Vilayat Khan was a Hindustani musician who could trace his blood lineage back seven generations to the time of Mian Tansen and the Mughal courts. But he was also a great innovator who both zealously defended and irrevocably changed the tradition he inherited. “Too much tradition makes for dead wood. But I don’t want so much progress as to lose my identity,” he once told music critic Gowri Ramnarayan. Throughout his life he carefully balanced himself between these two extremes. He was often critical of the innovations introduced by modern tabla players, and some of his early recordings are accompanied by Alla Rakha dutifully playing little more than straight theka. But he also radically redesigned both sitar technique and the sitar itself, so that no modern player of the instrument could avoid being influenced by him.
Until the later part of the 20th century, the sitar and the sarod were instruments that had very little sustain. The great players of these earlier eras overcame this limitation by extensive use of long trills called taan-toda. Many of these players, including Vilayat Khan’s father Inayat, developed taan-toda to high levels of virtuosity by alternating up strokes with down strokes in complex rhythmic patterns. But the next generation of instrumentalists wanted to utilize the expressive range available to vocalists and bowed instruments, and for that it was necessary to redesign the instruments themselves. This redesigning process followed two main paths: one inspired by instrumental music, the other by vocal.
The sitar players who came out of the Allauddin Khan gharana, especially Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee, strove to emulate Allauddin Khan’s innovative approach to sarod. Khan’s sarod had a deeper tone and greater sustain than the sarods that preceded it, and his sitar-playing students strove to give their instruments a similar kind of rich grandeur. They relied heavily on the lowest melody string, especially during the alap, to create a sound reminiscent of the bass sitar (or surbahar). But although Vilayat Khan’s family had, in fact, produced many great surbahar players, he chose to create a sound that was bright and sweet, and inspired by the sound of vocal music.
To some degree this was a matter of necessity, or at least of circumstance. His father had carefully tutored him in sitar music from the age of 4, and the boy learned so rapidly that he had a highly successful debut at age 8. But his father died two years later, which left him open to a variety of influences. The story told by Ramnarayan is that he ran away from home at age 11 and was given a room to live at All India Radio by director Z.A. Bokhari in exchange for vocal and sitar performances. The director also allotted two radio recitals a month to Vilayat’s paternal uncle Wahid Khan (sitarist in Hyderabad) and maternal grandfather Bande Husain Khan (vocalist in Nahaan) to ensure their regular visits to Delhi to coach the boy. This story leaves one wondering about the reaction of his mother, vocalist Bashiren Begum, who, other sources say, kept a firm hold on his training throughout his life. She allegedly refused to let him become a singer because she thought that his father would never forgive her in the next life if she broke the paternal family lineage of sitar playing. It is also said that she insisted that his brother Imrat would be the only one in the family who would be allowed to play the surbahar, so that Imrat would not be completely overwhelmed by Vilayat’s talent. These stories may or may not be true, but they do capture an essential fact about the forces that shaped Vilayat Khan’s vision. He was equally trained in and devoted to both sitar and vocal music, and was determined to use as many vocal techniques in his sitar playing as possible.
This determination prompted him to work closely with many great sitar makers to expand the sitar in two main ways. He wanted greater sustain, and he wanted to have a greater bending range for the melody strings. He made changes in the shape and thickness of the resonating gourds. He experimented with higher curves, and a variety of different brass alloys for the frets. He removed the low melody string (which had become essential to Shankar’s and Banerjee’s playing), and retuned and reconfigured the drone strings to give more room for long bends. He refined the jawari (resonating bridge) to produce a tone that was bright and sparkling, and had so much sustain that he usually performed with little or no tanpura accompaniment. In fact, there would be many times that he would let the background drone die away completely, so that every nuance of the bent string could be clearly heard.
His sustain was also greatly increased by his use of microphones, which made it possible for him to perform in jugalbandi with Bismillah Khan on shehnai. Because of the great difference in the natural volumes of the two instruments, this combination was a challenge for the Indian record producers who first conceived of the idea. But eventually the two musicians developed a highly effective rapport with each other: they performed together in Vilayat Khan’s last concert.
Vilayat Khan has left an enduring legacy in recordings made over half a century, and on the influence he has had on his students: his sons Shujaat and Hidayat, his nephew Shahid Parvez, and many others. But in a more fundamental sense, anyone who plays the sitar, or any other stringed Indian instrument, owes him an incalculable debt. His vision of how the instrument should be played and built has become the standard by which all sitar players are now judged.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.