Friday, March 24

Pt Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan: The rivalry that never was

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When two stars glitter on the Milky Way galaxy, nobody compares their brightness. Nobody asks if one is competing with the other for prominence. Staring at infinity on an inky blue night sky, one realizes that liberty and luxury lie only in getting bathed by their luminosity.
So, should be it with Pt Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan. As the world celebrated Shankar’s birth centenary on April 7 with musicians across the globe paying glowing tributes online, one question kept haunting the mind. If Khan saab was around today, how would he have reacted to the centenary celebrations of his ‘Robu-da’?

Unfortunately, the music corridors have often resonated with tales of their ambivalent affection. For those looking for sensationalism, it would be easy to look at the scenario from a prism of “rivalry of sorts”. But doing so would mean agreeing to be myopic and falling into a trap that projected a competition between the Etawah and the Maihar gharanas of Indian classical music. It would mean failing to understand the ideologies of two legends, their individualism and their ways of life.
Khan was eight years junior to Shankar. His son, Ustad Shujaat Khan, refuses to entertain any ‘dramatic’ emphasis on the so-called discordant notes while analyzing the sense and sensibilities of the two icons. “If my father was alive today, he would have wished Ravi Shankarji a place in the musical heaven. It was a relationship that had many facets. On the one hand, they were contemporaries. Both were playing the sitar and were legends of the time. I don’t know what people make it out to be. But, I remember my father enjoyed his music and was always very respectful of Ravi Shankarji. He would call my father Vilayatbhai. Whenever they met, they would share their old stories and only spoke to each other in Bengali.”

Yet, there were other stories in circulation. Like the one at a Jhankar concert in 1952 when Khan had supposedly stormed on stage to play with Shankar. More often than not, these were liberally garnished with such spices that made it seem like everyone had a seat in the gallery while the centre stage was reserved for a battle of two stalwart sitarists. “The problem was that my father was very outspoken. He was an emotional person. When he spoke, people used to twist his words and present it in a way to sensationalize their relationship. For example, my father was against Ravi Shankarji’s ideology of spreading Indian classical music to the world or the trend of composing multiple ragas.”

Here, it is important to understand the connotation of the word ‘against’. “My father understood Ravi Shankarji’s concept of taking the music to the West this way and wanting the world to get to know the sitar. He felt that if Ravi Shankarji wanted to do it that way, it was fine with him. But his views were different. He felt that our music should not be propagated through the Beatles, should not be performed by people sitting in a yoga studio and definitely not be taken to places like the Monterey Pop Festival. According to him, this Indian fine art should be played and heard in our own country. Our own generation should hear the beauty of the music. And if the Westerners like it, they should come here to listen and learn it. There is no need for us to take the music there.”
That was clearly a very different approach. Or rather, a different world view. But, most importantly, it left room for agreeing to disagree. “My father would also say there are so many beautiful ragas. It is OK if one composes a couple of new ragas. But if one does that too often, it might mean adding parts from two or three different ragas and giving it a different name. Again, this is a different ideology. That is not rivalry.”

In short, it was all about divergent viewpoints. Nothing more. Nothing less. Unfortunately, the presentation of these two different points of views became rather “theatrical” at times. “This was twisted by people with vested interests and presented in a different way. The problem with my father was that he never cared about justifying what he said or did. He thought it was beneath his dignity to explain himself. He would say, ‘Why will I or Robu-da dislike each other? We play totally different kinds of music. We are contemporaries but not enemies. People should understand that’.”

But such comments hardly made headlines. On one occasion, the duo had even spoken about what Shujaat describes as a “theatrical” article revolving around his father’s comment. “When Ravi Shankarji had asked my father, he had said: ‘Robu-da, you are probably the only person to whom I will clarify this. This is the context and this is what I had said. The problem is that I cannot go and offer rebuttals to everyone’.”

Of course, it wasn’t possible for them to meet every fortnight and exchange pleasantries. The Indian classical music scene then was vibrant. It embraced both and gave enough space for them to reach their pinnacle of success. The same set of listeners who went for an enchanting concert of Shankar at Dover Lane would come back the following evening to listen to another mesmerizing recital by Khan.

Yet, people rolled their eyes and spoke about rivalries even though it wasn’t difficult to understand that two contemporaries at the top of their careers can’t behave like friends who sit with each other all the time. “Both had flourishing careers. But whenever they met, I have only seen love, admiration, affection and respect from both ends. Ravi Shankarji had made me sit so many times alone with him and said: ‘Shujaat, I hope you understand how much I respect your father and his music’. So many times over, he had come to my concert. He would come backstage and even tell me how much he appreciated the way I was progressing. For me, that was a great thing.”

Meeting at parties and gatherings in Delhi was also pretty common. “I met him many times over at his Delhi residence. We have also met at concerts of others. If I was at a dinner in the presence of 50 people and had greeted him from far while he was surrounded by many, he would call me over. Then he would ask whoever was sitting next to him to move and have me sit next to him for the rest of the evening. For me, this was huge that a person of his stature was giving me so much of affection and blessings. I belong to the generation that believes that whatever I am today is because of the blessings of all the elders including Ravi Shankarji.”

Perhaps, it is similar narrative even between Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee. Two immensely-loved stars with huge fan-following have so often been pitted against one another. “Every artiste has insecurity. Worries about what will happen one day if they can’t perform are common. The relationship between our families has been of mutual respect. I also feel that there is also nothing wrong if there is some competition between two artistes. Even if Carl Lewis and some other athletes run in a race, they shake hands once the race is over. Why can’t people focus on their friendship and affection?” Shujaat wonders.

As he walks down memory lane, Shujaat remembers how his father would oppose anyone who wanted to instigate negative reactions. “Every artiste has people around him or her. There would be people around my father too. If they tried to say negative things about Ravi Shankarji’s recital, my father would cut them short and say: ‘Listen, are you sitting around me to talk badly about Ravi Shankarji? Then please don’t sit here. Besides, you are not qualified to talk about a person of his stature.”

Did they ever share anything in common? “No, nothing. One shouldn’t even search for any common ground. If they were similar, the fun would be lost.” Shujaat has fond memories of various occasions when the two would meet. At London airport, residences of common friends in New York, Delhi and Kolkata – their meetings were always pleasant. “They would first hug each other, sit together, exchange pleasantries and talk about each other’s lives. They would travel a lot and hence, their conversation would often begin with discussions regarding their health.”

Not just that, they would sometimes even discuss their kurtas and where they got them stitched. “I have heard my father say: ‘Robu-da, what a lovely coloured kurta you are wearing! Is it munga? Where did you get it from?” And then, in jest, he would ask, ‘Keu dilo? (Was it a gift?)’ And Ravi Shankarji would say: ‘Vilayat bhai, aami tomar moto velvet kurta porina (I do not wear velvet kurtas like you do).’ There was no air of formality between them.”

Even if people outside didn’t know about this, the two understood what was happening in between. “The problem is two camps were created and their job was pushing and highlighting their own champion at the expense of belittling the other side. So, it was people in between who were creating this huge drama. I want people to understand that we are talking about legends who were far above all these. These were comfortable with where they were. Of course, some potshots were taken. My father would also wonder why people kept on talking about Ravi Shankarji in front of him. He would say: ‘Why can’t people talk about me and my music when they interview me? Why not about Bade Ghulam Ali, Amir Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher? Why constantly talk only about Ravi Shankar?’ It is like going to interview Salman Khan and constantly asking him only about Shah Rukh Khan.”

One doesn’t really do that to stars. In fact, stars are born because they refuse to be clones or Siamese twins. They shine on their own right, without overshadowing each other. It’s the galaxy that wins only by celebrating their differences to enrich their musical horizon.

Source: Times of India

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