For aficionados of sitar, it is either Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan. Both were epochal, and the modern sitar owes everything to these two amazing musicians. The rivalry was mostly one-sided. Shankar had worked as a music director at the All India Radio and received government honours; Vilayat rejected both. And Vilayat’s continuous barbs did not affect Shankar’s spectacular world career.
It was a question of pedigree for Vilayat. After all, Shankar was an outsider, who had trained with a maverick first-generation maestro, while Vilayat’s grandfather Imdad Khan and father Enayat Khan were acknowledged maestros. And here was the irony. Vilayat was a precocious 10 when his father died. He was left to his own resources, the goodwill of his father’s disciples and the dedicated ambition of his widowed mother.
Devidayal, the biographer, is very good at ferreting out facts about the hazy early years of apprenticeship. Vilayat was taught by his maternal grandfather and uncle; the vocalists Bande Hasan and Zinda Hasan Khan of Saharanpur; D.T. Joshi, a disciple of his father; Wahid Khan, his paternal uncle; and Khan Mastana, his cousin. Most of all, he absorbed repose and inwardness from Amir Khan, who was briefly married to Vilayat’s sister and who went on to have a trailblazing career as a vocalist. Very early on, Vilayat had the patronage of AIR honcho Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari in Delhi and the friendship of Arvind Parikh, a wealthy merchant in Bombay. The support from Calcutta was important too, though it’s thinly documented in this biography. Basheeran
Begum, Vilayat’s mother, looms large throughout. She was, by all accounts, astute on music matters. In a story recounted by the music critic Mohan Nadkarni and missed by Devidayal, she had secretly kept a written record of raga compositions and offered this valuable collection to her father and brother in exchange of lessons to her eldest son.
Vilayat’s music was modern. Closer to the vocal graces of khayal and thumri, the famed gayaki style he pioneered differed in tone and flavour from the traditionalist dhrupad-based approach of Shankar. In life too, Vilayat tried to be modern. In early adulthood, he cultivated a love of clubs, expensive cars, liquor and ballroom dancing. Then, in a remarkable move, he abandoned the metropolis and moved to Shimla. The seclusion helped him grow into a mature performer. But his marriage unravelled in a few years, and his relationship with his mother and brother Imrat became strained as the latter emerged as a talented instrumentalist. His relationship with his children was uneven too, especially with his first born, Shujaat.
Driven by Devidayal’s smart prose, the narrative combines fact with fiction though it veers on the glib with flourishes like ‘paan stained heart’. She has a keen sense of place, which had made descriptions of Bombay in her earlier best-selling The
Music Room, such a delight to read.n
Vilayat Khan clashed with Ravi Shankar, yet laboured in his shadow
THE SIXTH STRING OF VILAYAT KHAN by NAMITA DEVIDAYAL Context380 pages; `699