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Feature

Sitar legend's southern passion

Ustad Vilayat Khan, legendary sitarist, visited Bangalore in January for a rare concert. In an interview, he spoke about his passion for south Indian music, and all things unpolluted



Ustad Vilayat Khan is god to his admirers. It was this feeling of awe that pervaded his concert in Bangalore on January 15. "Do you see how people prepare themselves to listen to me?" he said when we met him at his Windor Manor suite the next day.

The concert was, of course, long awaited. The last time he played here was some 15 years ago, and so it was a big event for lovers of his music in Bangalore. Chowdaiah Memorial Hall was full.

The city is now famous as India's software capital, and pop and rock shows get more media attention than other kinds of music. The Vilayat Khan concert was very special, and it had people even outside the city excited: we heard of people who had come down from places like Delhi and Calcutta just to listen to the maestro.

The interview at the five-star hotel went off smoothly, although I had stepped into his room with my apprehensions, having heard about the great musician's unpredictable moods.

The maestro sat on the carpet and spoke for over two hours. His Bangalore visit had brought back memories of Mysore. He remains a stubborn royalist in democratic times, unwilling to accept awards from "uncultured" politicians. He referred again and again to the refined taste of the Mysore Maharaja and the Hyderabad Nizam.

As he spoke, we got to know a lot about his southern connections. He spoke warmly about his "hero" Veena Venkatagiriyappa, who used to visit his father's house in Calcutta.

I asked him about a passage he had played during his Bhairavi that had stood out for its Karnatak inflexions. "I was trying to play Kanakangi," he said, and sang snatches of the south Indian raga, gliding his fingers over an imaginary sitar. "How beautifully it uses the two rishabhs and dhaivats".

Vilayat Khan has consistently opposed any fusion of Indian and Western music because of the fundamental difference in their approach to tone. One is harmonic, the other melodic. "On the piano you can play the Moonlight Sonata, and on the sitar you can play raga Chandni Kedar. Don't mix them up," he said.

But he feels Hindustani music and Karnatak music should come closer. "The two colours must not mix and create some new colour. You should bring them together, and still be able to tell one from the other," he said. He was unhappy that southern musicians didn't perform much in the north, and northern ones in the south. But then, I thought to myself, Bangalore has both, and doesn't Karnataka love Hindustani music as much as Karnatak?

Jayant Kumar Das, who has learnt both from Vilayat Khan and his brother Imrat Khan, has just laid the foundation for a sitar school in Bangalore. He walked into the room as we were talking. When he sought blessings for the school, the master was full of affection. "The only condition," he said, "is that you shouldn't dilute the music".

Vilayat Khan also remembered that he had learnt the Bangla script from Jayant Kumar Das's father. "You look just like him. Only, you have a thicker moustache!" he remarked.

"I played the difficult raga Gauti because the audience here is so good," he continued. Ustad Sabir Khan, who had accompanied him on the tabla the previous night, agreed. "I haven't seen Khan sab in a better mood at any concert in the last three years."

The maestro is famous for his temper, and you can never tell when he will cancel a concert. He may be India's highest paid artiste -- he reportedly received Rs 6 lakh for his Bangalore concert -- but that cannot stop him from returning his fee and refusing to play if he decides some organiser is unworthy of his pure music.

The Bangalore concert was organised by the International Music and Arts Society, founded by Vijaya Devi, sister of the last Mysore king Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, and a veena player and pianist herself. The society has just turned 25.

"I get no official recognition, but the people of this country give me their love," he said, hinting at his lifelong rivalry with only other contemporary sitarist with his kind of legendary status, the more feted Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Who are the musicians he likes? Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, and two vainikas from Karnataka, Doreswamy Iyengar and N R Doreswamy.

"Are you still angry with All India Radio?" I asked him. He opposed their audition policy decades ago and has since kept away from them. They don't broadcast his earlier recordings either. "No, I am upset and sad," he said. "They have a bureaucracy - it's no bureaucracy, it's hypocrisy. I said 'Let the man on the audition board tune a tanpura and I'll accept his judgment'."

The ustad had to get ready to leave for Calcutta. He lives in that city, in Dehra Dun, and for some months each year in the US. The flight was at four.

S R Ramakrishna




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