Journalist and author Namita Devidayal’s biography of the legendary sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan has just been published. She speaks to Bhumika Popli about the book.
Q. Your previous book, entitled The Music Room, was published in 2010 and received much critical acclaim. You have also been writing consistently on music as a journalist. With your latest book, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan, you’ve taken up your favourite subject again. Could you begin by telling us what inclines you so towards music?
A. Well, I was sent to learn music as a little girl and, although I was a reluctant student initially, I slowly developed a love for music that has seeped deep into my system. It has been a true privilege—to be able to think about not just the notes, but the stories around them, the silence between them. Perhaps that is why I keep getting drawn into that world and attempt to translate it for a wider audience who may not have access to it.
Q. What was it about Ustad Vilayat Khan’s life that inspired you to write his biography?
A. He seemed to have this extraordinary ability to extract the juice out of life—whether it was his love for food and cooking, his ability to prank around, his mimicry skills, his obsession with sports cars. And at the centre of it all, like a spinal cord, was the music. So I admire the stories I kept hearing about him that made him larger than life, and was quite drawn into his world which was the opposite of boring. I think I was also inspired by the confidence with which he was able to flick off easy fame and make choices—like turning down government awards or going to live in the mountains—which would clearly take him away from the limelight. I also admired his tenacity and the humility with which he was able to draw from sources that were so simple —like the folk song of the boatman, or an American blues singer.
Q. Please give us an insight into his music.
A. His music was textured and layered and traditional and contemporary. It was many things all at once. Sometimes, in his playing of that single instrument [the sitar], you could almost hear an entire orchestra—the percussive elements, the plaintive tones, the strumming, the drawing, and the finest unseen notes that are usually associated with voice. He moved beyond eliciting the wahwhen you hear something technically perfect, to eliciting the aahwhen you hear pure magic.
Q. What was Vilayat Khan’s contribution as a sitar player to the world of music?
A. His biggest contribution is that he crystallised the “gayaki” school of playing in an instrument which had earlier been known more as a strumming instrument. He was able to bring in those subtle elements of vocal singing that comes with breath and silence into an instrument, creating a hitherto unheard sound.
Q. What was his personality like?
A. Well, the one time I met him I found him daunting but also kind, for he played with my little son who was then one year old. The rest I got from endless conversations and interviews with people who were close to him or had studied under him. And my sense is that he was the kind of person one would love to have home for dinner—filled with jokes and laughter and yet depth and insight.
Q. What were the key elements of his life that shaped his music?
A. There were several—to start with, the death of his father at a very young age. This led him towards finding mentors in all sorts of unlikely places, including the world of All India Radio, gramophone records of the great masters, and also relatives who were able to teach him. This eclectic mentoring is possibly what led him to nurture and hone his own unique style, namely the gayaki ang. The other key element is the persistence of his mother, an extraordinarily strong woman, which pushed him towards excellence.
Q. In the book, you have mentioned that “Ravi Shankar’s fame cast a shadow on Vilayat Khan’s life…” Could you take us into that episode?
A. The book starts with an iconic concert in 1952, in Delhi, when the two of them played together. By the middle of the concert, it seemed evident that a subtle musical duel was taking place on stage and within a little while it was a full-blown battle of strings, where the notes became arrows set out to annihilate. According to many versions of the story, the greatest masters of music were present in the audience and Vilayat Khan was declared the “winner”. Many in the music world suggest that while Vilayat Khan was a musician who had depth, Ravi Shankar was an amazing collaborative artiste. The two spaces are not really comparable, but the fact is that Ravi Shankar kept getting the accolades and the global acclaim and this did cast a shadow on Vilayat Khan’s life, throughout, but clearly not enough for him to want to change his music nor follow that same approach.
Q. You are also a qualified musician. Could you take us through your own practice and tell us how that exposure helped you in your writings about music?
A. I think it definitely made me more sensitive as a writer on music. It helped me understand the nuances of that world which can sometimes take one beyond the quotidian. It also refined my ability to translate the language of music into the language of words, having had a certain amount of proficiency in both.
Q. What’s the best way of making people interested in learning about Indian classical music?
A. I think one has to make it accessible and take it out of the silo that it has happily been ensconced in. My favourite example of this is that Tom and Jerry cartoons often use Western classical riffs as their background score. What this does is make what is otherwise complex music accessible to people in an easy space. So I think we need to seriously think of interventions which do the same, else this amazing tradition will be bypassed. Given the stressful times we live in, it is especially relevant because, according to me, Indian classical music is what comes closest to meditation.
Q. What qualities does a writer need to weave together a good non-fictional narrative?
A. I think those would be an eye for detail, a sense of the visual, being able to create a scene and a person with colour and texture and smell—all transposed onto the writing. This helps draw the reader in. Also, not forgetting the place of emotions even in abstract subjects like music. The idea is to humanise the narrative so that even someone who doesn’t come from that world gets easily pulled in.
Q. You have also written Aftertaste, a work of fiction. How difficult or easy is the transition from non-fiction to fiction and vice versa?
A. Not easy or difficult, just what I felt like doing at that moment in time. I don’t like to categorise myself as a particular type of writer—or person, for that matter. So the idea is to move into whatever spaces interest and intrigue me at a moment in time.