Ravi Shankar.

It’s not as if Khansahib did not care. He did. Sometimes he checked how much Ravi Shankar was getting from concert organisers and asked for just a little more. But the rivalry was dramatised by their students and the buzzing bees of the music world rather than the two artistes themselves. Both probably knew deep within that comparison and competition in music was as pointless as comparing two stars in the Milky Way.

The cultural critic Narayana Menon had once said of them: ‘To have two sitar players in our midst of the calibre of Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar is a measure of the vitality of the music scene. We need them both to widen our horizons and enrich our experience. Two Ravi Shankars would not have served the same purpose. Nor two Vilayat Khans. We want the individuality, the equipment, the achievement of each in his own respective field.’

The issue became a talking point in the music world but life went on, and Vilayat Khan continued to play, teach and, even at that age, be a student of music. Neither fame nor the frailty of age stopped him from wanting to learn something new to bewitch his audiences, to bring them closer to him. When he was about seventy, Khansahib was on his annual winter excursion from Princeton to Calcutta. His loyal friend Jayanta-da arrived at the airport to receive him in his familiar old Ambassador. As they drove to his flat in Hastings, Vilayat Khan turned to his friend.

‘Jayanta babu, did you find him?’

‘I did, I did,’ Jayanta-da said, looking away and squirming at his own lie.

Credit: The Vilayat Khan Family

For about a year, Vilayat Khan had been murmuring about a folk song in raga Bhatiyali that he had heard many years ago. He remembered the tune but couldn’t recall the words. All he remembered was that there was a boat, a river and a supari tree, and that it was beautiful and mournful. Whenever he spoke to Jayanta-da on the phone from Princeton, he brought it up. Find me that song …

At first, Jayanta-da dismissed it as one of Khansahib’s whimsies. But here he was, many months later, and it was the first thing he was asking for. He couldn’t procrastinate anymore. When Vilayat Khan wanted something, he made sure he got it. He became obsessed.

In the 1950s, he had been part of an Indian government sponsored cultural delegation to Russia. As the lights dimmed in the grand Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the Russian sopranos’ voices soared divinely, the young Vilayat Khan started worrying about how the Indian performers could match this beauty. That was when one of the delegates, a Bengali folk singer called Nirmalendu Chowdhury, went on stage and sang the startlingly beautiful song that Khansahib was now haunted by.

Like many magical memories that get eroded in the flow of life, the words of the song had gone. What remained was the emotion. Now, so many years later, he wanted to sing the song. The folk singer had long since died, but his son Utpalendu Chowdhury was singing the same songs. Jayanta-da managed to get in touch with him. He called him that very day and said that Vilayat Khan wanted to meet him. The surprised singer agreed to come across…

The folk singer arrived in the morning. Vilayat spoke to him about the cultural delegation to Moscow and the lovely time he had with his father. Then he got straight to the point. He brought up the boat and the trees and hummed the tune.

‘Can you teach it to me?’

Utpalendu looked aghast. ‘Sure,’ he mumbled…

Vilayat Khan sat on the floor next to him.

‘What are you doing, Khansahib? You can’t sit there. Please sit on the couch.’

‘No, I am fine here. Today, I am the student and you are the teacher.’

Utpalendu smiled. He shut his eyes and sweetly sang the song for Vilayat Khan. Khansahib smiled as well as he wrote the words on a piece of paper in Urdu.

About a month later, Vilayat Khan was performing at the Ramakrishna Mission outside Calcutta. He announced, ‘I want you to hear this folk tune which I had heard Nirmalendu Chowdhury sing many many years ago. It is an ode to all the boatmen who drift along the rivers of Bengal …’

He sang it beautifully, and the audience found themselves immersed in all the beauty and sadness of their land…

The thing about Vilayat Khan is that he may have been an ustad, good and proper, but he never stopped being a student. His battery never died—neither did his sense of humour.

Sometime after this, Vilayat was checking in at the British Airways first-class counter at JFK Airport in New York. He was on his way to a concert in Europe. His son Hidayat was accompanying him. The big brown Paxman leather sitar case was taken off the trolley and placed in front of the attendant.

‘Sir, what does this contain?’

‘It’s a sitar,’ Khansahib grunted with some irritation. ‘An Indian instrument.’

‘A seetaaaar!’ The British Airways man at the counter suddenly became animated. ‘I know Raaaavi Shankar. I love Raaaaavi Shankar. I love what he did with the Beatles. Do you know Raaaaavi Shankar?’ Vilayat Khan scowled at him. He’d been through this ridiculous routine so often and yet it irked him every single time, always triggering a mildly nauseous sensation.

Then, suddenly, he grinned widely and said, ‘Of course I know him. Didn’t you hear, he died this morning? It’s so terribly sad. You’ll hear it on the news, I’m sure.’

Hidayat almost choked on his blueberry muffin. He twisted his lips in an effort not to laugh, then spun around so that he could hide his face. He didn’t know whether to be shocked or amused or embarrassed by his father’s unorthodox behavior. Then it hit him, again. This was Vilayat Khan. Enough said.


Excerpted with permission from The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan, by Namita Devidayal, published by Westland/Context, November 2018.

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