In the galaxy of Indian classical music are many, many stars—artistes, each with their own fans, their own style of music, and their own fascinating history. Pick up the story of any one, and you will find many other stories intersecting, influencing each other. Among the brightest of these stars was sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan. In his playing, in his innovation, he blazed a trail that will be followed forever. Namita Devidayal captures an intimate portrait of the late maestro’s life in The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan. Devidayal is well suited for the task of documenting Vilayat Khan’s life. She grew up as part of a family that has been a patron of the musical arts for generations. She studied classical music since childhood. In her first book, The Music Room, she captured the stories of her own teacher, Dhondutai Kulkarni, along with other luminaries.
The book is structured as a series of vignettes, roughly chronological. It starts with the history of Vilayat Khan’s grandfather and then father— both of them renowned musicians of their era. Then it moves to Vilayat Khan’s early days—how Khan, despite being from a musical family, ran away from home to Delhi, finding refuge at AIR headquarters, and how he eventually came back home. How he practised and made his name, how he innovated in his music—all going along with his tumultuous family life. We follow him through his various homes, and eventually into semi-retirement in the US. Khan was not a perfect person. He had his vanities—for clothes, cars, shoes, women. While an acknowledged maestro, he was insecure as well.
He was estranged from many members of his family. Devidayal does not paper over these facts, giving us a raw poignant picture of a man driven by his passion. Several of the anecdotes feel like they are exaggerated—and Devidayal admits as much, yet includes them, since they have been told to her either by Khan’s family or documented in other works. These anecdotes are to be taken in the spirit of a story told at a family gathering— bringing out the real persona of the sitar maestro rather than being the literal truth. It is almost as if we’re taking part in a family gathering, recounting tales of an old favourite uncle. There have not been too many biographies of classical artistes of this stature in recent times, and it is a reminder of how India, along with music, has changed over the years. Along with the story of Vilayat Khan, Devidayal colours in the broader world he lived in.
A whole parallel world of music, of disciples, rivalries, traditions and innovations, takes on depth and flavour. Small towns that today are forgotten, take on new significance as centres of learning and sponsorship: Maihar, Saharanpur, Bhaini Sahib. Names that pop up in isolation in the mainstream, gain new relevance from context: Bismillah Khan’s friendship with Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar’s rivalry, Bhimsen Joshi’s presence in an audience.
The slow but inevitable spread of Indian classical music across the world. Through it all, we find, the maestros themselves are beacons of an ancient tradition, but still innovating and keeping up with the times. In parallel with the rise of Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar, is the rise of the sitar as a mainstream instrument. For the current generation of listeners, it may seem like the sitar has always been famous— and in the western world, it is almost the default Indian classical music instrument— but it used to be second string level (sorry).
Devidayal chronicles the changes that Khan brought to the instrument (and hence the title), and the prominence of Shankar, crediting these two masters with the inclusion of the instrument in the pantheon. As we read, we find ourselves drawn into this world, wanting to belong, even if only by listening to the music. Read it, therefore, with a background of the master himself playing the instrument that was his life.