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World Music Features

Ustad Vilayat Khan

By Allan Evans
Published October 4, 2005

From the time he began his life as a musician at a maharajah’s court, Vilayat Khan remained synonymous with the sitar, playing throughout the world, recording and imparting his tradition.

From the time he began his life as a musician at a maharajah’s court, Vilayat Khan has remained synonymous with the sitar, playing throughout the world, recording and imparting his tradition. Ustad (maestro) Khan now lives in a New Jersey townhouse adjacent to a thick sprawl of untouched woodland. His son, the excellent sitarist Hidayat Khan, recalled growing up with their large family on a farm in Dehra Dun: “Social life was constant, with all the family and 15 pupils who lived with us on a farm. I spent my time practicing and riding

horses.”

Today, Vilayat Khan receives visitors in a spacious sunken living room dominated by a photo taken at one of his concerts and, on the opposite wall, a colorized copy of a 90-year-old photo of his father, turbaned, seated cross-legged, bearing with impeccable posture the surbahar, a bass sitar long associated with their family. While the modernity of the concert-hall photo represents Khan’s stature and professionalism, it is the family portrait that provides an entry into a lost India, before its independence, when the Khan family was in residence at the court of the Maharaja of Gauripur. One cannot overlook the importance of the rajahs and their enlightened support of music, as many were great connoisseurs who helped the highest forms of art to flourish. Then with independence, all the courts were dissolved and musicians were cast into competition, with the public as their arbiters. With this transformation, many forms of the raga became endangered.

Vilayat Khan is an anomaly who has remained untouched by these changes in politics, as his abilities as a child prodigy made for a career that began at the top and has stayed there, unbroken. Unlike his family’s patrons, he survived, and has been an active sitarist for nearly 71 years. Twenty years old at the time of independence, Khan’s manner and speech evoke the aristocratic elegance of a lost age.

“Gauripur court was finished but the association with the maharajah went on for a long time, after independence,” he says. “All was nostalgia for olden times, the relation: Often we would go to meet, talk, to remember those days. But the immediate change was so bad, the difference so much, that everything one has to learn goes to business and for advantage. No patronization for culture. India was independent in such a bad condition, bad terms, that if Pakistan can be made, then India and Pakistan have to live separate. The scar remained after the wound, as many times we see the scar, we remember this independence is because of this. Then politically it started getting very bad. More favor to their own people, less favor to other people. My party and your party, as Israel and Palestine.”

With the partition, Muslim musicians experienced an eclipse, as Khan recounts from deep personal experience. “Culture started getting neglected,” he recalls. “The Muslim people started being neglected so much, favoritism came, bu