In its golden decades, Hindustani classical music was peopled with magnificent men and women with riveting life stories. Many of these, some real and some apocryphal, we all know in dibs and drabs. That painful prodigious childhood, tyrannical gurus, difficult fathers, the mortification of poverty and disrespect, the battle for acceptance, spectacular debuts, the many follies and foibles, gharana squabbles, personal misadventures and so much more. With this incredible wellspring of material, you wonder why there are so few really good, readable books on our legends.

Most biographies of classical musicians in the market are achingly boring or downright frustrating. They either suffer from flat writing that simply doesn’t do any justice to their subject, or from that fatal flaw of reverential biographies – they simply don’t go into troubled territory for fear of causing offence to the icons or their estates. It is as if the masters have to be seen as flawless, cardboard icons, “pure” men and women.

Among the biographies that managed to recreate full-blooded characters were TJS George’s biography of MS Subbulakshmi, A Life in Music, and Pandarinath Kolhapure’s very personal Gaanyogi Shivputra on Kumar Gandharva. Predictably both raised hackles for telling it like it is.

Larger than life

So, Namita Devidayal’s The Sixth String Of Vilayat Khan comes as a rare and refreshing take on the life of a pioneering genius whose contributions to the world of Hindustani instrumental music are immense. An inheritor of the grand Imdadkhani heritage, he authored the gayaki ang, which gave greater vocalism to the otherwise strident sounds of string instruments like the sitar. His music was all flamboyance and liquid grace as scholar Partho Datta put it in a superb obituary of the ustad. And unlike Ravi Shankar, he never ventured into east-west collaborations. He did make sporadic forays into films – there was his excellent work for Satyajit Ray’s moody Jalsaghar (in the fashion of some ironic but predictable tragedy, it was mistakenly attributed to Ravi Shankar in the first few albums, as per the book) and a lovely Asha Bhonsle song for Kadambari, a 1976 art film.

It is something of a tragedy that the ustad is mentioned more in the context of his lifelong rivalry with the global sitar star, and a fairly bitter one at his end, the book shows, rather than his own heart-stopping brilliance. (There is of course a third corner to this who-is-the-best debate among sitar lovers – the great Nikhil Banerjee whose fiercely loyal fans believe that his gentle, receding personality stood in the way of greater recognition.) There is also copious material available on Khan’s extravagant lifestyle, immaculate appearance, the cars and the women.

This book goes a long way in setting right that unfair skew about how we perceive the man. It offers us a glimpse into how and why he became the person and artiste he was, by spanning the entire arc of his life – from the bleak childhood to the sunset years. Devidayal, with a sharp and well-paced writing style has written an unputdownable book. In this of course she is aided by Khan’s own larger than life character. If you are looking for a book with deep, scholarly insights into the music of Vilayat Khan perhaps you have to look elsewhere. But that does not seem to be Devidayal’s intention anyway. She sets out to tell a great, painstakingly-researched story that brings a whole world and time alive for us, and succeeds on all counts.

The making of an artist

The man who emerges from the pages of this book is a musician whose life and art bore the stamp of a tumultuous childhood and agonising adolescence. Khan lost his father, guru and the fulcrum of his life, the legendary Enayat Khan, when he was just 10. For a small child, this grand but deadly weight of inheritance was often too heavy to bear. The author does a great job of evoking his lonely tutelage, sitting with his face to the wall with a distraught mother alternately cajoling and beseeching him to excel himself. Devidayal returns to this image time and again, most touchingly when she writes about the last time he picks up the sitar, sitting facing the wall in a Calcutta flat, a frail old man in a vest and pajamas playing a Gaur Sarang befitting the afternoon.

Restless to find a guru, Vilayat Khan runs away to Delhi at age 14. The time he arrives in Delhi is historically significant for the classical arts. The feudal pillars that held up musicians had crumbled, and All India Radio and the seths of the city have stepped in as employers and patrons. The teen finds shelter in a garage at the AIR thanks to the generous and kind programme director ZA Bukhari. Not only does the weary, hungry teen find sustenance and a roof, albeit in a garage, over his head but also the opportunity to watch and work with stalwarts of the time.

The kindness of a whole lot of strangers, the generous vocalists in his mother’s clan in Saharanpur and his own manic drive for perfection bring Khan to the threshold of greatness. He wins over Mumbai next, gaining a whole army of fans, followers and the admiration of the city’s elite. From here the story takes a sharp turn. The musician is now a more assured young man, remarkably handsome, suave and with an instinctive love for beau-monde. (He once goes into a rage because his second wife, Lisa, dared serve dinner on thermocol plates to save herself the tedium of washing up, demanding that only the finest porcelain be used.)

Vivid vignettes

It comes as a huge relief that the author doesn’t bother to explain or excuse the small and big acts of emotional cruelty the maestro inflicts on those close to him. He was clearly not an easy man to live with and all his jet-setting sophistication did not seem to have convinced him that women and men were equal.

The writer’s own familiarity with Mumbai and social circles that Khan moved around in gives her a vantage point to tell some fantastic stories. These were decades when there were rich creative ties between the worlds of film and classical music and Khan was very much a part of the network. For those who can’t have enough insights into Amir Khan, the man with a molten throat, there are some wonderful nuggets about his abiding friendship with Vilayat Khan. There is a priceless scene set in Indore’s Bombay Bazar and its baijis which would be a shame to reveal here.

There are some quibbles. For a story so vivid it would have been great if there were more photographs to bring it alive. Also, one misses the story of Monisha Hazra, the first wife and mother of his three musician children, by all accounts a feisty woman who couldn’t cope with the demands of playing dutiful wife.

This book inspires you to give Vilayat Khan’s music another hearing. Once you know the story, it sounds even more moving.

The Sixth String Of Vilayat Khan, Namita Devidayal, Context.