Another stupendous and jaw-droppingly good Indian musician. Recently someone commented that the remark in the liner notes for Debashish Bhattacharya belittling Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was totally uncalled-for. That is true. However, the fact upon comparison that D. Bhattacharya completely blows VM Bhatt out of the water is also true (I’m great at inciting aggravation, huh? They don’t call me Irate for nuthin’). Similarly, if you compare Ustad Vilayat Khan with Pandit Ravi Shankar, you see that in fact there is no comparison. And I like Ravi and V.M. Bhatt! I think they’ve done very important work in spreading this music and appealing to a western audience. ‘Pandit’ means teacher. ‘Ustad’ means master. That, perhaps, is the difference. The Bhatts & Shankars spread the music (a tad watered-down, perhaps, but still beautiful) to a wider audience, and have an important role as teachers/ambassadors. But for the pure, unflinching, raw stuff you have to go with the masters. Ravi Shankar’s music is nice. Vilayat Khan’s is aggressive, powerful, unexpected, trancendent, mind-boggling. And yet, for all that, Ravi and his student VM Bhatt get the grammy’s, the recognition, the money, and the true masters get only the small crowd of devoted, hardcore fans. But I don’t just say these things to boost one fellow and demean another. I point to a difference in quality, because it leads to a different experience in listening: Vilayat’s music will reward your listening a great deal. As much, perhaps, as Nikhil Banerjee’s, Ali Akbar Khan’s, or Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s. Well, maybe not quite as good as ZM Dagar. But for excitement, you can’t beat it. I count it akin to Clarence White’s guitar playing: ceaselessly creative and unpredictable, never falling into a dull moment – and so the experience of listening is one of continual awakening, sometimes blissfully, sometimes rudely, but such is life. One only wishes Vilayat could have lived that life a little bit more, instead of being chained to his room to practice… but you can hear his yearning to break free in every beat. And that’s the power. !
Biography by Ken Hunt
Vilayat Khan, one of the greatest Hindustani musicians of the 20th century, was born in Gouripur in East Bengal (later Bangladesh) in August 1922. (Various other dates are strewn throughout the literature but that is the date that he confirmed in 1993.) His grandfather, Imdad Khan (1848-1920) and his father Enayat Khan (1894-1938) — Vilayat Khan gives the spelling Inayat Khan — were famed musicians in their lifetimes and Vilayat and his younger brother Imrat Khan inherited their musicality. Their gharana is known as the Imdadkhani gharana after their grandfather.
He studied initially with his father. On his father’s death in 1938 his training became the responsibility of his mother, Bashiran Begum, his grandmother, Bande Hussain Khan, and his maternal uncle, Wahid Khan. Around the same period Vilayat Khan began recording 78s. Peculiarly it is reported that he had to cope with odious comparisons with his father. Gradually he developed a style which, while acknowledging his kinsfolk’s contribution, spoke with his own distinctive voice. His most outstanding contribution to his gharana’s tradition is the evolution of what is known as a vocal style or gayaki ang on sitar. To some degree this is a term of convenience. Other contemporary musicians were striving to develop instrumental styles which more closely resembled the human voice — it was after all the goal of all instrumentalists to mimic as far as possible the human voice — and Vilayat Khan did not have a monopoly in this endeavor whatever some commentators claimed. That is not to detract from his achievement which was considerable and caused a sensation.
Vilayat Khan’s strides in compensating for the sitar’s shortcomings were immense. His career was marked by a regally consistent musical quality. An outspoken critic of low standards, he maintained levels of personal integrity that on occasion earned him the disfavor of the establishment. Little of his work was in any context other than the strictly classical one although he worked with Satyajit Ray on the soundtrack to the film Jalsaghar and the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film The Guru. He might be summed up as a keeper — not a quencher — of the flame.
As a performer, Vilayat Khan is the sixth generation of a renowned family of sitarists. Vilayat Khan’s great grandfather Ustad Sahabdat Khan gave the Surbahar (Bass Sitar) the final form that it has today. His grandfather, Ustad Imdad Khan, pioneered the Imdad Khani Gharana (tradition) of sitar technique. In this tradition, Ustad Imdad Khan brought human vocal profundity to the sitar, drawing upon khyal (Indian vocal technique). Vilayat Khan’s father and teacher, Ustad Inayat Khan, continued and expanded this traditon. Vilayat Khan has continued and expanded it as well. He has introduced his own innovations in sitar performance, including the ‘gayaki’ ang style of vocalization.
By the age of four, Vilayat Khan was playing the sitar. At eight, his first public performance catapulted him to fame. Since then, Vilayat Khan has performed throughout India, the United States and Europe, including concerts at Buckingham Palace, the enormous Royal Albert Hall, and the royal courts of Iran and Afghanistan. Often loudspeakers have had to be placed outside packed auditoriums to make his music available to disappointed fans who were turned away due to lack of seating.
Vilayat Khan has extensively recorded the traditional classical music of India and his own compositions within that tradition. Such compositions include his film scores, including scores for films by Satyajit Ray and by Merchant and Ivory.
Vilayat Khan is called “Aftaab-e-Sitar”, the radiant star of the sitar, a title conferred on him by the late President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Revered guitar genius Andres Segovia called Vilayat Khan “a genius one of the handful of the world’s greatest musicians.” The San Francisco Chronicle and Le Monde of Paris both called him “The greatest sitarist of the century.”
Ustad Inayat Khan – The Father and Guru
Born in 1894 in Uttar Pradesh Ustad Inayat Khan was the beloved father and Guru of Ustad Imrat Khan and Vilayat Khan. In the early 20th Century Ustad Inayat Khan moved his family to what is now their home in Calcutta. He was sponsored by many of the rich Indian families to play and help spread Indian culture in a country that was beginning its struggle for independence from the Raj. Calcutta was developing into the seat of art and culture in India and this is the city in which he chose to develop his gharana.
Ustad Inayat Khan was a master of Sitar and Surbahar. He developed the gayaki ang in sitar which his father had developed for the surbahar and his sons would further develop as a trademark of their gharana. He gave a new dimension to crafting and manufacture of the sitar and his structural modifications of the instrument are still used in the instruments of today whilst his musical contributions are standardised practice for today’s musicians. The flair with which he played made him the greatest musician of his generation and his legendary recordings illustrate and record the contributions he made to music.
Inayat Khan was a great ambassador for Indian classical music in India. He popularised the sitar and made it accessible for the general population. This was a time when many of the famous Indian music festivals were started. His music was the soul of India in those times of change and he had a great and unrivalled following throughout the country. This contribution to popular arts and culture can be illustrated by his friendship with Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary writer, artist and poet. Together these two giants of culture put poetry to music to bring it alive in some of the most famous Indian folk songs and anthems. Each inspired the other to take the arts of India to dizzying new heights.
Ustad Inayat Khan dedicated his life to music; He played, taught and lived with an equal passion to strengthen the name of his gharana and the profile of classical music in his country.
Ustad Vilayat Khan – Inayat
Label: Navras Records
This is a wonderful performance by the greatest sitarist of the past 65 years. The essence of his gharana’s long development of this raag is right here. It often sharply recalls to me his LP recording from back in the late sixties, and I now realise that then he was faithfully transmitting and further enriching what his father, the great Inayat Khan had bequeathed him. Now, with this recording, all that these two great artists – and much of what others have done as well – is preserved for posterity. Any flaw? Well yes, the recording quality is not quite up to the standard of that of most other of his recent live performances – but that is a mere quibble which I include to demonstrate that I am not merely raving! A must have for any true lover of this music!
“el violero viejo”, Joel R. van Lennep
Tracks 1 & 2:
and hear some of his brother, Imrat Khan over at RootBlog. (& again). You’ll probably find other VK there too…
and more VK at Henry’s Archive.