His music, his life

Print edition : February 15, 2019
This fictionalised narrative portrays Ustad Vilayat Khan as an individual and a musician, often stressing on the contradictory nature of these selves.

During my high school days, HMV House was a favourite haunt. Thanks to informed managers who ran the music store, one always returned with more than what one had gone looking for. On one such expedition, the discovery of two priceless gems—Nikhil Banerjee’s rendition of Raag Megh and Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Raag Yaman—came to change the way I experienced and assimilated music. Even in those years, when I was not much of an informed listener, I found their music impassioned and ruminative. They became holy texts, and remain so.

Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Vilayat Khan were also extraordinary human beings, as one learnt through available writings and talk within music circles. Nikhil Banerjee, the quiet and austere musician, was no more by the time I discovered him; Ustad Vilayat Khan, the radical and maverick, fought every kind of authority that spelt danger for his music. In a way, both these musicians had shunned fame and popularity in order to keep their art unsullied. The way they held on to their art was akin to what the Sermon on the Mount or the Bhagavad Gita said about condemning the superficiality of materialism and “seeking” God’s kingdom first.

I had the good fortune of meeting Ustad Vilayat Khan in 1999, on his last visit to Bengaluru. He was 71 then, but it was clear that he was still thinking of riyaz (practice) when he spoke to me about the billiards champion Willie Hoppe: “Every morning he locked himself in a room with a jar of milk and a few sandwiches. He practised for 18 hours. What’s my sadhana of 14 hours before him…?”

When The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan by Namita Devidayal hit the stands, it spelt expectation and hope. Her earlier book, The Music Room, on the vocalist Dhondutai Kulkarni, was a moving experience. Also, none of the lists that put out maestros of Indian music have either Ustad Vilayat Khan or Nikhil Banerjee in them. To bring Ustad Vilayat Khan into public memory is an act of enormous significance.

The 264-page book, with 15 chapters, has mostly to do with the life of Ustad Vilayat Khan—his journeys, his intimate relationships, his quarrels and fights, his idiosyncrasies, and so on. As is the case with most biographies, this, too, has stories in abundance—some of him as a musician, and plenty that speak of him as Vilayat Khan the man. Vilayat Khan left home in search of a guru after the early demise of his father, Ustad Enayat Khan, a spectacular musician. He came under the tutelage of several gurus, among them D.T. Joshi, Bande Hasan Khan and Zinda Hasan Khan, Wahid Khan and Khan Mastana. He grew, in life and music, under his mother Basheeran Begum’s watchful gaze, and her shrewd manipulation ensured that Vilayat Khan kept to his pedigree. The other person whose music had a great impact on Vilayat Khan was Ustad Amir Khan.

Ustad Vilayat Khan found a friend and disciple in Arvind Parikh, with whom he had a lasting relationship. In fact, speaking of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s love for his disciple Amir Khusrau, Vilayat Khan wished the world to remember him and Arvind Parikh in the same way (this does not feature in the book, though). It is also a matter of surprise that Kolkata, where the maestro spent six months of the year and often remembered his father’s disciple Sripathi Charan Das, who taught him Bengali, does not find prominence of place in the book.

There are repeated references to Vilayat Khan’s weakness for women and worldly acquisitions. In fact, it appears as a constant refrain, lest the reader forget. Vilayat Khan loved to dress well, look good, went to great lengths to acquire his Mercedes, threw a party in celebration, moved in elite circles, loved his food and drink, and loved to cook as well. There are stories about his interest in car mechanics and tailoring. He was mischievous and outspoken, radical as a listener but traditional as a student and as a performer. Nothing was an obstacle in his relationship with music—not fame, money nor opportunity. For a good part of his life, he lived in Bohemian abandon, and one day, the futility of it all made him give up city life and move to a quiet life in Shimla. In his short story “Family Happiness”, the writer Leo Tolstoy speaks of wanting “the excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love”; in Ustad Vilayat Khan’s case, this “love” was music. His estrangement with his brother Imrat Khan and son Shujaat and even his anger against Pandit Ravi Shankar were all for the cause of music.

There are two instances to support this reading in the book: one is how the Ustad held a pistol to the head of a musician who refused to teach him a piece of music; two, how, every night, he played music to an unwell Jawaharlal Nehru until he fell asleep. What is even more moving is how he would sleep with his sitar by his side as a young man, and how in his later years, he played an imaginary sitar in his sleep.

The book portrays him both as an individual and as a musician, often stressing on the contradictory nature of these selves. His metaphysical leanings as a musician and the worldly human being—the self and the other is drawn out in length. The narrative strategy of the book is similar to that of piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Hence, as in the jigsaw puzzle, you see the lines, the schisms. But in the case of legends and extremely complex personalities such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, would it suffice to understand him in binaries and fractions? The narrative discourse of the life and music of Vilayat Khan, which I see as a seamless expression, should be more like a treasure hunt. You go on peeling the external layers of clues and directions to get to the essence, the treasure itself.

Picture with many divisions

Namita Devidayal does an amazing job of unearthing facts and unheard of stories, but the book presents the Ustad more like a picture with many divisions. The narrative tone seems to rest its faith more in the appearance than in the unseen registers.

From whatever writing is available on the Ustad, the other was always embedded in the self. It is evident in the way he answers questions in several interviews. Here is a sample: “I do not accept awards given by corrupt, biased and foolish persons. At first I rejected an award in 1964 proposed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi whose procedure for the selection of award nominees was based on prejudices. At the same time, I wish to make it clear that I am the saddest person after rejecting the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Though I have been awarded by many countries for my art and performances, I am pained that I could not get due regard in my own country.”

Also: “Really, I do not like innovations. Our classical music has innumerable ragas and raginis covering our finest thoughts and emotions as well. Those creating new ragas are unwise and propelled by a sense of cheap popularity. For example: Ravi Shankar. Yes, I am boldly saying that by his so-called innovations, Ravi Shankar is degrading the field of classical music.”

Fritz Staal, the renowned philosopher, has an interesting observation to make about Indian rituals. He says they are neither meaningless nor mere symbols, but a language—just like individual words in a sentence have no meaning, but only as a cluster when they come together. Extending the same understanding to appearance and intent, Vilayat Khan existed in the sum total of all his practices. He was creating himself, narrating himself and finally transcending himself. Ustad Vilayat Khan, like Indian music, had no aesthetic culmination; he was constantly working on himself, and with that came all the inner turbulence and restlessness, manifesting themselves in various ways.

The author calls the book a fictionalised narrative: it is difficult not to gasp when the lady in powder pink chiffon is described as “enticing as the glass of champagne”, and furthering stereotypes about women, the writer describes Chandbala as “in the backseat combing her long curly hair and peering into the mirror”, etc.

The casual use of words such as “guts” to describe something as sturdy as conviction, or a sweeping phrase such as “post-feudal India”, which is sensitive to neither time nor geography, are annoying.

The clinching passage comes in the early part of the book (page 58), when Namita Devidayal speaks of the choices an individual makes and sums up Ustad Vilayat Khan’s life and art as what the musicologist Hans Utter called a “narrative of resistance”.

I think the best piece of writing I have read so far on Ustad Vilayat Khan is by the musicologist Deepak Raja. In his essay “Ustad Vilayat Khan: The orthodox revolutionary”, he writes: “Vilayat Khan’s was a personality shaped by the conviction that it was destined to leave its mark on the world. He would not have been happy with just being the greatest sitarist; he had to be amongst the all-time greats of Hindustani music. This set him on a path of passionate absorption of the tradition, unrelenting innovation and the pursuit of superhuman standards of perfection in the execution of his musical vision…. He saw the artist as having a hotline to God, and artistic expression as a ‘Revelation’, which audiences ought to receive in a spirit of reverence. The core of elitism in his personality never allowed him to drift towards titillation, populism or kitsch…. He stuck steadfastly to his values, and willingly paid the price for so doing.”

I remain an admirer of Namita Devidayal’s earlier work, The Music Room.

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