|Vilayat Khan with Ravi Shankar
If you have ever come across talking to someone from the Hindustani Classical Music circles, you would have heard about the perceived rivalry between two of the greatest Sitar players of the last century, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. While one was known for his elegance and presentation, the other had quite a reputation of being unpredictably brash and outspoken. I've heard a lot of incidents involving the two maestros and how abhorrence often transpired between the two. But these stories seem more like a legend for the lack of finer details and clarity of reasoning.
I happened to read about an incident that took place in Delhi in 1950 where both Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan shared the stage along with Ali Akbar Khan and Kishan Maharaj. And if that was not all, legendary musicians like Allaudin Khan (Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan’s guru), singer Amir Khansaheb were seated amongst other dignitaries in the audience. It was here when things took a turn for the unpleasant. Some say, Ravi Shankar challenged Vilayat Khan to a rematch and the latter calmed him down. The newspapers carried the report next day stating Vilayat Khan played better than him. And to no one’s surprise, innumerable stories have been floating since then adding to the rift between the two maestros.
I was lucky to have sourced out (courtesy: kavitachhibber.com) two diametrically opposite narrations of this event, one from Vilayat Khan’s younger brother and Surbahar player Imrat Khan and the other from Ravi Shankar himself. Have a read but before you begin contemplating on who among the two is being truthful or is there an unspoken truth that neither of them have mentioned here; I would like you to simply imagine the moment, the mahaul of witnessing four musical greats performing together on the stage in the prime of their careers. It does not get more magical than this for sure!
Imrat Khan’s version:
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 everyone 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.
Ravi Shankar’s version:
Vilayat Khan was a wonderfully gifted musician, and he passed away recently after a great career. The incident that you mentioned happened when we were playing at Red Fort and Ali Akbar Khan, and tabla maestro Kishan Maharaj were also on stage with us. All the famous musicians were there. I used to organize these musical events under the Jhankar Musical Circle Series and had been doing so for three-four years. That day I was also running a fever of 102 degrees. I was told we want to have all three of you Ali Akbar myself and Vilayat Khan, together on stage. I was a bit skeptical, but said fine. Vilayat Khan was very cordial and said, “Dada, prem se bajayenge” (we will play with love and affection) and I said fine. I also went along with whatever he wanted. "Let’s play raga Manj Khamaj," he said, and I said fine and played in whatever beat he wanted, just to keep the warmth and camaraderie. Nothing really happened that was unsavory, but the musicians from Delhi started cheering as he was tuning his sitar.
The next day it all started off with the musicians from Delhi claiming Vilayat Khan had overshadowed me completely, his jhalla was superior, I couldn’t keep up with him etc, etc. I still didn’t dwell much on it until it came out in the newspapers in Bombay. I was very irritated then and in fact challenged Vilayat Khan openly to a rematch at a friend’s house. The legendary classical vocalist Amir Khan was there as were Ali Akbar Khan and Kishan Maharaj. Vilayat Khan immediately appeased me by saying "Dada, let’s not get in to this. People indulge in idle talk and unless you hear me say something in person, don’t go by hearsay." I let it go. He was such a wonderful musician, but whenever he played, the first thing he would do would be to make digs at me! I smile about it now, but it was a bit tiring.