Vilayat Khan’s sitar was not an external prop; it had become an extension of his body, another limb. Even when he was not playing, he would constantly engage with his instrument, stare at it, fiddle with the ivory bridge, run his hand along the strings, pressing one down to see how the sound changed, strum downward and upward. He was his instrument, his instrument was him.
This is why his fingers often moved even when he was not playing. His children and students would see his fingers move or tap while he was fast asleep. The music never stopped.
One morning, in the Stardust flat, probably sometime in the late 1950s, Vilayat Khan told his brother Imrat Khan to go to the other room. Khansahib had been experimenting with the strings. He wanted Imrat to only hear the sound, not see what he was doing, because the visual input might colour his aural judgement.
For the next few hours, he kept tooling around with his instrument, what he called “chhed-chhad”, with no attention to time, the way a person might spend a morning chatting with a best friend, in a space of easy intimacy.
When he finally started playing, Imrat came to the door and said, “Bhaiya! What did you just do? It sounds amazing!”
“Imrat! My brother! You won’t believe what I have done. Look. I have just got rid of the pancham string. I don’t know what’s happening. Come here! Listen to this!” He jumped up, gave his younger brother an enormous hug and then proceeded to waltz around the room with him.
What had just happened was extraordinary. By retuning the two main strings, he had just irrevocably transformed the texture and tone of the sitar. Essentially, he had started fashioning the iconic “gandhar pancham” sitar. The idea behind it was to have the raga’s dominant notes completely available to the player of the instrument, so that they would reflect and resonate the notes of the raga being played and create a powerful musical atmosphere.
This also explains why the Vilayat Khan school of sitar players don’t usually feel the need to use the tanpura as an accompanying background drone – because it allows the silent spaces between the notes to actually be silent. The reinvented sitar was able to create a new acoustic ambience. The player could make the instrument truly imitate the voice, with all its pauses and modulations.
A few months later, when Vilayat described these new ideas to Kanhai Lal, his father’s old sitar-maker in Calcutta, the old man looked at him and said, “Khoka, tor matha kharap hoye gyachhe...Son, you are going crazy.”
But Vilayat had aroused the curiosity of the seasoned instrument maker. The old man also knew that this particular khoka was not to be dismissed. He put aside one instrument to experiment with and started adding the elements requested by this brash young man whom he had known from the time he was a toddler.
A year or two later, when Vilayat Khan came to see him, he said, “Vilayat, I’ve created this beast for you. Please take it away and do what you like with it. It’s your baby now.” He could scarcely have known that he had created the first version of what would eventually become the industry standard.
Vilayat Khan continued to work tirelessly with the country’s top instrument makers, Kanhai Lal and Hiren Roy in Calcutta, and later, Rikhi Ram in Delhi, to reconfigure the sitar. He later removed the brass pancham string and replaced it with a steel string. This dramatically changed the acoustic atmosphere around the instrument.
The six-string sitar was born.
He got rid of the second gourd, the one on top, which was earlier used for amplification, but after the introduction of microphones, served no purpose other than cosmetic. Then, he had the instrument makers reshape the gourd or tabli, giving it a slightly curved dome-like shape to create greater resonance. Vilayat was looking for a completely different tonal texture from the sitar. He also increased the curvature of the frets so that he could bend the notes far more: up to five notes. The human voice has a range of expression, and that is what he wanted to draw out from a sitar – bass to treble.
This new, neat version of the instrument eventually became the sitar standard across the country and even musicians from rival schools started demanding the “Vilayatkhani sitar” from instrument makers.
Finally, Vilayat Khan ergonomically changed the position of the sitar to make it easier to handle, lifting it from its earlier position so that it was held at a 45-degree angle to the floor to reduce stress on the left arm. It is possible that this was also motivated by his profound sense of aesthetics.
These interventions enabled him to play his sitar with all the elements of a vocal performance: the slow meditative khayal, the faster taans, and the light thumri or dadra piece which most vocal musicians throw in like a delicate sorbet at the end of a four-course meal.
I could not quite enter the life of a man who had transformed his instrument without becoming intimate with it myself. For him, a line drawn across a piece of paper was never merely a line, it was a sitar string – something that could potentially change the universe.
I sat in the music room in Arvindbhai’s elegant sea-facing home in Bombay for my first sitar lesson. It was the eve of Vilayat Khan’s tenth death anniversary. He would have been eighty-six years old. The music room was the temple where devotees gathered every evening. The couch on which Vilayat Khan had sat and taught Arvindbhai for years was where the student now sat, offering the same wisdom, singing the same compositions, in that way that gulmohars blossom at the same time every year. New flowers, old tree. The students were different. The music was the same.
Instruments of varied vintage and size stood against the wall in different corners of the room. Arvindbhai handed me a beautiful sitar, a slim one, smaller than the one he played. An orange and green thread was tied around the upper half of its stem. The ivory inlay work looked vaguely ancient.
“I picked this one up from Khansahib many years ago for 600 rupees. It is from the Enayat Khan collection. It had been left in his home by some zamindar who had become penniless and was forced to sell off all his things.”
I was reminded of my first day in another music room with my beloved teacher Dhondutai, where I sat as a reluctant student, oblivious to how that day would change my life. Arvindbhai appointed one of his senior students, Deepak Raja, a musicologist and an obsessive Vilayat Khan fan, to teach me. Deepak gently pushed the mizrab or plucker on to the tip of my right index finger. I winced, for it was too tight. It is said that when Enayat Khan died, his students fought over his mizrab.
I was not expected to do much more than get my posture right. Straight back. Sitar at a precise 45-degree angle from the body, the round tumba resting in the crook of my knee. I went through the frets, all seven notes, up once and down once. Press with your left index finger until you reach the last note. Play this with the next finger. This is enough for today, Deepak said.
Arvindbhai told me about the time he had started accompanying his teacher at concerts. In the early days, during a programme at Laxmi Baug, Vilayat Khan played for almost five hours without giving Arvindbhai the chance to play. On their way back, at three in the morning, he asked his teacher why he had been punished thus.
“Arre, Arvind, first at least learn to sit on the stage for five hours non-stop with the sitar in your hands. That itself takes enormous mental and physical stamina,” he said. “Then let’s move to the next step.”
There were no shortcuts in this world. You could not hurry. You had to first sit. Sit and wait. Sit and wait with complete faith. And slowly, slowly, the world opened itself up to you. Then, there was no going back.
Excerpted with permission from The Sixth String Of Vilayat Khan, Namita Devidayal, Context.