Ustad Vilayat Khan (August 28, 1928 – March 13, 2004) was one of India’s well known sitar maestros. He was one of the great pioneers of his generation to introduce Indian Classical Music to the West, along with Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee and his younger brother Imrat Khan. Widely regarded by many as the greatest sitarist of his generation, he recorded his first 78-RPM disc at the age of 8, and gave his last concert in 2004 at the age of 75.
Vilayat Khan was born in Gauripur, British India to Enayat Khan, a sitar maestro. His family of musicians trace their pedigree back to the court musicians of the Mughals. His father, recognised as a leading sitar and surbahar (bass sitar) player of his time, as had been the grandfather, Imdad Khan, before him. He was taught in the family style, known as the Imdadkhani Gharana or Etawah Gharana, after small city close to Agra where Imdad Khan lived.
However, Enayat Khan died when Vilayat was only nine, so much of his education came from the rest of his family: his uncle, sitar and surbahar maestro Wahid Khan, his maternal grandfather, singer Bande Hassan Khan, and his mother, Bashiran Begum, who had studied the practice procedure of his forefathers. His uncle Zinde Hassan looked after his riyaz (practice). As a boy, Vilayat wanted to be a singer; but his mother, herself from a family of vocalists, felt he had a strong responsibility to bear the family torch as a sitar maestro.
Vilayat Khan performed at All Bengal Music Conference, as his first concert, organized by Bhupen Ghosh in Kolkata with Ahmed Jan Thirakwa on tabla. His performance made headlines as “Electrifying Sitar” in Bombay next day of his concert organized by Vikramaditya Sangeet Parishad, Mumbai (1944). In the 1950s, Vilayat Khan worked closely with instrument makers, especially the famous sitar-makers Kanailal & Hiren Roy, to further develop the instrument. Also, he liked to perform without a tanpura drone, filling out the silence with strokes to his chikari strings.
Some ragas he would somewhat re-interpret (Bhankar, Jaijaivanti), others he invented himself (Enayatkhani Kanada, Sanjh Saravali, Kalavanti, Mand Bhairav), but he was first and foremost a traditional interpreter of grand, basic ragas such as Yaman, Shree, Todi, Darbari and Bhairavi.
When he died from lung cancer in 2004, Vilayat Khan had been recording for over 65 years, broadcasting on All-India Radio since almost as far back and been seen as a master (ustad) for 60. He had been touring outside India off and on for more than 50 years, and was probably the first Indian musician to play in England after independence (1951). In the 1990s, his recording career reached a climax of sorts with a series of ambitious CDs for India Archive Music in New York, some traditional, some controversial, some eccentric. Towards the end of his life, he also performed and recorded sporadically on the surbahar. He has performed duet concerts with maestros like Bismillah Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, brother Imrat Khan.
Khan composed and conducted the score for three feature films – Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar in Bengali, Merchant-Ivory Productions’ The Guru in English, and Madhusudan Kumar’s Kadambari in Hindi. In addition to these, he also gave music for a little-known documentary film in Bengali produced by Dr. Barin Roy. For Jalsaghar he won a Silver Medal for Composing at the 1st Moscow International Film Festival.
The Imdad Khan family is of Rajput lineage. The family is of Hindu origin and later converted to Islam. In an informal continuation of his rajput lineage Ustad Enayat Khan (father of Ustad Vilayat Khan) kept a Hindu name of Nath Singh. Ustad Vilayat Khan himself composed many bandishes using the pen name Nath Piya.
Vilayat Khan spent much of his life living in Calcutta. He was married twice. He had three children from his first marriage – Sufi singer Zila Khan and Yaman Khan and Sitarist Shujaat (b. 1960). From his second marriage he had one son Hidayat (b. 1975),also a professional Sitarist. He was survived also by his younger brother, Imrat Khan, the post-war star of the surbahar field. The brothers played celebrated duets in their youth, but had a severe falling-out and for years were not on speaking terms. His nephew Ustad Rais Khan is also a star sitar-player. Ustad Vilayat Khan took few disciples other than his sons; among the best-known are Kashinath Mukherjee (younger brother of film director Hrishikesh Mukherjee), Arvind Parikh, and Kalyani Roy. He also gave sitar lessons to Big Jim Sullivan, the famous English session musician.
He believed in Gender Equality and along with being a purist and a traditionalist he trained his own daughter Zila Khan in sitar and vocal music and also made her a formal student in a formal studentship ceremony in 1991. The ceremony is filmed in his documentary first made in 1991 and subsequently again in India’s Ministry of External Affairs film on his life called ‘Spirit to Soul’.
He enjoyed horse-riding, pool playing, swimming and ballroom dancing. His successes made him rich, and though he grew more pious late in life, he used to drive sports cars and dress in haute couture, and also collected such various items as firearms, smoking pipes, antique European crockery, cut glass and chandeliers.
Fans and media alike liked to play up Vilayat Khan’s rivalry with and animosity towards Ravi Shankar. However, in calmer moments Vilayat would admit there was not much to it. His animosity for the politics and institutions of India’s cultural life was another matter. In 1964 and 1968, respectively, he was awarded the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards – India’s fourth and third highest civilian honours for service to the nation – but refused to accept them, declaring the committee musically incompetent to judge him.
In January 2000, when he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award, he again refused, going so far as to call it “an insult”. This time, his criticism had a slightly different twist: he would not accept any award that other sitar players, his juniors and in his opinion less deserving, had been given before him. “If there is any award for sitar in India, I must get it first”, he said, adding that “there has always been a story of wrong time, wrong person and wrong award in this country”.
Among other honours he turned down was the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. For a while, he also boycotted All-India Radio. The only titles he accepted were the special decorations of “Bharat Sitar Samrat” by the Artistes Association of India and “Aftab-e-Sitar” (Sun of the Sitar) from President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.