During their lifetimes, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, were regarded as the two ‘best’ sitar players in India. Fans and critics divided into ‘Vilayat’ and ‘Ravi’ camps, each extolling the greater brilliance of their respective icons. The media fired popular imagination by painting them as intractable rivals, each dismissive of the other. That they were both accomplished musicians is beyond doubt but, in actuality, they enjoyed a personal friendship that was cordial and respectful despite comments like this by Vilayat Khan sahib: “Ravi Shankar has popularised India’s music all over the world at the cost of his music.”
Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan came from a well established and highly regarded musical pedigree that traced its origins to Hindu Rajputs who converted to Islam in the Mughal period and eventually settled in the humid greenery of Bengal. Trained as a singer, and indeed wanting more than anything to be a vocalist, Vilayat Khan settled on sitar to maintain the family tradition. His grandfather, Ustad Imdad Khan, was an icon of the sitar who had an entire gharana, Imdadkhani, named after him. Inayat Khan, Vilayat’s father had also scaled the highest rungs of fame on the sitar as well. So, there ultimately, was no other choice for young Vilayat.
You would never know that the sitar was his ‘second choice’ because what characterised Ustad Vilayat Khan’s reputation was a total devotion to the instrument. He was a purist. The raga was a sacred thing; almost a being. It was not to be trivialized or corrupted by the introduction of rouge or foreign sensibilities. This puritanical stance, was at heart, what separated him from his great peer, Ravi Shankar. Ustad Vilayat Khan sahib could never have hung out with the Beatles, or tried to fuse Western classical music, let alone jazz with the raga.
Throughout his life he did travel extensively overseas and indeed, he was one of the earliest Indian musicians to gain an international following. But he never strayed from what he understood to be the essential and only way of playing, which was a way of incredible beauty and articulation. As Ken Hunt reported when Ustadji passed away in 2004, “Khan's forte was classical interpretation in the old improvised style of spontaneous composition. His trademark melodicism was imbued with emotion and passion. His skill for finding intellectual solutions to unlocking a raga's heart, especially with unexpected melodic twists, kept rasikas (music connoisseurs) glued to his every note and phrase. His speciality was gayaki ang (singing style), in which the sitar replicates and replaces the human voice.”
Tonight, I’m really pleased to present a recently released recording of Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan from India’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) archives. He plays a stunning hour long version of raga Bilaskhani Todi, a morning raga. It is said that this raga was created by Bilas Khan, son of Miyan Tansen. Bilas Khan is said to have created raga Bilaskhani Todi after Tansen's death; an interesting legend of this improvisation (it differs only in detail from Tansen's Todi), has it that Bilas composed it while grief-stricken at the wake itself, and that Tansen's corpse moved one hand in approval of the new melody. (Wikipedia)
01. Raga Bilaskhani Todi
02. Raga Sindhu Kafi