Lights And Shadows

first_imgUstad Imrat Khan sheds light on the Ravi-Shankar-Vilayat Khan rivalry and the family feud after his brother’s death. He comes from a lineage traced to Mia Tansen and is the younger brother of sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan. He has mastery in the sitar, surbahar, tabla and vocal music and yet at 68, the youthful Imrat Khan Sahib says he continues to practice 6 hours daily. His four sons also sing and play the four instruments between them. Ustad Imrat Khan has also created the Imrat violin and Imrat guitar, and is currently teaching music at Washington University in St Louis, Mo.In a hard hitting interview with Little India, Ustad Imrat Khan talks about the early years, of living under the shadow of his flamboyant brother, and sets the record straight about the Ravi Shankar-Vilayat Khan rivalry, the family feud after his brother’s death, and the reason why he wants members of his gharana to stay united.You come from a family that is as talented as it is strewn with geniuses of classical music.Indeed, as you know my father Ustad Inayat Khan was the greatest sitar and surbahar player of his time as was my grandfather. When my grandfather trained my father and uncle the training was very tough and under the strictest of conditions. I was very young, about 3 when my father passed away, but my mother, Bashiren Begum and her father Ustad Bandeh Hassan Khan were the greatest influence in my life. Mother was a great singer and came from a family of renowned vocalists, but women in those days were not allowed to sing in public. Still her knowledge of music was tremendous and she would teach me. I remember her singing to me as a child of three and in fact those lyrics are still etched so sharply in my mind although I don’t remember anything else. From childhood I was first trained by my mother and then she handed me over to my uncle Ustad Waheed Khan to study surbahar. After my father died, my mother would carry his surbahar with her and hold it against her heart as if it was the most precious thing in her life. She would ask me repeatedly to learn the surbahar so that his legacy would not die with him. My uncle was a vagabond and traveled from place to place and we traveled with him. Finally he came and settled down in Kalyan, which is near Bombay, and I continue to learn from him. The surbahar is a much heavier instrument and I still have scars on my ankles where it was placed when I was a young child. She would however keep insisting I learn it, even though I had already become an accomplished singer and as a young boy would mimic Noorjehan and could sing all her songs. I sang many songs in films. I used to love skating and many times you would find me skating backwards, playing the Hawaiian guitar and singing songs or mimicking Ustad Ali Akbar Khan! I believe you were surrounded by so many amazing musicians and teachers.I consider myself really fortunate because not only did I see so many great musicians coming to our house and had the opportunity to listen to them, I was also fortunate enough to learn from so many stalwarts of music. I studied vocal music from my maternal grandfather and mother and also from Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan one of the greatest singers of Rampur gharana. I then learnt sitar from my brother Vilayat Khan sahib who was a musical genius and is rightly considered the greatest sitar player in the past century. He became famous from the age of 8 or 10. After my father passed away bhaiya (older brother) got a good job in Delhi and at the age of 18 when he played before an audience of legendary musicians, he completely stunned them. They said they knew from that moment that Ustad Inayat Khan’s legacy is in very capable hands. I worked side by side with him for 40 years. I was 8 years younger and he treated me like his son. We practiced together and played together, and did extensive research on gandhar pancham that he became so famous for and together we worked and changed the entire setting of the sitar.The result of that research is the Vilayat Khani Sitar that you hear today. My brother also encouraged me to learn surbahar so that we could perform duets together. The surbahar was created by my great grandfather and made famous by my grandfather and I am so proud that no other gharana has been able to master both sitar and surbahar like we have.Tell me about your relationship with Ustad Vilayat Khan. He was an unpredictable man from what I hear.Bhaiya was like a father figure for me. I worshipped my brother. I would polish his shoes, give him massage, and cater to his every need. As per our tradition and the respect we give our gurus and elders, I always walked a few steps behind him and never spoke in his presence. There were times we would be traveling in a train and he will suddenly remember and teach me a composition right then and there and then two years later, suddenly he will say Imrat remember that taan which I taught you in the train that night? Play it. If I didn’t remember I would be in big trouble! He would reprimand me and say. you won’t amount to anything you’ll just go through life bumming around! How could you have forgotten? I remember all that with such fondness even though I was getting a scolding. He loved me like a son. We gave many duet performances on sitar and surbahar and received much acclaim.If he had any flaw it was that he would blindly believe anything his sycophants told him and there were quite a few hangers on around him all the time. As long as you catered to him and did what he wanted you remained in his good books. He was also a ladies man, but I was in love with his music, and could sit there and listen to him for hours. He was truly the greatest sitar player in the world, and had become very famous at a very young age. We had been playing together since the 50s, and bhaiya loved me so much he would hrefuse to perform if I wasn’t accompanying him.Then things changed. In the late sixties while performing at Royal Albert Hall I was approached for a solo concert. I said I would only do it if Bhaiya gave his permission. He said he was fine with it. In reality he didn’t like it and that created a huge rift between us.Until then I had been playing second fiddle to bhaiya and it was not as if he was only playing with me. He had been playing many solo concerts. I did too, but mine were on a much smaller scale. Somehow as long as we were together, it never occurred to me that I should also ask for acknowledgement or my talent be showcased.I was content with doing my bit as a representative of my gharana. I would practice for hours and I do that to this day. I was so particular that the musical legacy I represented as a son of Inayat Khan should be presented as flawlessly and beautifully and I was content with just that. Still it was an opportunity to branch out on my own. Europe had never seen an instrument like surbahar before.Also in the rivalry between Pandit Ravi Shankar and my brother, people forgot all about me and the fact that I too had mastered both sitar and surbahar and was an accomplished singer as well. Not even my brother had the opportunity to study under so many musical greats as I had.So then there was a rivalry between Raviji and Vilayat Khan sahib? Raviji talked about the incident in Delhi in an interview with me, where he played along with your brother and the papers carried the report that Vilayat Khan sahib played better than him. He challenged Vilayat Khan sahib to a rematch and the latter calmed him down. Raviji actually spoke very fondly of Khan sahib.I read the interview you did with Raviji and I would like to set the record straight on that incident. Let me say this, Ravi Shankar would have been great at anything he tried his hand at. He was very bright, knew how to present himself, and he endeared himself to every one with his diplomacy, unlike Bhaiya who spoke his mind very bluntly. But eventually, while Ravi Shankar made a name for himself, none of his students have turned out to be world class musicians. Tell me one world class sitar player who can stand up and say I was trained by Ravi Shankar. The outstanding sitar players that you see today are my nephews Shujaat and Shahid and my sons, trained by bhaiya and me, and perhaps Budhaditya Mukherjee who is a student of our gharana.I also have to say this; there is no sitar player to touch my brother in the past 100 years, not even Ravi Shankar. The incident that Raviji spoke about to you happened in Delhi. Raviji was very well known then. He was also patronized by top notch business men, and the Nehru family, and the media too was very fond of him. When we arrived in Delhi for the festival, no one came to receive us and bhaiya was very upset. Later he was told he was to play with Ravi Shankar, and he said fine. The news spread like wildfire and 4,000 people showed up to see this dialogue between the two. At that point Raviji said he will only play if Ali Akbar Khan plays with him since he was not used to playing without Ali Akbar Khan. As you know their sitar- sarod duet performances had won them a lot of acclaim, though there were people who felt that Ali Akbar Khan was more talented and they were doing well because of his presence.My brother retorted that then Imrat will play next to me. I was a young teenager but I guess bhaiya felt I was good enough to play with them. Then people told him, Imrat is a child, don’t drag him into this. You can manage so either play with the duo on your own or just back out. Bhaiya said fine I will play alone. Kishan Maharaj was on tabla. I was on tanpura.The fact is my brother was the superior player that day. Whatever Raviji played my brother played faster and crystal clear. Then he said to Raviji “I have played whatever you have played; now I want you to play a taan that I’m going to play.” He played a taan which is very famous and is like the trademark of our gharana… It takes many many hours of practice for months to get it. Raviji tried and couldn’t do it. Ali Akbar tried and couldn’t do it either. Then my brother played it again and added more to it, and at that point pandemonium broke. People started roaring that Vilayat Khan had outshone Raviji and had the upper hand that day. The media that was so pro Raviji carried articles saying the same thing. Baba Allauddin Khan got very upset that his star disciples had been made to look so incompetent and yelled at my brother who respectfully took it.Having said that I will say I have the utmost appreciation and respect for Ravi Shankar. He has single-handedly put Indian classical music on the map. My brother did feel resentment initially that though he was the better musician, Raviji was getting so much publicity, but towards the end of his life he knew that people knew he was the greatest and that gave him peace of mind. But as I said earlier, Ravi Shankar is a multitalented great man. He would have been famous in anything he tried his hand at, because he knew how to present himself in the best possible way.So in all this how did your personal journey as a musician take place?I started giving solo performances in Europe and have to say I had excellent managers and finally came into my own as an artist. Still Europe never did summer concerts and I was instrumental in changing that. As you know winter is the time we have concerts in India and all the prestigious music festivals. For me attending those meant more than all the fame and money I could have earned abroad. So I would come back for 6 months every year and have done that for more than 40 years to this day. Sadly, I became very famous abroad and at home things changed.Bhaiya never said anything openly, but he had been angry that I had branched out on my own. The sycophants kept filling his ears, and he became even more distant. The organizers were given the impression that bhaiya will not play if I was invited. I was so used to being managed very competently in Europe that the idea of begging for concerts was very unpalatable. So I would wait and wait and no one would call me or they would ask me to lower my rates to pathetic standards. This went on year after year, so I would initially go for 6 months and wait then it became 4, now I still go for about 3 months every winter.In Europe it was a different story altogether. I became as well known as Ravi Shankar if not more. The group Rolling Stones was very famous. Their guitar player, Brian Jones used to come and learn from me. But then we saw the notoriety Raviji gained due to his association with the Beatles and playing at all those rock pop festivals and my managers warned me to be careful. A year after he came to learn from me in India, I returned to London to find Jones had died of a supposed drug over dose and that was that. After that I stayed away from rock stars.I was the most featured artist on BBC and they made a fortune selling tapes of my performances and my fame spread all over Europe. I have always focused on the education of music, because it is important for any one who wants to be an intelligent listener or performer. So throughout my life, I have taken time out to give lecture demonstrations, workshops and have also taught as visiting professor in many top universities. I established the regular teaching of Indian classical music at Dartington College of Arts in England. I have lectured in Venice for UNESCO and taught classes at top notch institutions like Harvard, UCLA and many others. Some of the courses I established are still being taught.There was no top concert or event abroad where I was not invited. I have played before the Queen many times and all the top concert halls in the west. Sadly, while I was so sought after abroad, I went unappreciated and unacknowledged in India. They even suppressed my recordings, while my brother went on to record the maximum number ever by an artist. Even today you won’t find a lot of my good recordings anywhere. Still I have very fond memories of some of the recordings bhaiya and I did before people filled his ears and created a rift between us.There is a particular one Night at the Taj and then the one of rag Darbari on surbahar by you. Both are lovely.Night at the Taj has a beautiful story behind it. God gives Shahjehan and Mumtaz Mahal permission to spend one night at the Taj, and their souls come down. I played Shahjahan on surbahar and bhaiya played Mumtaz dawn approaches they are asked to return and they do so after spending an enchanting night. I think we have captured the enchantment of that night very beautifully in that album. The second album you mentioned was being recorded at this beautiful chateau. I was given a free hand and told not to worry about the time. As I looked out at the mountains through the windows it seemed as if I was transported back in time and was playing in the royal darbar. I closed my eyes and before I knew it I had played just the alaap for 40 minutes. Hurriedly I completed the recording in 20 minutes after that! I miss those times.Did you ever go up to your brother and clarify things? I did, but I could see there were plenty of people around him who felt threatened by the fact that if the two brothers reunited, they would be sidelined. They enjoyed basking in his glory, and living off his generosity. And of course even the ones who knew right from wrong, didn’t have the guts to speak up before him.His biggest drawback was the fact that he wanted everyone to just be a yes man. It’s strange that my sons are also being sidelined. They are doing very well abroad, but when they come to India they are given the same royal ignore as I was. Till I was in my late forties I was branded a grade B artist, because I hrefused to audition. Still my brother was my hero and I worshipped him and his music.Why is surbahar not as popular as sitar. It’s a beautiful instrument and very rich in sound?Surbahar is very difficult to master. It was really a divine instrument and you had to have a tremendous knowledge of dhrupad and khayal. You can pull the seven notes from the frets, which is very difficult since you have to maintain the dignity of sound and the fingers can’t handle that most of the time.Again it’s a heavier instrument and a lot of times people have a hard time sitting with it. It has a very slow development of alaap. It was generally played to highlight the devotional aspect of music and the approach is very serious and today people are very far from spirituality.That is why dhrupad is also suffering. Even though our gharana’s contribution to gayaki ang was created through surbahar by our forefathers, I have very few students who are studying surbahar from me. Most are learning vocal music, sitar, and the Imrat guitar, where I have combined strings from the sitar and guitarTell me about your sons and about your nephews Shujaat and Shahid. They have made quite a name for themselves, so it seems the gharana is in good hands.I got married much before Bhaiya did. I have four sons and a daughter. All of my sons showed great promise right from childhood and I have to say that I put them through very rigorous training. They started giving performances at a very tender age and in fact my grandson performed with me recently at the very tender age of three.I pulled them out of school and home schooled them. I had many foreign students and I told them to teach my sons and I will teach them sitar for free in return. They were never pampered and worked very, very hard learning vocal and instrumental music in the same tradition with which I was taught. Then my mother lived with me and she had a treasure of knowledge to impart and today they have all made a name for themselves.Ustad Ibrahim Khan one of the greatest tabla players loved my children and even while I was away touring Europe, he would tell my children beautiful stories and teach them tabla. I got Shafaat my youngest son to study tabla since he was a bit shy.For many years he was the only tabla player I performed with just to help him get over his inhibitions, to the extent that other tabla players got annoyed with me. I suggested to Wajahat to switch to sarod which would complement his singing also. I converted surbahar to sarod baaj and even Ustad Amjad Ali Khan really appreciates his playing.Shujaat is very talented and Bhaiya had very high expectations of Shujaat, but he was a very pampered and spoilt child. His mother, Ustad Vilayat Khan’s first wife was a socialite and a party girl. Her parents though were very nice people. Somehow that atmosphere wasn’t there in the house that was conducive for structured learning and even after his divorce though he moved the family to Dehradun, the structured training didn’t really happen, since bhaiya traveled.I remember my mother being so involved in our training. There were times I would be practicing at 1 a.m. and if I messed up she would yell from her room. “Imrat what are you doing? Play properly.” Or if at 3.a.m I played something well on surbahar she would get up and come and bless me and say you have reminded me of a taan your paternal grandfather played, let me teach you. I never saw that in Vilayat Khan sahib’s home.His second wife from whom he has a son Hidayat, never openly interfered, and she really looked after bhaiya, but even she didn’t make an effort to bring the family closer. Shujaat is also as willful as my brother, and they had a falling out though they didn’t completely cut ties. Shujaat met my brother, performed in concerts with him, cuts CDs with him but it was always on Shujaat’s terms. When he got married I told him, Shujaat your biggest drawback is you have not spent enough time studying under your father, I’m willing to help and give you all the taleem (education) you need, please come to me. Now his sister Zila is claiming she learnt from bhaiya and that is not true.I said the same to Shahid. Shahid always played very well from childhood and I have taught both of them along with my brother. Shujaat is also my son, but he has never acknowledged my contribution and Shahid does not even mention bhaiya who taught him for months along with Shujaat. Both Shujaat and Shahid keep doing their own thing.Today both of them listen to old recording and learn from them, and that cannot replace hands on training. I have told them many times to come to me and get that hands on training, but they have never responded. I don’t know why Shujaat is angry with me or against me. Vilayat Khan sahib has scolded my sons, yelled at them so many times, but those boys have not forgotten his past kindnesses and would still go there to offer their respects.There were times I would get upset at them and say why do you go there when Bhaiya scolds you all the time? Even then these boys would go and sit at his feet. Before he died he blessed my boys so many times with affection and told me how proud he was at the way they have turned out.There was a huge controversy about the last couple of days before Ustad Vilayat Khan’s death. Evidently you posted an email saying that you had met your brother and had a lengthy conversation with him. You said he had passed on the responsibility of carrying on the tradition of the gharana to you saying that now it’s you who has to do so. There was a furor and Shujaat responded to that email saying that his father was in the ICU, and how could he have a lengthy conversation, plus no one saw you go in. Your relationship with your brother had been so bad over the past so many years why would he want to talk to you leave alone anoint you his successor? There were others who claimed they never saw you go inside.First of all I’m very offended by this whole thing. I don’t need to step into my brother’s shoes. There won’t be another Ustad Vilayat Khan. Secondly, I’m not just the brother of Ustad Vilayat Khan, I’m first and foremost the second son of Ustad Inayat Khan and therefore I have to make sure that we do all we can as a family to preserve the traditions of our gharana.I was asked to come from London by a telegram from the family. Bhaiya was in ICU and said it would be nice if Imrat was here and good friends of mine who are very influential in Bombay got me into Jaslok hospital to see my brother. My sisters, their children, bhaiya’s daughters Zila and Yaman too were there, as were some other friends like Jayanto Chatterjee, Arvind Parikh.I went into his room around 9 a.m., and Bhaiya was conscious and in fact was asking where Shujaat, Hidayat and his second wife Lisa were. He had wanted some coffee. I said to him, “Bhaiya I hope you are not angry with me still” and he said, “No I’m not. That is why I asked for you.”He blessed my sons and commented that he was worried about Shujaat and Hidayat. Then he said to me I have represented our gharana as long as I could to the best of my ability.Now it is your responsibility to make sure our gharana continues to flourish the way it should. The fact is people would always tell him how come you haven’t trained your sons the way Imrat has and it made him sad. Anyway I was with him till 11.30 a.m. and after that I went to use the restroom and hurried back.I met Shujaat and Jayanto on the way back and they asked how I got in to see my brother and I said I made my own arrangements and that bhaiya had asked me to come back. They said no you can’t go in, the doctors have said no visitors.What was sad is they know very well I met my brother and claimed to the contrary. Every one saw me going into his room and they also saw me coming out. I never said I am stepping into my brother’s shoes or taking over the responsibility to ensure that our gharana continues to flourish. If Bhaiya said that to me it’s not my fault.Shujaat subsequently apologized to me in an email. Why did he do that if he believed I was lying?So what is it that you are worried about today?That our gharana is being divided into Vilayat Khani and Imrat Khani gharana due to inner bickering. Our forefathers and their legacy is greater than who we are as individuals and it should remain the solid tree under whose shade we must all grow and thrive.It should not divide into weak branches that can break in a snap. I would request the help of all my nephews and nieces and our well wishers to help reunite us. I have offered my support to Shujaat and Hidayat after my brother’s death and told them that we should all stay reunited, but they have not responded.I want all the children to stay within the pure tradition of classical music that our gharana has been famous for and to maintain its unique and individual sound. I don’t like fusion music, and jamming with western artists, nor do I like the way all the gharanas are mixed up. Perhaps only in the voices of Kishori Amonkar and Bhimsen Joshi do I see that distinct sound of their gharanas, every one else seems to be performing a hodge podge.My brother’s legacy is incomparable. Even today I have to work so hard to create what he played so effortlessly 30 years ago. If you trace Vilayat Khan’s music through the decades you will see how he added, reinvented and infused with freshness and beauty everything he played. That is why I want my sons and nephews to stay focused.What is next in the horizon?Well I am planning to write a book on music, detailing also the philosophy of music and religion. My brother and I had done such extensive research and I don’t want it to go to waste. I will also create a DVD to showcase those aspects of ragas that cannot be understood just by reading a book. I’m also introducing two of my students on tabla on an album and will be performing at concerts in my brother’s memory in India. But what makes me happiest is when I can educate any one in what our great music is all about.   Related Itemslast_img read more