MUSIC: THE NARCISSISM OF RAIS KHAN

Published June 4, 2017
Rais Khan performing at Coke Studio
Rais Khan performing at Coke Studio

Rais Khan was a spellbinder who could enthrall a learned and a lay audience in the same concert. He would fascinate the former with raga yaman and the latter with a Punjabi filmi song like mein te mera dilbar jani which is also yaman! God gifted him with rare hands which were admired even by his maternal uncle Vilayat Khan (also his worst adversary). “Iss kay haath bohat sundar hain par sari kharabi dimagh mein hay! [His hands are very beautiful, the problem is in his mind!],” Vilayat Khan would remark. While playing a trio with Vilayat and his other maternal uncle Imrat Khan, Rais would often play some intricate musical phrases so spontaneously and dexterously that it would stun and perhaps even threaten a giant like Vilayat Khan. The matching response would come only from Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan’s reply would be limited to playing chikari which was like roaring versus bleating! Vilayat would never forget to bash Imrat for his pathetic performance.

Rais took Vilayat as his competitor but looked down on Imrat Khan. Vilayat’s conundrum was, Imrat would remain a midget if he kept on grooming and promoting Rais. He preferred his brother over his nephew and ditched him. Hence Rais felt betrayed. This set the bad blood between the two that simply deteriorated with time. His argument was, Vilayat stayed in his house for years and learnt from his father Mohammad Khan. Therefore, he had a moral obligation to tutor and promote him. Did Vilayat learn from Mohammad? Shahid Parvez, a leading Indian sitarist and a cousin of Rais says: “When I started playing, people said I was a student of Vilayat Khan. I say that I have learnt from him but he has never taught me.”

Like most musicians Vilayat had a deep sense of insecurity. He would stop teaching if his students showed promise. He stopped training his close friend Kashinath Mukherjee when the latter started making waves. Vilayat would stay, dine and drive with him without giving more lessons. He told Kashinath that his mother had asked him not to train him anymore and instead to focus on Imrat’s education. Kashinath became a disciple of Amir Khan and made a name in sitar-playing.

The musician could have scaled more heights but for a few personality flaws

When Shahid went to learn from uncle Vilayat he was told that his hands were not good for sitar. Shahid did not take it seriously and disproved him by doing things that Vilayat could not do all his life e.g. laikari.

The indigestible truth is, Shahid has surpassed Vilayat with his systematic alap, jor and jhala and complex laikari which is both melodious and mathematical.

If Rais were not a formal disciple of Vilayat, he could have never shared stage with him. Rais should have acted like Kashinath and Shahid but he went on the spree of maligning Vilayat. He started claiming that he was a better sitarist than Vilayat. He was not a disciple of Vilayat but it was the other way round!

Vilayat Khan, Rais Khan’s former ustaad and his worst adversary
Vilayat Khan, Rais Khan’s former ustaad and his worst adversary

“How can Rais Khan establish that Vilayat Khan followed him?” says Shahid Parvez. “He used gandhar-pancham sitar which was Vilayat Khan’s invention. In 1964, Vilayat Khan, Imrat Khan and Rais Khan were playing a trio in Bombay. Vilayat Khan started with Gaur Malhar. Rais Khan said he did not know this raga. Vilayat Khan asked him to announce this and start with the raga that he knew. Rais did it and started playing Yaman Kalyan. Promoters would always introduce Rais Khan as Vilayat Khan’s student in trios and Rais Khan never objected. Self-praise holds no water. Nobody can achieve the status that Vilayat Khan enjoys in sitar.”

“Once Rais Khan said to me that I follow his music,” adds Shahid. “I said I follow everybody’s music — now what next! This made him speechless. It makes no difference who taught whom. One should not be jealous of others’ achievements.”

In 1991, I sought (a flautist and former director at Pakistan National Council of Arts) Arif Jafri’s opinion about Rais Khan’s sitar. “He is superb but his musical ideas come to an end after 15-minutes!” Ironically, I had the same feeling whenever I listened to him. But his sitar was always sweet like honey! Light music, songs and ragamala would sound very delicate and mellifluous in his hands.

Rais was a great sitarist but self-centered. Nobody took him seriously whenever he claimed that he was superior to Vilayat. Nobody liked him whenever he spat venom against Vilayat. Thus he isolated himself and lost friends. He told me in 1992 that sarod player Amjad Ali Khan ran a smearing campaign against him by writing letters to promoters and organisers urging them not to book Rais Khan. Probably, this could have been another reason (besides his Pakistani wife Bilquis Khanum’s inability to acclimate to Bombay) for him to migrate to Pakistan and accept Pakistani citizenship.

Rais told me in 1992 that sarod player Amjad Ali Khan ran a smearing campaign against him by writing letters to promoters and organisers urging them not to book Rais Khan. Probably, this could have been another reason (besides his Pakistani wife Bilquis Khanum’s inability to acclimate to Bombay) for him to migrate to Pakistan and accept Pakistani citizenship.

Pakistan treated him like a pariah. For months, he wouldn’t touch his sitar. He would make a living by making foreign tours or singing ghazals (which were always out of tune). Pakistani mirasis who are superb in making puns would say: “After playing such melodious sitar, Khan sahib is singing out of tune.”

Rais Khan in his younger days
Rais Khan in his younger days

Rais was a suave person who would destroy every fabric of refinement with the mention of Vilayat Khan or Etawa gharana. He started propagating that Etawa was no gharana. The real gharana was his i.e. Mewati. He had become so senile that in a concert at Lok Virsa in Islamabad in 2011, the very first words he uttered were: “Hum kisi Etawa pitawa ko nai mantay! (I don’t recognise Etawa!).”

“I represent the seventh generation of sitarists in Etawa gharana. I never heard of Mewati gharana in sitar-playing. There were beenkars in Mewat but not sitarists,” counters Shahid Parvez.

Rais Khan would have been duly acknowledged and rewarded if he would have done two things: Not talked big without having a big position and not left India to become a Pakistani citizen.

The writer is a journalist/researcher based in Islamabad. He is also a student of tabla and classical vocal music. Yamankalyan@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017

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