Vilayat Khan – Innovative maestro of the sitar

Vilayat Hussain Khan, sitar player: born Gowripur, India 28 August 1928; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Bombay 13 March 2004.

Ustad (maestro) Vilayat Khan was one of the greatest figures in north Indian classical music of the past 60 years.

The adoption of vocal style into his sitar playing, the so-called gayaki ang, is what made him a pioneer and role model among sitar players. This style pushed sitar technique to even higher levels, since it demands extensive use of the lateral deflection of
the string by pulling it sideways.

Not only did Vilayat Khan avoid the intonation problems inherent in this but he also used it to enormous expressive effect by playing whole phrases after the string was plucked and before the sound faded away. He further modified the sitar by reducing the number
of strings, confining the instrument to its true treble register and leaving the very low register to the surbahar, a kind of bass sitar also much played in his family. He also adopted a variable tuning of the drone strings, according to the main notes of
the raga, giving the music new tonal perspectives.

His age at death was given as 76, though a slight mystery surrounded his date of birth, some putting it as much as four years earlier. The widely accepted date of birth was 28 August 1928, in Gauripur, part of what is now Bangladesh.

An element of haziness also surrounded his early training. He was a typical Muslim hereditary musician of the kind who have dominated north Indian classical music since the great Tansen, the leading court musician at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar
in the late 16th century. In common with many Indian musicians, Vilayat Khan traced his lineage back to Tansen.

His father, Inayat Khan, and grandfather Imdad Khan were distinguished string players, and the family tradition stretched back for five generations before him, and is continuing with his sons, Shujaat Khan and Hidayat Khan, and also with his brother and nephews.

Training from his father was curtailed by his untimely death when Vilayat was only 10 years old. Exactly from whom he learnt thereafter has remained controversial but it is certain that his mother and her side of the family played a crucial role and helped
develop the vocalist in him. Among those who did teach him or may well have done so were his mother, Bashiran Begum, her father Bande Hussain Khan and her brother Zinda Hussain Khan, all of them vocalists, and his father’s brother Wahid Khan and his senior
student D.T. Joshi, representing the string tradition.

The connection between Vilayat Khan’s sitar playing and vocal music was made abundantly clear by his habit of singing the compositions he was playing and even explaining the connections to the audience. He would also acknowledge some of the famous vocalists
of his era, notably Ustad Faiyaz Khan.

When I interviewed him, during an evening at the Nehru Centre, London, in 1997, he underplayed his part in the creation of the gayaki ang, suggesting that it had been part of Indian music all along. On the other hand, he did draw attention to another inspired
feature of his style: his distinctive way of finding unusual and expressive patterns in the raga.

Musicians trained in the Indian manner will be familiar with the exercises based on all the available note combinations and Vilayat Khan was able to prove his point by flawlessly reciting the 24 combinations of the first four notes of the scale. Not only did
he emphasise that he knew all the others too but he also pointed out that such a discipline was the very basis of improvisation.

Khan’s development was prodigious. He started giving concerts when he was six and recorded two years later. His concert début in Bombay in 1944 was dramatically successful and immediately established him as a master of the sitar and he was the dominant force
right up to his death. At another famous concert, also in Bombay, loudspeakers had to be installed outside for the thousands unable to get seats in the auditorium.

As in life, so in death, Vilayat Khan attracted huge crowds. Leading musicians and the general public flocked to the hospital before his body was taken to Calcutta to be laid to rest next to his father last week.

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