In the world of Indian classical music, there has not been a more infamous rivalry than that between Pt Ravi Shankar and Ut Vilayat Khan. While the former played from dhrupad ang (style), the latter specialised in the gayaki ang (vocal style). In the month of the centenary of Pt Ravi Shankar, Ut Vilayat Khan’s son and Grammy-nominated sitar player Ut Shujaat Khan talks about the relationship between the two legends, and how the contest kept them on their toes:
What, according to you, is Pt Ravi Shankar’s contribution to the world of music?
When you talk to a person who has a radically opposite idea of music, one has to tread very carefully to not be misunderstood. As far as Pt Ravi Shankar’s contribution to music is concerned, it is unparalleled. For someone to have started as a dancer in his brother’s troupe in Paris, which also tells us that he was already exposed to the West, and then taking it further as a sitarist, it is remarkable.
When his association with the Beatles happened, people started understanding what sitar was all about. And then people like Ut Ali Akbar Khan sahab and my father were able to establish who they were and what was their style and the fact that there were other thoughts of music too. It also opened the door for people like me and some others to walk into the world – Europe and America – and play for the people who by then already knew what sitar was. We didn’t have to start from the start.
Pt Ravi Shankar’s association with the Beatles made him a rockstar. Your father was always uncomfortable with the idea of music being played for an audience that didn’t understand Indian classical music.
I don’t know whether it was the greatest thing for the sitar to have been played at Woodstock or the other pop festivals. Because it began to be associated with drugs, marijuana, hippies and yoga theatres. But at least they knew what sitar was. Musically, or even in terms of thought process, my father would say, ‘Why should I go all over the world spreading my music? Why does Robi da (Shankar) go and play at art galleries, theatres, sitting in front of 50,000 hippies, why? Do the hippies understand the seriousness of this art form? Do they understand that this art form is not supposed to go to you, you have to come to it?’ He believed that this is one of the greatest fine arts in the world and this is not the music that I should have to take to you. But Ravi Shankar ji wanted to take this music to the world and to see that other people also enjoyed the greatness of it. Vilayat Khan sahab would also go and play abroad but not at a jazz or a pop or rock festival since he knew that people there would not accept that one-hour alaap. He’d say, ‘when I get up on stage, I want to play my long alaap and if someone on marijuana or anyone else can’t understand that this is the path of our music, I don’t want to be there’.
Now, it’s a matter of debate as to who agrees with what. But the interesting thing is that we have two artists, legends of their own time, who have two such radically different points of view.
What’s your opinion about Pt Ravi Shankar’s style of music?
His music, in my opinion, which I think is a normal opinion and also that of my father’s, had him think mathematically and that was because of who he was as a dancer. It was like the bol padhant (syllable chants of rhythm in dance) infused on the sitar.
Pt Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing from the dhrupad style and your father’s gayaki ang — created faultlines amid art connoisseurs and the masses. Would Khan sahab get annoyed?
As for Vilayat Khan sahab, everything in him was the opposite of Pt Ravi Shankar — music, thought, dealings with the world, his public relations, which is very exciting for me to see, because it’s nice to look at these two musicians, who are such excellent artistes doing the same thing — the same Yaman Kalyan, same sitar — but there is no similarity.
The comparisons were made often. My father used to get annoyed and express it very often as to why people compared them. Ravi Shankar ji was a much cooler and calmer man, much less theatrical. He thought of every word and every line he said, in an interview or on the stage. Vilayat Khan sahab used to speak off-the-cuff. He said what he thought. For example, some people find Amitabh Bachchan very boring because you never get to see him emotionally excited about anything. You take any interview, everything is clearly thought of. And then you take the interview of someone who gets emotional, theatrical, angry. Some people find that interesting, some people find this interesting. My father used to get irritated and say, ‘why are you comparing two people who have nothing in common, because apart from the fact that this is wood and saregamapa, there is nothing else which is similar’.
The rivalry became the talk of the town as people spoke in hushed overtones about it. It is still spoken about. Also, over the years, a lot of gossip has been added to it.
I believe that if there is no rivalry, what’s the fun of things. Rivalry is also very important because that keeps you on your toes. There has to be a point of reference. Rivalry is a wonderful thing. I am absolutely for it. Rivalry and enmity are two different things. Now Shahid bhai (Ustad Shahid Parvez) is not my enemy, he can’t eat my food, I can’t play his programmes, we are living our own destinies. Vilayat Khan sahab’s point was that yes, we are rivals, let’s not be hypocritical about it and say, ‘hum toh bhai hain’. They were not. But there was mutual respect for the musicianship. Whenever my father was sitting with a group of people and he saw that the conversation was veering towards anything even slightly derogatory, because people would do that and say, ‘Khan sahab, uss din humne suna Ravi Shankar ji ko, pura dhul gaya festival,’ he would steer the conversation away and say that they may have a difference of opinion but please do not take away from the greatness of the man.
The number of times I have met Ravi Shankar ji, he has always spoken so greatly about my father to me. And this is not in front of someone, this is when we were completely alone. I understand that it is difficult for someone in that position to not respect the other artiste. I was once in the Kamani (auditorium) green room and an artiste was performing before me. Someone told me Pandit ji has come to hear my concert and is waiting in the car. I won’t forget that. It is only the greatness of him to want to come and listen to Vilayat Khan’s son.
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