Music has often been described as a universal language that transcends political boundaries and social disparities. From political leaders to musicians, all have spoken of the power of music to unite and to inspire peace and harmony.

Speaking at the World Sufi Forum 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the analogy of a sitar, which has several strings that produce individual sounds, but when played together create a melody.

In an interview conducted by Karan Thapar before his death in 2004, celebrated sitar maestro Vilayat Khan also mentioned the power of music to create social harmony.


For Vilayat Khan, sur and laya (translated in this context to mean melody and rhythm) are his religion.

But can expressions of love contained in music truly solve the world’s problems? Despite the many festivals of Sufi music and devotional music of all kinds and intercultural collaborative ventures between musicians, the harsh reality of social disharmony continues to plague nations. Is it not true that rivalries exist even among the very practitioners of music? Beyond the veneer of spiritualism that is often touted by the best-known musicians lies a reality that is very much a part of the intensely competitive world that we are all a part of.

Mercifully, competition in the musical arena does not result in bloodshed, but it is unhealthy all the same. Does that mean that music cannot help transcend barriers? Indeed, it can, but only if practitioners of the art choose to treat their medium as such and not merely as an empty slogan.

Thapar’s questions try to unravel Vilayat Khan’s personality, an attempt that is only partial if does not take into account his musical persona. Vilayat Khan is candid about his uncompromising nature and his disdain for musicians who are propped by publicity machines. He is equally frank about expressing his anger, as he does not believe in containing his emotions. He maintains that his music is incomparable and distinctive. He does not care for awards of national recognition that most musicians would hanker after, as he believes those in the juries are not fit to judge his status as a musician.

To many, Vilayat Khan’s reactions may come across as reflections of an egotistic individual, but his complex personality comes to the fore through this interview. Thus, his pursuit of excellence since his childhood through a demanding practice regimen also had moments of yearning for public acclaim as he so openly admits. His regal and dramatic presence notwithstanding, his music is evidence of the perseverance and dedication that he exhibited to better himself even at the zenith of his career.