The sitar is equal to Ustad Vilayat Khan’s name, who was the greatest sitarist of his generation. He factually could make the instrument sing. Such was his skill that his first 78-RPM disc was recorded when he was merely 8 and the last concert in 2004 when he was 75.
Through his unique style, he would take no accompaniment of the tanpura. Enayatkhani Kanada, Sanjh Saravali, Kalavanti, Mand Bhairav are some of the ragas that are his inventions.
Vilayat Khan was born into the family of court musicians of the Mughals, to a sitar genius Enayat Khan, in Gauripur on the 28th August, 1928.
His father Enayat Khan and grandfather Imdad Khan also were great sitarists and surbahar (bass sitar) players. Vilayt Khan had his sitar training in the family style, which is popular as ‘the Imdadkhani Gharana or Etawah Gharana’.
The Khan family is of Hindu Rajput origin. Ustad Enayat Khan (Vilayat Khan’s father) had a Hindu nick name Nath Singh. Vilayat Khan himself had several bandishes with the pen name as Nath Piya.
When he was only 9 years old, he lost his father and had his further training from his uncle Wahid Khan (the sitar and surbahar expert), his maternal grandfather Bande Hassan Khan (a singer) and his vocalist mother Bashiran Begum. Uncle Zinde Hassan always had a strict eye on Vilayt Khan’s riyaz (practice).
In the musical grooming days, though little Vilayat had an immense inclination to singing; yet his mother (though a vocalist herself), took him to the sitar to continue with the family tradition of sitarits. However, later in life also, Vilayat Khan kept this flame of interest in singing burning and would sing in concerts.
When he had his first concert at All Bengal Music Conference, it was praised as ‘Electrifying Sitar’. In the 1950s, he made some alterations in the instrument with the instrument makers.
He toured the abroad for more than 50 years and perhaps was the first Indian musician to play in England in the post-independence era. He also had some recorded concerts playing the surbahar. With the authorities as Bismillah Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, brother Imrat Khan, he had many duet concerts also.
His other hobbies were horse-riding, pool playing, swimming and ballroom dancing. He had penchant for sports car driving and trend-setting clothes. He had a huge collection of guns, smoking pipes, antique European crockery, cut glass and chandeliers.
Ustad Vilayat Khan had a few disciples other than his sons; like Kashinath Mukherjee, Arvind Parikh, and Kalyani Roy. The celebrated English session musician Big Jim Sullivan also had some sitar lessons from Vilayt Khan. With his great faith in gender equality, he trained his own daughter Zila Khan also.
However, his life was full of controversies like his opposition towards Ravi Shankar, which Vilayat Khan himself had refused in soothing times. His hatred for the politics and organizations of India’s cultural life was also chewed by his fans and the media. He refused the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, citing it as ‘the inability of the board to review his skill’. For a time, he also avoided All-India Radio.
“Bharat Sitar Samrat” by the Artistes Association of India and “Aftab-e-Sitar” (Sun of the Sitar) were the only awards that he accepted.
He also said, “I wouldn’t accept anything that other sitar players, juniors and less deserving have been awarded before me. If India has any exclusive award for the sitar, I must be the first to get it.”
Despite of all these debates, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s magnitude as a stitarist was unparalleled.
In Indian Classical Music Rudra Veena is also one of the oldest string instrument. You can read about Rudra Veena and isolated Rudra Veena player Ustad Asad Ali Khan below