They were true legends; they were equals, not rivals. My first memories of Pt Ravi Shankar ji go back to the time when he was visiting Dehradun for a Doon School concert and magnanimously invited himself over to our place. My father, Ustad Vilayat Khan was delighted to have him over. Us kids and students were very inquisitive, very interested. Over lunch and tea they had so much camaraderie, they laughed a lot, talked about a lot of things. It was wonderful to see the humility and the simplicity of both such great men together.
My father, as much as he was known for his purity and perfectionism in music, he was also known for his style, clothing, fondness of latest foreign cars, classic cut suits and all his finesse. Pt Ravi Shankar ji too was so well known for different things such as the atmosphere he projected and produced at his concerts and meetings with celebrities all over the world, coming to a concert with George Harrison in a helicopter, etc which were style statements in their own right. Both of them were fond of the good life and both led very colourful lives. When you do this kind of music, it shapes your personality through experiences and admiring and acquiring very diverse kinds of interests.
Both Ustad Vilayat Khan sahab and Pt Ravi Shankar ji agreed to disagree on the way each approached music. While my father, whichever raag he chose to play, would create newness in the same raag, that was his versatility, Pt ji experimented and infused different raags and instruments together and created great music too. Despite this difference, in each other’s style of music, they shared an understanding of being different, of approaching music differently. The relationship between them was very warm, loving and respectful. But at times what irritated them was when people and organisers tried to pitch one as being better than the other.
What drove people to speculate further was when Ustad Vilayat Khan refused the Padmashree award in the Sixties (also refusing the Padma Vibhushan in the 2000’s) and reasoned that he should have been the first sitarist to receive the award before Pt ji stating reasons of having a longer lineage of many more generations in the Sitarkhaani baaj in his Gharana (Ustad Vilayat Khan had already 4 generations of recorded music by then). Other criteria were that Ustad Vilayat Khan had more seniority of stage performances. He started performing much before Pt Ravishankar ji, similarly there were few more points which he shared with the press at that time.
When I was older, Pandit Ravi Shankar ji was performing at Siri Fort and I told my father that I just wanted to once experience the concert of the legend that Pt. Ji was and my father encouraged me to go. I went and I heard the concert while Anoushka played alongside. I was completely taken in by the production and the showmanship of Pt ji.
After the concert, Pt ji looked visibly tired from sitting for a long time and was having difficulty walking towards the green room. I held his arm and helped him up the stairs to the green room. As I accompanied him to the green room, I introduced myself to him and there, with such love in his eyes, he looked at me and held my cheeks in his hands and said, “My God! Vilayat Bhai’s daughter! My daughter!” That was the kind of closeness he expressed. It’s because of his love for my father he felt that kind of love for me. It was amazing.
In 1962 or 1964 there was a concert when Pt ji and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were performing and my father joined them on stage. It was such a mesmerising, historical concert. These were the few people who held their own style of playing music.
It was the concert that established Ustad Vilayat Khan’s wizardry as far as music is concerned. Musicians respect him so much because of his perfectionism. There were many greats who followed Ustad Vilayat Khan’s style of playing on different instruments because of the dynamism and the performance technique.
Ustad Akbar Ali Khan was another great legend. I quote my father who said respectfully and sympathetically, “Although it is great that Robuda (as he called Pt Ravi Shankar ji affectionately) popularised Indian music, but he had to do it at the cost of his own music.” What he meant was that sometimes your music takes a backseat and you go right ahead but it’s a choice that everyone has a right to make.
My father spoke about how beautifully Pt Ravi Shankar ji popularised Indian music in every corner of the world. And it is a huge tribute to that person because although Ustad Vilayat Khan had been presented to the Queen in1958 and he performed in the Westminister Abbey and was the cultural ambassador to several countries, Pt Ravi Shankar ji must have taken efforts to make immense changes to popularise Indian music abroad.
He took music to not just the common man but to the Western world. They got a taste, a feel of Indian music. That is the beauty and this is why he is respected so much by us all. Nobody should take away from that. He did it with panache. One artiste created colours within a colour, while the other mixed lots of colours to make different colours. One created many new variations within one raag and the other mixed many raags to make many variations. The music fraternity understood this and gave full marks to Ustad Vilayat Khan for his musicality, for retaining its authenticity and purity. And, of course, they gave full marks to Pandit Ravi Shankar ji for performing with so many different artistes and making different and great music too.
The younger generation would understand the comparison better if one said Ustad Vilayat Khan’s work was in a way like actor Amir Khan’s and Pt Ravi Shankar ji’s like Shahrukh Khan’s! So that’s the difference between the fundamental choices they made in life. There was healthy competition, appreciation and love between the two. People should learn from both these schools and try and imbibe and have a balance of both these aspects.
Zila Khan is a celebrated Sufi singer and the daughter of sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan
(As told to Nupur Sonar)