Vilayat Khan: the king of strings

A new book on sitar maestro Vilayat Khan takes the reader on a musical ride through his life

Sitar Maestro Vilayat Khan
Sitar Maestro Vilayat Khan

Kuldeep Kumar

This is an unconventional biography of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan straddling the two very different worlds of fact and fiction. It is refreshing to note that author Namita Devidayal makes no bones about it. With a disarming candour, she informs us: “Therefore, rather than obsess about factual accuracy, I have tried to create an impressionistic fluid portrait—of a magnificent artiste and a fragmented human being. I have tried to imagine him and tell a story anchored in fact, but narrated with poetic licence, like improvising on a jazz standard. It would be a mistake to regard this strictly as a biography because I am not a historian but a lover of music and a storyteller.” (p.5)

However, one is constrained to say that no poetic licence would allow tweaking of established historical facts. Discussing various origin stories of sitar, the author informs us, “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.” (p.56). The fact is that Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) was a multi-faceted genius who held high-ranking positions in the courts of several Delhi Sultans including Alauddin Khilji and Muhammad bin-Tughlaq. He was an army general, courtier, music maestro, first poet of Hindi/Hindavi, as well as a highly regarded poet in Persian, and mystic. He was born in Patiali village in the present-day Etah district of Uttar Pradesh and had not come to India from any foreign land. Called “Tuti-e-Hind” (Parrot of India), he had proudly declared, “I am an Indian Turk and I can answer you in Hindi.” (preface, “Diwan, Ghurrat-ul-Kamal”).

The title of the book derives from the fact that Vilayat Khan replaced two bronze strings by a steel string and thus fashioned a six-string sitar that suited his instrumental style better and dispensed with the Pancham string. The Vilayat Khan sitar came to be known as Gandhar-Pancham sitar and it was easier to produce elements of Khayal vocalism on it. Although this has been presented as a unique innovation, the facts speak otherwise.

Not only instrumental music and its techniques but also musical instruments themselves have evolved over several centuries to enable musicians to give full and free expression to their creative urges. Sitar is no exception to this rule. As Ravi Shankar, belonging to the Senia-Beenkar tradition, played Dhrupad-based music, he needed a sitar that could produce the ati-kharaj sound. As he shed some light on his experiments, with the instruments in an interview with sitar player and academic Suneera Kasliwal in 1995, he too carried out certain changes in its structure to suit his style. His sitar is known as Kharaj-Pancham sitar.

The author has done extensive and painstaking research in India and abroad and this has turned this book into a veritable treasure trove of information about not only Vilayat Khan but also about the hereditary musicians’ families

It is also perplexing that, while, on one hand, the author begins her book with a famous episode that took place in 1952 and sowed the seeds of a life-long rivalry between Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan, informing us that the latter was “declared the de facto victor in the battle of sitars,” on the other, towards the end of the book, she not only says that “both probably knew deep within that comparison and competition in music was as pointless as comparing two stars in the Milky Way” but also approvingly quotes cultural critic Narayana Menon who said that the music world did not need two Ravi Shankars or two Vilayat Khans. “We want the individuality, the equipment, the achievement of each in his own respective field,” Menon had said. (p. 243)

In the field of creative arts, this can be the only sane position. Unless one is a blind devotee of either Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan, every music lover will have the highest respect and admiration for both of them because they were truly peerless. In fact, every creative artiste is unique in his or her own way and grading them does injustice to them and their art.

And yet, one finds the author averring that the “distinctive quality” of singing through his sitar made Vilayat Khan “arguably, a finer player than his lifelong adversary---Ravi Shankar.” (p.50) As the author happens to be a trained vocalist whose previous non-fiction book, The Music Room, was a delight to read, one is baffled by this statement. All instrumentalists sing through their instruments. Ravi Shankar sang in Dhrupad-style through his sitar, while Vilayat Khan sang in Khayal-style through his. The prevalent belief that Vilayat Khan and Amjad Ali Khan introduced gayaki-ang in sitar and sarod respectively is somewhat misleading unless one is willing to assert that Dhrupad is not a vocal style. What Vilayat Khan did was to effect a shift from the bol-based traditional instrumental style (tantrakari) to a freer khayal-based style in which producing vocalisms of khayal, thumri, dadra and folk to create an impression of a human voice was his artistic intention. In fact, there was a time when Vilayat Khan had fancied himself in the role of a Khayal singer as he had learnt a lot in Saharanpur from his maternal grandfather Bande Hasan Khan and his family members who were all Khayal singers. It was his mother who forced him to carry forward the sitar tradition of his father and forefathers. By sheer will power and dedication to his art, Vilayat Khan emerged as a peerless sitar maestro.

The author has done extensive and painstaking research in India and abroad and this has turned this book into a veritable treasure trove of information about not only Vilayat Khan but also about the hereditary musicians’ families. It tells the reader in detail about the sitar wizard’s illustrious musical lineage that included such awe-inspiring names as his father Enayat Khan and grandfather Imdad Khan, his relentless struggle and a desire to excel, the important role of his mother Basheeran Begum in giving direction to his life, his success that brought him material comfort, a penchant for good things in life including expensive cars, a collection of rare perfumes and ceaseless womanising, his complex personality that made him stingy, mean, jealous, generous, thoughtful, kind and authoritarian at the same time, and his sense of self-respect as well as pride. She tells us the hidden stories about the reasons behind the rift that took place between Vilayat Khan and his younger brother Imrat Khan and nephew Rais Khan, who has been erroneously described at one place as his brother-in-law. (p.247) Not only this, relations between him and his eldest son Shujaat too became very strained.

We also come to know from the book that Vilayat Khan was most influenced by four great Khayal exponents of the last century---Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan, the last named being his brother-in-law for some years. The book also tells us about the great personal bonding between Amir Khan and the sitar maestro despite his mother Basheeran Begum’s instruction to avoid the man who had divorced her daughter.

Vilayat Khan always considered himself a notch above Ravi Shankar and hated the fact that wherever he went outside India, he found that sitar had become synonymous with Ravi Shankar. He turned down every honour that the Government of India tried to bestow on him because it had gone to his bête noire earlier. At a time when the All India Radio had emerged as the biggest pan-Indian patron of music, only Vilayat Khan had the guts to boycott it.

The excellent collaboration between Vilayat Khan and the Namdhari sect’s spiritual guru Jagjit Singh also played a role in providing financial and spiritual stability to him, and so did the meticulous financial planning done by his disciple-friend Arvind Parikh, a wealthy businessman. He had homes in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Shimla, Mumbai, Dehradun and lastly Princeton where he spent his last years.

One can get glimpses of Vilayat Khan’s music in his son Shujaat Khan, nephews Nishat Khan and Shahid Parvez, and Buddhadiya Mukherjee, whose father had learnt from Vilayat Khan’s father Enayat Khan. Besides them, a very large number of instrumentalists have been influenced by his music.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines