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Ustad Vilayat Khan's masterful collaboration with Satyajit Ray in Jalsaghar (1958)

The great sitarist, who was born on this day (28 August) 90 years ago, was the artiste Satyajit Ray chose to embellish with a musically rich score his film about the obsession and pathos of a dying feudal culture.

A YouTube grab of Ustad Vilayat Khan from a concert in the US

Roushni Sarkar

Ustad Vilayat Khan, one of the foremost exponents of the sitar, ushered in a new era in Hindustani classical music by introducing the gayaki ang, or vocal style, in playing the instrument.

Born to sitar and surbahar maestro Ustad Enayat Khan, son of Ustad Imdad Khan, young Vilayat Khan was keen to become a vocalist. But his mother, Bashiran Begum, who herself hailed from a family of vocalists, made sure he continued the tradition of his forefathers and became a sitarist.

Vilayat Khan’s deep interest in vocal music was reflected later in his performances and compositions. Having lost his father at an early age, he learnt from his maternal grandfather, the vocalist Bande Hassan Khan, and was also an admirer of the magnificent Khansaheb Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Kasur Patiala gharana.

“He loved to listen to him and take lessons from him as well," said Ustad Raza Ali Khan, grandson of the great ustad. "Vilayat Khan’s style of infusing gayaki in sitar playing was revolutionary, breaking away from the conventional style followed by other artists such as Pandit Ravi Shankar. His style became quite popular and is still followed and looked up to by a younger generation of sitar players.”

Perhaps it was for this reason that Ustad Vilayat Khan was sought after as a composer by various filmmakers. However, as he was mostly busy performing at prestigious concerts around the world, he could be part of just a few films, though they were all musically significant: Madhosh (1951), Jalsaghar/The Music Room (1958) and Kadambari (1975). He also did compositions for Merchant-Ivory Productions' The Guru (1969) and Mira Nair's Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love (1996).

The songs of Madhosh were the result of a collaboration between two young musicians, Madan Mohan and Vilayat Khan while 'Ambar Ki Ek Paak Suraahi' by Asha Bhosle was a uniquely melodious yet complex composition by the ustad for Kadambari.

However, Vilayat Khan’s most important film work was for Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (1958). The artist himself was born in an era when rich patrons helped classical music to flourish. Ray’s Jalsaghar, based on Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s short story, narrated the tale of zamindar Biswambhar Roy, a connoisseur of music and dance, of a diminishing estate.

Roy, brought alive by the brilliant actor Chhabi Biswas, is obsessed with retaining his aristocracy, well defined by his preference for music and culture over fulfilling any other responsibilities. Till the end, when he realizes that much like his ancestors he must move on with changing times and bid adieu to life in the face of the emerging culture of crude businessmen, he showcases his power by arranging a concert at his palace with a famous classical singer with his remaining funds.

To compose the music for this poignant plot, Ray perfectly chose an artist ho was quite familiar with the decaying culture Biswambhar Roy belonged to. Andrew Robinson discusses in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye that Ustad Vilayat Khan initially composed a theme for Biswambhar Roy to convey only sweetness and greatness, expressing his heartfelt sympathy for such a character.

However, Ray’s vision differed from that of the ustad. “I wanted a more neutral kind of approach to the music to go with the zamindar, not suggesting that I was full of sympathy for him, but kind of an ambivalent attitude. But I liked Vilayat’s theme as a piece of music and I felt the story will tell what I wanted to tell and the music would not interfere with my general attitude to feudalism,” stated Ray, as quoted by Robinson.

Ray later expressed the difficulties he faced in working with great classical musicians, including Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. According to him, none of them was ready to mould their talents entirely to the demands of the film, and Vilayat Khan was no exception.

His brother Imrat Khan, who was well acquainted with foreign films, helped Ray in this regard as assistant composer on the film. The entire film had pure Hindustani classical music, but the director infused Western elements and deliberately chose to incorporate the use of the violin to lend texture and body to the background score, and the composer agreed.

The film begins with raga Todi and then Basant Mukhari hinting at the depressing regular morning of Biswambhar Roy. During the flashback, Vilayat Khan uses ragas expressing a jovial mood such as Jhinjhoti to establish the erstwhile prosperity of the zamindar.

The sensuous and melodious Dadra set in raga Pilu sung by the great Akhtari Bai aka Begum Akhtar creates a perfect ambience for the first jalsa (soirée) and its intoxicating mood pervading the music room.

The palpable tension of the next concert on a stormy evening is heightened by the presentation of Mian Ki Malhar by Salamat Ali Khan.

In the end, “as the dusty, shrouded music room is opened once more and made ready for the last time, Vilayat and Imrat Khan play a duet, a South Indian raga now used in North Indian music, which Ray very aptly describes as ‘wonderfully bright sounding’. That was the high point of the film, where music comes into the foreground almost,” wrote Robinson.

Ray intentionally made the film musically rich to magnify the obsession and pathos of Biswambhar Roy, though he initially had a commercial interest also.

While the music composed by the great sitar player mesmerized lovers of classical music for the complete package it delivered with pure representation of the ragas and semi-classical songs performed with technical excellence by top-notch artistes, it bored some of the critics, unfamiliar with the music, who were not fascinated with the authenticity of it all.

American critic Stanley Kauffman wrote, "The Music Room is a deeply felt, tedious film. On the one hand, its Western derivations are patent. On the other hand, its chief indigenous element, the Indian music, is simply uncongenial and tiresome to our ears. No doubt these are excellent performances for those who understand them, but they make us start counting the bulbs in the theatre chandelier.”