They were the two greatest sitar players of the post-independence generation and lifelong adversaries. Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar were contemporaries who played together on stage only once, in 1952, when the former stole the show. Journalist and author Namita Devidayal explores this unique rivalry in The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan (Westland Publications), her brilliant new biography of the mercurial Hindustani classical musician, from which this piece is excerpted.
1952, Delhi. It had been five years since Independence and India was still in the mood for celebration. Two young string musicians were performing together at the Constitution Club grounds—a sitar player called Ravi Shankar and a sarod player whose name was Ali Akbar Khan. Both were in their early thirties and students of Baba Allauddin Khan, an ambidextrous musician with a goatee, famous for his genius and his temper.
The concert was part of the Jhankar Festival. There was tremendous anticipation around this particular performance and the music fraternity had been buzzing for days. Ravi Shankar had already astonished the world by creating an orchestra for the new All India Radio. Ali Akbar, who happened to be Baba’s son, was emerging as one of the most refined musicians of his generation. Accompanying them that evening were two tabla masters from Banaras, Kanthe Maharaj and his nephew Kishan.
A covered stage had been constructed on the grounds. The musicians walked up, one behind the other, all wearing white. While they were tuning their instruments, a young man in a black kurta and rimless glasses suddenly appeared in front of the stage, clutching his sitar. He addressed the audience in beautiful Urdu. ‘This stage has so many gorgeous flowers. I would like to add my fragrance by joining my friends Robu-da and Alu-da this evening.’
A murmur of surprise went around the audience. The performance was meant to be a duet. Who was this? Although he spoke poetically, this man had the air of a human detonator. He held his instrument as if it were a weapon, pointing it at phantom enemies. His eyes blazed behind the glasses he wore.
Some recognised him as Vilayat Hussain Khan, the son of Enayat Hussain Khan. A few people started cheering. Baba Allauddin Khan gestured angrily from the front row, trying to stop the duo from becoming a trio, but by then the audience had already expressed its excitement over the intervention and it was too late. The young man jumped onto the stage and the other musicians made space for him.
Baba walked up to the stage and growled at all three: ‘Remember, you are all my children. Play with love and respect.’
It was a formidable stage. Ali Akbar sat in the centre, looking vaguely daunted. On either side of him sat the two sitar players, both strikingly good-looking men with large foreheads suggesting grand destinies. Kanthe Maharaj was on one side of the stage. Kishan Maharaj sat on the other side, kneeling in his distinctive manner, as if he were doing namaz. Two grand Miraj tanpuras at the back and two Chicago Radio mikes in front—it was a picture of perfect melodic symmetry.
In the front row sat the undisputed heads of the music world and Delhi’s wealthiest patrons, including the Shriram–Shankarlal family. The men were dressed in stylish achkans or suits, the women in gorgeous Banarasi silk saris. They rustled. They coughed. The master of ceremonies introduced the musicians.
Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan photographed with other musical greats in Delhi, in the early 1950s
Ravi Shankar made the customary gesture asking for permission to begin. He then struck the notes of raga Manj Khamaj. He played for a few minutes then turned to Vilayat Khan, giving him the cue. The younger musician played the same riff, but in a more lilting style. They meandered through the alaap for almost an hour, building gradually, thoughtfully, teasing the ma, the raga’s dominant note, the ‘manj’ in the Khamaj.
At some point, it became evident to the audience that a subtle musical duel was taking place. By the time the faster taans started, the notes had become sharp arrows shot with the intention to annihilate. Ali Akbar Khan hardly got to play, so after a while he quietly put his sarod down and looked bewildered. His head turned from left to right and right to left as the sharpshooters on either side battled on.
At one point, Ravi Shankar hit a set of high notes in the third octave. Like a kite catching its prey, Vilayat Khan scooped up the lid of his little metal oil box and, instead of using his fingers, pressed it on the strings of his instrument. The sound that emerged, of amplified metal on metal, was audacious and amazing. Suddenly, Hafiz Ali Khan got up from his seat and applauded. ‘Maar daala!’ He killed him! Others sitting next to him cheered. Baba Alauddin Khan also jumped up and started shouting. ‘You have defamed my boys, shuorer baccha, you son of a pig, you scoundrel,’ followed by even choicier expletives in Bengali.
The music stopped abruptly.
Twenty-four-year-old Vilayat Khan was declared the winner in the battle of the sitars. He had clearly taken liberties with the music, and even gone a little beyond the parameters of the raga, but he had created an impact. Ravi Shankar did not look pleased. This brash and brilliant musician, seven years younger than him, had humiliated him in public. He quietly got up and left the stage.
The epic concert was discussed by Delhi’s music world for days afterwards. Who was this Vilayat Khan, the long-lost son of Enayat? Some weeks later, Ravi Shankar invited Vilayat Khan and Ali Akbar to the radio station to listen to his new orchestra, Vadya Vrinda. They complimented him for integrating elements of Western harmony into Indian music. Afterwards, they all sat in his cabin and had tea with fresh samosas. Ravi Shankar said, ‘Vilayatbhai, this should never happen again.’ Vilayat replied, ‘I agree, Robu-da.’
The two musicians promised each other they would never perform together. Kishan Maharaj later told someone, ‘If these two eyes of India play together again, one will shut for ever.’
In some ways, the concert may have changed their lives. These two artistes established the sitar as the most popular instrument in India, but their approach to music took two very different directions. Ravi Shankar became a brilliant collaborative artiste who played with the Beatles, Yehudi Menuhin and many others. He was the international star. Vilayat Khan did not achieve the same rock star status, but his music was revolutionary. He transformed the acoustics of the sitar, coaxing it to sing like the human voice.
Ravi Shankar’s fame cast a shadow on Vilayat Khan’s life, it is hard to deny, but he held on to his aesthetic certainties and stayed true to his music. He consciously avoided what he viewed as titillating populism. Over the next fifty years, Khansahib carefully crafted his personality and his music to become one of the most remarkable creative expressors of the twentieth century.
Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan had two things in common— mastery over their instrument and unabashed self-absorption. But they came from very different worlds, which perhaps shaped the way they approached their music.
The identity that Ravi Shankar fashioned for himself was nothing like that of a traditional Indian musician. Even as a very young man, he viewed himself as an international star rather than an Indian pandit of music.
Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury’s father, Shyam Shankar, was an educated and accomplished man of letters—a scholar of Sanksrit, a barrister-at-law at the Middle Temple in London, and later a lecturer at Columbia University in New York. Shyam Shankar left his wife and very young children in Banaras, and then went on to have a series of affairs with English women.
Ravi Shankar’s childhood was spent in Banaras, but when he was in his early teens, his elder brother Uday Shankar whisked Ravi off to Paris to work in his ballet company. Ravi’s most formative years unfolded in the bohemian clubs of Europe in a heady world inhabited by dancers and musicians. He spent two years at a French school and went on many trips across the continent. Long before he returned to India to connect with the spartan world of classical Indian music, he had romped around the cobbled streets of Paris.
In 1934, when Ravi Shankar was fourteen—and in Calcutta, getting increasingly drawn to Indian music—two events changed the course of his musical life. He had lost the opportunity to learn with Enayat Khan, but was still determined to find a teacher of classical music, which he did a few months later at the All-Bengal Music Conference in Calcutta. He heard the grand master, an ambidexterous musician who could play a range of instruments and was known for introducing an eclecticism hitherto unknown in. the classical music world. He was dressed in a simple dhoti and tunic, and his goatee was dyed jet black. This was Baba Allauddin Khan.
Baba was then a court musician at Maihar, a small kingdom south of Banaras, where the whimsical raja had instructed him to conjure up a small orchestra of instrumental music. He managed to get a bunch of orphan boys into musical shape—not without a few beatings—and taught them both Indian and Western instruments, including a halfbanjo halfsitar mutant that he had invented. At the All-Bengal Music Conference, the Maihar orchestra played both classical and light pieces and was applauded for its virtuosity. The next day Ustad Allauddin Khan himself performed on the sarod, accompanied by his twelve-year-old son Ali Akbar Khan, who would later become a musical brother to both Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan.
Around this time, Uday Shankar convinced Baba to join his ballet troupe for some performances in Europe. They met up in Bombay and rehearsed for a few weeks before taking off. Ravi Shankar returned from the tour to become a fulltime student of Baba’s.
At a very young age, Ravi had a sense of being a global citizen, rather than a Bengali or even an Indian. When he started performing on All India Radio, he changed his name to Ravi from Rabindra. He wrote in his autobiography, Raga Mala: ‘Ravi Shankar sounded just right, and that was how I told the announcers to introduce me on the radio. All India Radio was heard throughout India, so people came to know me by my new name. Anyone who was not aware that I was a Bengali always thought I was from United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) or Rajasthan or Gujarat. That was what I wanted. I am proud to be a Bengali, but it made me more international, in the Indian sense.’
In 1948, when Ravi Shankar was not yet thirty, he became music director of All India Radio with the additional role of composer–conductor of its new instrumental ensemble. Three years later, he launched the national orchestra, Vadya Vrinda, including in it an extraordinary medley of instruments—sitar, sarod, veena, flute, sarangi, shahnai, and violin, cello, double bass and clarinet. He introduced new ideas of harmony to India’s auditory palette.
Gradually, thanks to his growing popularity, the sitar itself became universal, finding its way into popular films, restaurants, elevators, and becoming a part of the country’s musical consciousness.
By the mid-twentieth century, the two major streams of sitar were the Maihar gharana, represented by Ravi Shankar, and the Etawah gharana, named after the original home of Vilayat Khan’s ancestors. Other stylistic schools in sitar include the Indore gharana, the contemporary master of which was Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. There was also Nikhil Banerjee, a master sitar player whose music has been described as a happy medium between the Vilayat Khan and the Ravi Shankar schools.
Yet, for the world at large, the sitar became synonymous with two words: Raaaavi Shankerr, which is how the Western world said his name.
Because they were contemporaries, Ravi Shankar— or, more specifically, his maddening fame—remained an undercurrent in Vilayat’s life. Even though music lovers discreetly spoke of Vilayat Khan’s music with more reverence, the masses were not as discerning. This would often drive Khansahib crazy. Over the years, his bitter references to Ravi Shankar became legendary and people just learned to roll their eyes or take sides.
And yet, both had tremendous respect for each other. While researching this book, I kept trying to find that sensational angle which would transform a boring biography into a page-turner, and the one that seemed most obvious was the rivalry between the two sitar players, which I could fashion into an epic story, as Milos Forman did with Antonio Salieri and Amadeus Mozart in the film Amadeus.
But then I realised that every musician makes choices, and Vilayat Khan had very deliberately chosen a certain path, one that looked within for depth rather than beyond, one that was solitary rather than collaborative. It would not lead to sharing record sleeves with famous pop stars, and it would not make him famous among the musically naive. But it is what he chose. He served as a reminder that there are spaces more intoxicating than fame. As Hans Utter wrote, compared to Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan made his life and art ‘a narrative of resistance’.
Excerpted with permission from The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan by Namita Devidayal. Published by Westland Publications.
Journalist and writer Namita Devidayal’s previous book, The Music Room, was a compelling account of her own long experience as a student of the Hindustani classical singer Dhondutai Kulkarni, and through her, the world of the masters of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana like Kesarbai Kerkar and Alladiya Khan. Her marvellous new biography, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan (Westland), charts the often tempestuous, but always fascinating life of the legendary sitarist. She spoke to MW about the book and her experience writing it.
Why did you think of a Vilayat Khan biography now?
It was originally his son Hidayat’s idea. I jumped in because I had nothing better going on and soon after I started my research, I fell in love with the man and was hooked. Then there was no going back.
Your last big book was about your personal journey through music. How different was this experience?
Other than music being the common language, this was a very different experience because I had only met the man once, briefly. So I had to really put my journalistic detective hat on and go and find him – by visiting the places where he stayed, meeting people including students, children, wife, ex-wife, estranged brother, and even his dogs’ vet in Shimla.
What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?
How long did the work take? It was immensely challenging but equally rewarding. You are entering the life of a genius so you have to really find the hidden notes that made him what he was. You have to be true to him, based on all kinds of anecdotal information and given the scarcity of archival material in India, you have to rely on stories, many of which are embellished depending on who is telling them. It took me about four years but, of course, it was not the only thing I was doing.
Tell us three things about Vilayat Khan which you were thrilled to discover.
He loved foreign cars, especially the Mercedes, which he first acquired as a gift from the King of Afghanistan in the ’60s, and drove all the way from Kabul to Bombay. He loved cooking and once made partridge curry for Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia in America, who then, promptly feigned illness, cut short his concert and went to Khan sahib’s house to partake in it. He was an equally good singer as he was a sitar player.
Are there enough biographies written in the past about great Indian classical musicians?
One of the reasons I did this is that there are such few biographies about India’s amazing artistes. I mean, you can find one about Beethoven and about Keith Richards but very few about Indian musicians, which are well documented and accessible and not hagiographic. I have this abiding secret mission to open up the world of Indian classical music into a wider domain, especially for young people who often run away from it because it seems so daunting, so closed, and so unfamiliar.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you write every day?
When I am working on a book, yes, I do try and work every day – but not just writing. It involves thinking and plotting and listening to the man’s music and researching and, of course, writing.
What is your next project?
Nothing specific, but some years ago I had started working on a kind of travelogue of music. I can’t travel much at this point, but once my son goes to college, I will probably roam around like a wandering minstrel and find those lovely spaces where music and love and divinity all braid together.