Asian Music and Dance

Remembering Ustad Vilayat Khan – (1928–2004) – In praise of his recorded legacy

The brilliant and creative sitar player Vilayat Khan began his recording career in 1936 at the age of 8 when he played on the B-side of a 78 rpm record to his father’s A-side. Ken Hunt remembers him on the tenth anniversary of his death with an appreciation of the recordings he made over the following decades.

Vilayat Khan lived through several ages of music compressed into one relatively short span. In his three-score-and-ten or so, Hindustani art music, once the nigh-exclusive domain of maharajahs and maharanis, the privileged and moneyed, weathered unparalleled changes. The twentieth century witnessed centuries of royal patronage withering away, only for what amounted to a new patron of the arts to emerge, phoenix-like. All India Radio’s technology and, for anyone who could huddle around a wireless set, democratising principles, were transformative. In the case of Aftaab-E-Sitar – ‘the radiant star of sitar’, an appellation courtesy of the fifth president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed – a more permanent marker of Vilayat Khan’s legacy began with gramophone records. 

“All India Radio’s technology and… democratising principles, were transformative”

The future sitar titan was born on Janmashtami Day, the celebration of Lord Krishna’s arrival, on 8 August 1928 in Gouripur in East Bengal, later Bangladesh’s Dhaka Division. As the Gramophone Company of India’s ambidextrous A&R man and record producer G.N. Joshi wrote in his memoirs Down Melody Lane (1984), Vilayat Khan was born ‘into a family with a musical tradition and heritage’. Though a fair few variants appear on the written record regarding his year of birth – Joshi, for example, gives 1924 – speaking to me, Vilayat Khan was adamant and pointedly repeated that it was 1928.

“His mother, Bashiran Begum … became his most enduring and reliable musical lodestone after his father’s death early in his boyhood”

The sixth generation of the Etawah gharana (school/style of playing), his father was Inayat Khan (1894–1938), widely held to be one of the foremost beenkars (sitarists) of his age. His mother, Bashiran Begum, the scion of a family of classical musicians specialising in vocal music, became his most enduring and reliable musical lodestone after his father’s death early in his boyhood.

In 1936 the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin had an influential essay published first in French and posthumously in German. It has come down in English as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Central to its premise is that art formulated in bygone days (let’s fantasise ‘gharana-fashion’ in there) differs from today’s art and consequently our appreciation of and approach to it must develop so we may understand it in a modern context.

Vilayat Khan was there at the infancy of commercial recorded music in India. His career traces the changes allowed by technological progress as, step by step, ‘sound-carriers’ allowed longer durations and improved sound quality. In 1936, aged 8, he made his recorded debut on one side of a Megaphone label 78 rpm disc with his father on the A-side. That same year he made his public debut at the era-defining All-Bengal Music Conference at Calcutta’s Madan Theatre. An illustrious audience, including vocalists Kersarbai Kerker, Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan and Omkarnath Thakur, gazed on.

“Audio-recordings allowed listeners to experience something anew”

Music and dance, in performance, are art forms that we experience imperfectly. We concentrate on something happening on the right. Or perhaps one figure or voice absorbs totally, rendering everything else secondary. Maybe a lapse of attention or closing the eyes to hold on to something results in missed nuances. Audio-recordings allowed listeners to experience something anew. 

Naturally the shadows cast by some classical musicians last longer. Take Mozart and Niccolò Paganini or Mian Tansen and Bilas Khan. As musicians or musician-composers, their music’s common ground was musicianship alert to the living moment. Their abilities to compose spontaneously on the spot – in western parlance, improvising or extemporising – have come down as wholly remarkable, verging on the mythical. We rely on the written record and depend on dead commentators’ opinions. That changed when technology permitted people to re-wind and re-play performances. 

“Thankfully, the eloquence and elegance of Vilayat Khan’s music-making is retrievable”

Thankfully, the eloquence and elegance of Vilayat Khan’s music-making is retrievable. Some of his most captivating and deliciously revisitable performances pre-date LP and CD. It would be pushing matters to compare such recordings too closely with Mughal or Rajputi miniatures. Nevertheless, shellac and EP did necessitate him making minutely-observed readings. At 3:09, his take on rāg Bihag from 1955 (reissued in 2010 on The Great Heritage – Ustad Vilayat Khan) is a quick, precise sketch. The same rāg captured at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris in October 2002 on Shringar (2003) lasts around an hour. The former is like the deft depiction of the long-horned rhinoceros, possibly shamanistic, in the Chauvet cave paintings next to Titian’s allegorical Sacred and Profane Love. Neither is better but in brevity and conciseness a greater mysteriousness may reveal itself.

In the 1960s he re-energised Hindustan’s musical realm with his jugalbandis (duets). His sitar and shehnai (shawm) jugalbandi with Bismillah Khan became the first release for EMI’s ear-opening ‘Music from India’ series. Also in 1967 he and his younger beenkar brother, Imrat Khan, created the numinous “A Night At The Taj” (later it lost its double quotes). It is a fantasy. Shahjehan, the man behind the Taj Mahal, and his beloved return to the Taj Mahal one night. Imrat takes Shahjehan’s voice on surbahar, the sitar’s deeper-voiced relative. Vilayat’s sitar provides Mumtaz’s voice. It is a recording anyone interested in Hindustani music should track down; even if, unpardonably, the CD junked Joshi’s charming short-story-like notes.

“Like a master storyteller, he lays traps and false trails, springs the unexpected, perhaps dipping into another rāg, before emerging triumphant”

In his final two decades Vilayat Khan certainly gave credence to the critic Mohan Nadkarni’s contention that ‘more often than not, the explorations of his ragas were overdone’. Sometimes his melodic explorations came with too many variations on a theme. It was not a matter of attention-span deficits or him playing to the ghosts of departed rasikas (connoisseurs). Often it is only by repeatedly listening to a piece of music that the interpretation gives up its secrets or – sweet heresy! – reveals how unnecessary or noodling passages or permutations really are. Counterbalancing that, there are his plot twists. Like a master storyteller, he lays traps and false trails, springs the unexpected, perhaps dipping into another rāg, before emerging triumphant.

He died on 13 March 2004 in Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai’s Cumballa Hill district. Once a ground-shaking maestro of the calibre of Vilayat Khan dies, art captured at whatever stage of an age of mechanical reproduction assumes a still more vital purpose. 



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