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Ustad of the sitar

13 years after his passing, a look back at the contributions of sitar virtuoso, Ustad Vilayat Khan, to classical music

Ustad of the sitar
Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Ustad Vilayat Khan who died thirteen years ago was probably the greatest sitar player. In the last century, the rise of the sitar has been attributed to three great players — Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Sharif Khan, as all three developed a distinct ang. Ravi Shankar mixed the sarod with the sitar; and Sharif Khan, the veena to extend the scope of the instruments while Vilayat Khan stuck to the inherited excellence of honing the gaiki ang.

After independence, India skilfully incorporated culture as part of its foreign policy and thus was able to project itself as a very art friendly society across the world. It was successful in cultivating an image that rested on the brilliance of its ancient classical traditions which were more durable, sustainable and time tested rather than being the ephemeral product as an outcome of the popular taste. There was clear separation between the classical and the popular in the first few decades and the classical was promoted much more than the popular. From the many that benefited from this approach were the instrumentalists, classical instrumentalists whose music was independent of lyrics. Howsoever limited, lyrics are still employed in the kheyal and dhrupad and many perceived it as a limiting shackle compared to the non-verbal communication of pure instrumental music. The instrumentalists, particularly the sitar nawaz and the tabla nawaz were the first to benefit the most, while shahnai, santoor and bansuri were to follow hard on the heels as well. The vocalists, though admired and respected, were just not able to achieve the same level of admiration and cult following as the instrumentalists, particularly the sitar nawaz-es.

Ravi Shankar was to benefit the most from this surge and became a cult figure, the guru of spirituality that the sound of the sitar was supposed to represent. In the decade of the 1960s with a rebellion of sorts against material-based culture, this alternative sound or vision was welcomed by those who espoused counter culture. Ravi Shankar was helped in all this by his exposure to the West which he had experienced as a boy travelling as a dancer/ instrumentalist in his brother’s (Uday Shanker’s) troupe during the interwar years. He had linkages with persons and organisations as well as an extroverted personality.

Vilayat Khan practiced up to fourteen hours a day, honing his skills to make him a master sitar nawaz and an accomplished vocalist as well.

Vilayat Khan was more of an introvert and stayed home in those years in India; but he benefited from the general upsurge in the adulation and glamourisation of classical music in the western cultural capitals of the world. So when he stepped out of the country, where he was admired and appreciated by the connoisseurs, he found a conducive environment ready to receive, appreciate and adulate him. His ancestry was impeccable: His grandfather Ustad Imdad Khan was responsible for instituting the sitar as a solo instrument. It was probably played as an accompanying instrument and that too more for the purposes of percussion. His father, Ustad Enayat Khan was the leading sitar player of his times. Unfortunately, he died in his early forties leaving Vilayat Khan, a teenage boy to fend for himself in an age that saw so many exceptional musicians. His extended family came to his rescue and he received   vocal training from his maternal grandfather, Ustad Bande Hussain Khan and uncle Ustad Zinde Hussain Khan.

Vilayat Khan practiced up to fourteen hours a day, honing his skills to make him a master sitar nawaz and an accomplished vocalist as well. Solo creative modifications had also to be made during the playing of these instruments. The sitar was modified such that the alaap, jhor and jhala could be played with facility in the exploration of a raag. The pattern of the kheyal was adopted as it followed the alaap, bandish in the vilampat lai and then its culmination in the drut tempo. He was a purist who only made experiments and innovations within strictly defined parameters. There are plenty of experiments in his music and in the modifications of the sitar but these are nowhere like attempting to strike a common chord with another musical system or fusing a duet with totally alien sounds. The creative innovations were dictated by the changing sensibility but within the given musical scheme. No other sitar player has matched his exploration of the raag in the vilampat lai and his big repertoire of guts. His creativity was best expressed in the various musical phrases that flowed from his sitar, and the process seemed endless as if inspired by divinity.  He cut an image of a prototype artiste. Mercurial and a bit withdrawn, he was farthest from the world of advertisement and self-promotion. He may have been self-centered and haughty, but he was very much a part of the ancient world of fixed realities and a perception of timelessness, best expressed in the eternal nature of his music. He was often cited along with a couple of other virtuosos as the epitome of classical music. His music became the authorised version which others referred to in matters of musical debates and problems.

In today’s world, the musical expression has changed considerably. Besides the massive ingress of technology, the exposure to world music has brought about fundamental changes in the way the various cultures of the world perceive, evaluate their local national cultures and draw strength from it. In this very eclectic and polyglot scene, musicians are warding off and absorbing many strains and influences at the same time. It is clear that much has changed now and things are never going to be the same again. The other male members of the family are carrying the tradition in these changed times of the classical sitar into the twenty-first century. His son Shujaat Hussain Khan is a very talented player, his two nephews, the sons of Imrat Khan — Irshad and Nishat — are excellent players, and so are his relations Ustad Shahid Pervez and Ustad Raees Khan. Some of their shagirds are also at par with their ustads in the sheer quality of playing.

(Vilayat Khan died on March 13, 2004)

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore


  • Sudeshna Chakraborty

    Ali Sahab,

    Thank you so much for the insightful write up. We cherished every knowledge you have shared written skillfully.
    Just wondering, why there was no mention of his youngest son Hidayat Husain Khan, a brilliant sitar player and vocalist well-versed in the gayaki-ang?

    • Many thanks to Ali Saab for this excellent article…however I am a little skeptic about the comment on Pt. Ravi Shankar mixing sitar with sarode – this is very strange and I have not heard this ever before. Rather his playing the sitar; specially the alap and jod were very much in the Been ang.

      I have not heard about Sharif ji; maybe that’s my fault: but I still think he should not be mentioned at par with such great players as Pt. Ravi Shankar & Ustad Vilayat Khan sab. Rather I think one can easily mention Pt. Nikhil Banerjee in the same league – that’s my firm belief. ..

  • Thanx a lot Ali Saab for your brilliant article. In this regard I would like to add only one more aspect about Vilayat Khan and that was his personality. He had a very majestic aura around him and created a tremendous romantic atmosphere. It almost seemed as if he had come out straight from the pages of Arabian Nights. His voice coupled with his Urdu pronounciations & his habit of singing brilliant bandishes simply left listeners spellbound and we saw a glimpse of Divinity in Vilayat Khan.

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