Mut sahel hamein jaano
Phirta a falak barson
Tub khaak ke parde se
Insaan nikalte hain.

(Don’t take me easy;
For years this cosmos turns on its axis;
Only then does a human being appear
From behind the curtain spread across this earthly creation)

In the classic couplet by Mir Taqi Mir I would replace “human being” with “Ravi Shankar” for my immediate purposes. In fact Mir is to Urdu poetry what Pandit Ravi Shankar is to Hindustani music. This begs a question: if Ravi Shankar or Robu as his Guru and father-in-law, Ustad Alauddin Khan addressed him, was the “Mir” of our sangeet, who then is Ghalib, to sustain the metaphor? Anyone exposed to the universe of classical sangeet, has been tormented by the bipolarity in the world of Sitar: who is greater, Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) or Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004)? To continue the equation, Vilayat Khan would end up as Ghalib – beyond this, the metaphor would get mouldy.

Put it down to my perverse priorities, I found it difficult to ignore Ravi Shankar’s centenary earlier this week (April 7): it would have been a sacrilege – Corona lockdown or no Corona lockdown.

This despite the fact that our earliest musical loyalties were with Vilayat Khan, a fact which I can trace to the first concert we attended at Sapru House, the only concert hall in New Delhi in the early 60s. He played Tilak Kamod, its melodic lines, pure poetry, every stretch of the “meend” embraced all the notes of Tilak Kamod. The “drut” or fast passages measured upto poet Momin’s description: “Shola sa lapak jaaye hai, awaz to dekho”. (every passage leaps up, like a flame)

Aruna, my wife was then learning the sitar and we were hooked on Vilayat Khan’s Desh, Behag, Bageshwari, Piloo, Kedara, Jaijaiwanti – all the ragas of thumri my ears were familiar with since childhood. As I grew in the world of music, limitations in the romance with Vilayat Khan surfaced. What was touted as “gayaki” ang or “vocal” style were actually the emotional, sentimental melodic lines of thumri, Dadra and Kajri.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Vilayat Khan’s repertoire was limited: he could play with authority, ragas like, Darbari, Shahana, Shankara, Bhairav. He did, and brilliantly too. But when he broke into song, quite spontaneously, was exactly when the sitar began to look a plaything in his hands. That was when he was in his “gayaki” ang mode.

It is one of the best kept secrets in the world of Hindustani music that in her deep enunciation of alaap, Ravi Shankar’s wife, Alauddin Khan’s daughter, the reclusive Annapurna was in a different zone of music altogether. Ravi was hemmed in by geniuses – Ali Akbar, Annapurna and Vilayat Khan.

I am not in on the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage, but professional incompatibilities may well have been a cause – Annapurna’s musical Puritanism versus Ravi’s flashy innovations.

This flashiness, he once told me, was a function of his exposure to life in Paris as part of his brother Uday Shankar’s famed dance troupe which was at the heart of the 1948 film Kalpana, when Ravi was 28 “I loved wearing my three piece suits and lighting a cigarette in a holder.” At this time, Z.A. Bukhari of All India Radio, who baptized many musicians into AIR, had given “Inayat Khan’s son” (Vilayat) a garage behind the AIR office at Alipur Road with strict instructions to “practice, practice, practice.” Vilayat followed these instructions to the last syllable. “At the end of a month the garage looked like a site where a hundred chickens had been slaughtered – the walls had blood marks.” The blood was from the fingers of his left hand as it glided up and down the strings and the frets with “lightening speed.”

Ravi had the advantage of living for decades in virtually a one-man music academy – Baba Alauddin Khan. What is more he had challenging peers, Ali Akbar and Annapurna.

Vilayat, on the other hand, had to fend for himself from the age of 10 when his father died. He was far too talented for uncles and his father’s colleagues to ignore, but vis-a-vis Ravi, he developed a “poor cousin” complex. The better he played, the more Ravi’s growing international reputation bothered him.

The epic contest between Ravi and Vilayat at the Constitution Club in 1952 remains one of the greatest events in musical history. It was billed as a Ravi-Ali Akbar duet but the sudden, dramatic appearance of Vilayat changed the complexion. Baba Alauddin protested but the audience prevailed. In the faster passages of Manj Khammaj, Vilayat had the audience standing on their feet. Ravi’s strings snapped. It was a fiasco for Baba’s Maihar gharana.

Even so, nursing a false sense of victimhood, Vilayat remained his worst enemy. He would play for AIR only if he was paid a rupee more than Ravi. He refused the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Padma Vibhushan for similar reasons. After stellar performances at the Edinburgh music festival, Ravi continued to accumulate successes. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin became his “chela”. He became a guide to the Beatle, George Harrison. Then, lo and behold, he turned up at Woodstock music festival in 1968. A helicopter had to ferry him over 4,00,000 strong crowd. Once on the stage his tabla accompanist, Allah Rakha closed his eyes: youngsters below the stage were making copious love.

Vilayat Khan heard these stories with amusement and envy. I remember his last performance at Siri Fort Auditorium. He played Bageshwari quite brilliantly. Just when the hall resonated with his jhala, he paused and picked up the microphone. “You have to emerge not from a helicopter but from your mother’s womb to play like this.” This was his swipe at Ravi’s Woodstock fiasco.

To resolve the comparison let us leave the verdict to Satyajit Ray: he invited Ravi Shankar to be the music director for Pather Panchali but for Jalsaghar, the musical score was Vilayat Khan’s.