Khan of grace

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

Ustad Vilayat Khan, 1924-2004.

USTAD VILAYAT KHAN slipped away quietly on the evening India won the first One Day International cricket match in Karachi. In the ensuing euphoria and self-congratulatory messages that flooded the media, this important news lay buried and surfaced a full day later. With his death an important era in music is almost drawing to a close. The great quartet who gave Indian instrumentalists a world reputation and infinite musical prestige has suffered another blow. Nikhil Bannerjee (1930-1986), the youngest in this group, passed away almost two decades ago. The elders, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, both born in 1920, still continue to enrich the musical realm. In post-Independence India, such was the collective power of this quartet that it almost overturned the traditional hierarchy which accorded a higher position to vocal music.

Vilayat Khan fully deserved to be called "Ustad", an honour that seems to come rather easily these days to young musicians. It was also in keeping with his own image as a traditionalist of yore with an impressive lineage to match. Like erstwhile nawabs and maharajahs, Vilayat Khan flaunted his grand pedigree without humility. Pictures of the maestro in flashy sherwanis with portraits of his elders in the background, adorn the covers of many of his LPs. He did have every reason to boast about his lineage. His grandfather Imdad Khan (1848-1920) and father Enayet Khan (1894-1938) were celebrated sitarists revered much by musicians and listeners alike.

Yet, unfortunately for Vilayat Khan, his father died while he was in his teens, depriving him of the gharanedar talim that was his due. But his father's legacy had been preserved by his disciples, and it was one such modest and self-effacing disciple, D.T. Joshi, who taught young Vilayat the basic ropes of his gharana. Joshi was himself influenced by the Agra maestro Faiyaz Khan and this certainly rubbed off on young Vilayat too. He also learnt music from his maternal grandfather Bande Hasan Khan and his son Zinda Hasan who were court musicians in the hill principality of Nahan. His elder sister married vocalist Amir Khan (1912-1974), whose influence on Vilayat Khan was profound.

In an interview that he gave Gyan Seth on Doordarshan a few years ago, Vilayat Khan placed Amir Khan alone on one side of a divide, placing all other contemporary vocalists on the other. It is through Amir Khan that many critics traced the influence of Kirana gharana in Vilayat Khan's music. What Vilayat Khan lacked in traditional learning, he made up by his own industry, perseverance and active listening. People who remember Vilayat Khan's early baithaks in the 1950s and 60s in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) testify to his phenomenal memory of traditional vocal bandishes. But what made his style distinctive and transcendent can only be attributed to his genius.

Vilayat Khan made much of his own style, which he borrowed from vocalism and called the gayaki ang. This attribute, often misunderstood, has taken a mystical life all of its own. There is for instance no instrumentalist who would deny playing gayaki today. The fountainhead of classical Hindustani tradition is vocal music and to that extent all instrumentalists are only expected to elaborate the superior vocal tradition. But what Vilayat Khan did was indeed distinctive. He reproduced on the sitar the vocalisms, that is, the flourishes associated with the newer khyal tradition like meends, gamaks and so on, even borrowing some stylistic idioms from thumri. It was the incorporation of the latter that made his renditions of ragas like Bhairavi and Desh so delightful.

This point becomes clear when one compares inevitably his style with that of his great contemporary Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankar's development of a raga is based on hallowed dhrupad whose structured note-by-note elaboration leading to a climax is carefully woven through an innate sense of composition. By contrast, Vilayat Khan drew more on the madhyalaya and drut compositions from the khyal repertoire, embellishing these with his superb and unmatched technique. He removed the string for the lower octave in the sitar since these notes were not used much by vocalists, and used instead other stylistic innovations such as rhythmic passages on the additional sympathetic strings with brilliant effect. He can rightly and controversially be credited with developing the freedom of the khyal to its zenith. Perhaps that is why critics often described his long meandering alaaps as lacking in raagdaari (correct raga grammar). India's finest music critic Chetan Karnani has perceptively described Vilayat Khan's style as "waywardly romantic". It is important to place this in the correct historical perspective. Contemporary instrumentalists in Kolkata, notably the sitarist Mushtaq Ali Khan (1911-1989) and the sarodist Radhika Mohan Moitra (1917-1981), also made the move to enrich the rather staccato instrumental styles by drawing on the richer vocal repertoires. But although they were great musicians none of them had the flamboyance Vilayat Khan exuded.

Vilayat Khan's public career was contentious and controversial. His competition with his slightly older contemporary Ravi Shankar is legendary. It is to the credit of the latter that he has suffered Vilayat Khan's barbs and innuendoes with dignified and sometimes good-humoured silence. Music critics and music historians were wary of Vilayat Khan's public tantrums, and most of them dismissed these histrionics indulgently as idiosyncratic misbehaviour. What they have failed to discern is Vilayat Khan's life-long tussle with the Indian establishment. In post-Independence India the public sphere increasingly came to be dominated by smug Brahminical nationalists. Vilayat Khan felt his exclusion keenly and it is for this reason that he always rejected official honours. I have heard well-meaning Bengalis complain that Vilayat Khan only spoke pidgin Bengali despite having spent a good part of his life in Kolkata. He probably did this on purpose, to keep a distance from the all-knowing and stifling patronage circles of Bengali babus.

Despite this Vilayat Khan became a much-sought-after star and the high fee he commanded in the festival circuit was often discussed with awe and amazement. The index to his popularity can be gauged from the fact that HMV, at one time India's premier recording company, brought out more than a dozen LPs of the maestro, a number rivalled only by Ravi Shankar and Bhimsen Joshi. Some of his greatest renderings can be found in these old discs (now also available as cassettes/CDs). Perhaps the most accomplished of his recordings is Gara (with Zakir Hussain on the tabla). This was a testimony to the enduring influence that Agra had on Vilayat Khan's musical personality. He was also well known for his recording of Jaijaiwanti, another raga made popular by the Agra maestro Faiyaz Khan. He recorded this raga twice, once in 1969 on LP and again in 1991 for the American aficionado Lyle Wachovsky on CD for the Indian Archive Music label. His other celebrated recordings include Darbari (particularly the alaap), Saazgiri (especially the gat) and a long recording of Yaman. His own composition, the raga Saanjh Saravali, was appreciated much; later in his life he invented another raga, which he indulgently named Vilayat Khan Kanada (recordings of both these are available on the HMV label). His duets with shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan were very popular. He will also be remembered for his superb score for Satyajit Ray's Jalshaghar (The Music Room). A little more than a year ago he published a book of memoirs in Bengali, Komal Gandhar, a series of informal conversations with journalist Shankarlal Bhattacharya.

Vilayat Khan's principle disciples include his brother Imrat Khan and son Shujaat Khan, Kashinath Mukherjee (he is the late film-maker Hrishikesh Mukherjee's brother), Kalyani Roy from Kolkata, and Arvind Parekh from Mumbai. But the liquid grace and beauty of his style is best represented today by Shahid Parvez, not a direct disciple but from the same lineage of musicians.

Vilayat Khan, born in 1924 in Gouripur (now in Bangladesh), died in Mumbai on March 13, 2004.

Partho Datta is a Reader in History in Zakir Hussain Evening College, Delhi University.

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