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March 28, 2019

Author Namita Devidayal Uncovers The Diverse Facets Of Vilayat Khan’s Personality

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Joshua Navalkar. Styled by Akanksha Pandey

The recently released biography, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan, sensitively explores the genius and life of the sophisticated, globally renowned sitarist. Its author Namita Devidayal reminisces with Verve about her first exposure to classical music as a reluctant young student

In the last few weeks, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan was launched at two well-attended events, one in Mumbai and the second in New Delhi, in highly aesthetic settings. The release of Ustad Vilayat Khan’s official biography on both occasions was accompanied by a recital by his son, Hidayat Husain Khan.

Personally, though not very familiar with the mellifluous world of the Ustad, I found Namita Devidayal’s rendering of his life and work extremely gripping. My reading drew me in, not only for the author’s evocative recreation of the path his talent had charted — both in India and abroad — while surmounting a host of challenges along the way, but more for the way she made his humanity come alive through her words.

Interestingly, the biographer herself is no stranger to the sounds of a sitar — her first work, The Music Room: A Memoir, which drew heavily from her own experiences of learning with Dhondutai Kulkarni, sensitively captures her initiation into the art and the way traditions are passed on from one generation to another. I meet Devidayal after a gap of several years, on two occasions at her quiet home in South Bombay. Amidst the books showcased in her study and her hall, the beautiful greens that make her verandah such a relaxing space and the various artefacts that hint at her myriad travels, we chat about her latest literary offering and the muses that have shaped her mindset.

How did your passion for classical music develop?
It all started when I was 10 and my mother made me go to Dhondutai to learn music. I have written about her in my book The Music Room. Initially, I was a very reluctant student. I was mortified because her house near Kennedy Bridge was such a different space from anything that I was used to or I had seen. But for the first couple of years I was too young and too scared of my mother to say anything. Soon though, Dhondutai’s love and the music itself just drew me in and I remained under her tutelage until I went away to the US for my college education. After I returned, I resumed my lessons with her.

Obviously there was something that had touched a chord in me. And it was more, much more than the music. It was everything that classical music represents. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) teaches you humility. It teaches you how to have patience and just sustain one note literally for months when you are learning. Dhondutai’s music was at a pure level, and it seeped into me to such a degree that it has informed the rest of my appreciation of music. Even after I stopped learning and became a journalist, I continued to go to Dhondutai’s regularly, just to be in that environment and listen to her teaching other students.

Do you think the contemporary world — especially the younger generation — appreciates classical, instrumental music in its pure form?
A large part of it does and there is a tremendous appreciation for this kind of music. While we are moving into a modern space, there are a lot of revivals and festivals. Indian classical music is being consumed in different ways, and I don’t believe that it is dying by any stretch.

In this context, tell me about the reaction to your recent work, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan.
I was in Rishikesh when someone called me and said that they had read my book. They told me that I had brought the gayaki ang into my writing and I thought that was a very interesting observation. The gayaki ang is what Vilayat Khan brought into his sitar playing — it implied moving beyond the strumming of an instrument to a more melodic ‘singing’ of the instrument. So, when he said I had done that, he meant that I had brought singing into my writing, a certain lyricism that I am very conscious of.

Could you explain the significance of the title?
Khan invented the six-string sitar — it used to be a seven-string sitar. He took out two strings and then added the sixth string. This is retuned to resonate with the raga being played. The dominate notes of that raga get reflected in the sitar. It thus creates a very different acoustic, a more holistic experience.

What was your vision for the book?
I wasn’t trying to convert anyone into a lover of music. My honest attempt was to present a great musician —and a fragmented man. It is a biography — so naturally his life is the subject of the book. How you render it, how you bring in universal truths — whether it is also about pain in the family, human frailties, the mistakes made or how one turns pain into beauty which is what he did — is important. He used to talk about how his tears became the notes he played — that was very important to me.

So, as some biographies tend to do, your work does not put him on a pedestal?
Not at all. In India, we often tend to be very hagiographic in our approach towards icons. We think they are all great, and that’s so foolish because it’s inauthentic. I wanted to present Vilayat Khan as he was. I’m empathetic to the fact that people come with all sorts of things inside them and you just have to learn to accept and love them whole, as they are. You can’t judge one part and love another. Some people read the work and were quite offended by some of the things he did. I did not choose his escapades or the anecdotes in a random way; they were all in context, brought into his work. His music had elements of a human being. It had pain and pathos. It had love, joy and pranks — and all these things were brought into my book.

How did you zoom in on Ustad Vilayat Khan?
The idea came about because his son Hidayat is an old friend of mine. He was very keen that a book be written on his father, and he kept trying to persuade me. Finally I agreed to try it out. And when I started researching, within a short time I was hooked — this man’s life was so interesting! He used to love ballroom dancing; he once drove a Mercedes from Kabul to Mumbai. He was a prankster, a mimic, a cook, and he used to cut and stitch his own clothes. I couldn’t have found a more interesting person to write about. And I had access to people who were very close to him — both his sons (Hidayat and Shujaat), his senior-most student Pandit Arvind Parikh, Deepak Raja who is a very well-known musicologist, and more. Due to this access, I agreed.

Did you manage to have any interactions with him?
I met him only once. But I have known Hidayat for seven to eight years. And even though I don’t meet him often since he lives in America, we have a great rapport because he was very open to understanding his father as a complex human being. He told me clearly that he would not interfere in the project, even if I wrote something that he did not like.

How open was Hidayat about his experiences with his father?
He has shared both the tough and the amazing times. He spoke about living under the shadow of his father’s talent. He spoke about the tremendous learnings. Hidayat told me how his father would randomly start talking about how you have to visualise music. He would pick up a shawl and say, ‘Beta, look at the embroidery in the shawl and make your music as refined and as detailed as the embroidery’. He was able to connect every aspect of living. He lived in a very sensory way — so he believed that everything was interconnected. Personally, I understand that, because I need to be visually in a space that connects with my spiritual self. Hidayat told me small stories which explained that the level of subtlety that you bring into music may not impact the listener on a conscious level, but it will impact him on a subconscious level. And this is most powerful because most of us are living through our subconscious minds.

How long did it take you to finish writing?
It took me four years because I did not write it at a stretch. I was waiting for some funding to go to America to meet Vilayat Khan’s estranged brother who lives in St Louis — Ustad Imrat Khan. He died recently. I am glad I went because it gave me a different dimension to the story. I tried to go to all the places Vilayat Khan had lived in. I was not on a deadline. I didn’t even have a publisher till the end. I wanted this book to be an act of love.

You have juggled many roles — music student and practitioner, journalist, mother and author. Which is the one that has given you the most satisfaction?
I would say every single one of them. I take great joy and pride in the fact that whether I’m with my friends goofing off, or I am with my son or at a music concert, whether I’m writing, doing journalism, or going for my run in the morning, I do it all with equal joy.

Was The Music Room completely based on your experiences?
Yes, but it encompassed more than me. I used myself as a narrative thread to navigate that world. It’s like a little girl entering it and trying to make sense of it. It’s very personal and emotional but it’s not entirely about me. It’s about Dhondutai and that whole world — about Kesarbai and other amazing musicians.

Were you actually making sense of that world when you were just 10 years old?
Not at all. But I used to be fascinated by that small room. Dhondutai would do her puja for an hour —dress up the gods and bathe them. It was like how a little girl goes into a doll’s house. I would sit there and learn and be very fidgety, but slowly the music entered into my being. By the time I was 15 or 16, I would accompany her at concerts.

Did you use the actual music room as a metaphor?
It wasn’t about the physical room. It’s a space that I periodically retreat into because it’s a very inward, beautiful, powerful, pure and authentic space. Nowadays I don’t really sing much but sometimes I switch on my electronic tanpura, sit by myself, and sing. It’s not for anyone. It’s almost meditative. The music room has become the space I enter whenever I feel like.

Just as you were initiated into music at a young age, are you passing on that tradition to your son?
I tried my best to get him to go to a tabla class, not because I wanted him to learn the tabla but because I wanted him to experience that space with Dhondutai’s tabalchi, one of the most kind and sweet persons I know. He went for a few months but at some point, he became his own person and became a rugby player, so it’s fine.

Was your second work, Aftertaste (2010), about your family?
It was a lot about my family, but no character was identifiable. I didn’t want to be typecast after The Music Room. Everyone, including senior writers like William Dalrymple, told me that I must keep writing about music. But I’m not a career writer, I believe in just doing what comes naturally to me. When you bring any world alive to a reader, it’s valuable. Music is obviously a much more engaging space, but I wanted to draw from and bring alive that part of me that comes from the baniya family — where money is the main currency of emotional exchange — in a very unabashed and natural way. I chose to write about it in a non-judgemental novel.

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