Some people have only to be seen and that’s it. They have grabbed you, made you their – call it what you like – admirer, fan, devotee. This has something to do with what they look like, what they are wearing and what they say. But this has much more to do with their within. And which, for all its being invisible and silent, shapes the way they appear to the world.
President R Venkataraman tenanted Rashtrapati Bhavan for five years – 1987 to 1992. President KR Narayanan did likewise from 1997 to 2002. I was privileged to be on the staff of both. As is the practice worldwide with First Residences, Aides de Camps would receive his visitors as they arrived and escorted them in. If the person coming was someone I wanted to “just see”, I would augment the receiving party and get a “darshan”. Of such visitors, two I will never forget. I had not seen them before from up close, and was never to see them ever again.
Mother Teresa is the first of the two. I completely forget the “reason” for her coming. But if that reason hardly mattered then, it matters less now. “Mother T” , Nobel Laureate, Bharat Ratna was calling on India’s President and that was all that mattered. She emerged from her car looking like a tiny wind-blown sparrow, in her blue-bordered and none-too-white dress. I bowed deep hoping for a hand in blessing resting for a moment in grace on my head. No such luck.
Her gaze was set on the red sandstone pile that towered over her. And a moment later she said very simply : “This building will make a good hospital!”. Arrays of staff, uniformed and in civvies, bowed and parted like water before a current, as she walked in.
Ustad Vilayat Khan is the second. The matchless sitarist, wizard with the raga Darbari, sculptor with Bhairavi, painter with Todi, embroiderer with Bilawal and emperor, no less, with Yaman, arrived wearing an unlined tunic of the cut of a long flowing sherwani.
Made of the finest Benarasi brocade, it was sheer, delicate, in pale turquoise with hints of lilac in the weft. His feet were shod in expensive mojris with zari worked into the uppers, the “tongue” and “tail” curled to a piercing point.
The Ustad looked like he had stepped out of a Mughal miniature painted by Mansoor. The Ustad did not “enter” Rashtrapati Bhavan; he strode into it like an emperor would when entering his own palace. And again, all who happened to be around, uniformed security-men, liveried attendants, random staffers, stepped back to see him pass.
What brought him to the President? Again, I cannot remember. What I do know is that Pandit Ravi Shankar, ten years his senior in age, and celebrated internationally as India’s “greatest sitarist”, decorated with the Bharat Ratna, was on his mind.
If the inner resources and outer forms of a hundred ragas occupied the “Sitar Samrat”, so did his decades-old feeling that his worth was being under-recognised : “If there is any award for sitar in India, I must get it first,” he proclaimed, adding “there has always been a story of wrong time, wrong person and wrong award in this country.” He could not, would not, get over being overtaken by Pandit Ravi Shankar.
More than one book has been written on Pandit Ravi Shankar, as is only right and natural. The first on Ustad Vilayat Khan has only just appeared – high time it did.
And it is totally engrossing. The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan by Namita Devidayal, author of the acclaimed The Music Room, grabs you quite like its subject does.
The book has his éclat. It is Ustad Vilayat Khan – supremely confident of itself, bold to the point of being brash, totally in awe of the Ustad’s genius and yet completely underwhelmed by his obsessive self-absorption. It tells us of his irritability which could sometimes be redeemed by humour but more often not, of his wanting unchanging loyalty from others while being vigorously inconstant himself. It speaks of his harshness as a brother, severity as a friend, sternness as a teacher.
And all this through a string of anecdotes beaded together to make a story of immense appeal.
To indulge in a howling truism: artists are human. And to rescue that truism from utter tedium: they are human but at a heightened level of every facet of being human.
And so love, anger, envy, sorrow, elation, dejection, the “dumps” and “spurts” all happen with them at a point in the scale several times more intense than in “ordinary” mortals. With some artists the furnace of this extremity turns their art into a flaming ingot.
Vilayat Khan flames through the book.