Ustad Vilayat Khan ‘The genius of Vilayat Khan’ (ÉL) 4/5

For many devotees of Indian classical music on the Indian continent, and wider afield, Vilayat Khan is regarded very much as the equal of, and in some respects superior to, the late great Ravi Shankar and that says a great deal about the standing of the former. Alongside Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar, Vilayat Khan is regarded as one of the ‘three Musketeers’ of Indian classical music who were pioneering in their exposing the delights of the music to a western audience. While comparisons for a more general audience are more difficult to gauge, we can instead marvel at both exceptionally gifted musicians and revel in their deeply contrasting approaches and outlooks. Like Shankar, Vilayat Khan was a master sitar player (he passed away in 2004, aged eighty-two) and continued to perform well into his seventies and beyond. Two original vinyl albums from 1961 and 1962 have been combined here and represent excellent value for money at around seventy-five minutes. Even so, there are only four ragas in total and these are lengthy pieces that took up whole sides on the original LPs. Vilayat Khan developed his own distinctive style of playing known as gayahi ang, or vocal style by which we mean that he practised the sitar to emulate the sound of the human voice. Technically he was innovative also in that he developed a way of playing where he was able to bend a note after it was struck. This has become a widely used technique in India ever since. However, it has to be stated that it was a style not to everyone’s liking and there was a healthy rivalry between Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar, the former taking issue with the latter’s courting of publicity on an international stage. The elongated ragas on this double helping of albums illustrate what Indian classical music is all about and it was shortly after they were recorded that Khan first came to prominence in the UK when he appeared at the 1964 Edinburgh festival.

Tim Stenhouse