Now for something politically incorrect
We have genuine music lovers and the number is growing. But there can be no question of compromise for the sake of mass understanding. As with every other art in the country, music is suffering from trying to please a public taste not cultivated enough to appreciate the subtle nuances and shades of melody.That unashamed elitism was expressed by sitar master Ustad Vilayat Khan in 1970. His view is reported in the excellent but uncredited essay in The Genius of Vilayat Khan from CD reissue specialist Cherry Red Records which supplies the quotes in this post. Vilayat Khan - seen above - would definitely have been uncomfortable with today's culture where the hive mind (heave mind?) of social media is the principal determinant of perceived artistic merit:
Khan was an uncompromising character who did not suffer fools gladly. In 1964 and 1968, he rejected the highest civilian honours of the Indian government, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awards, feeling the authorities were merely paying lip service to the arts and that the awards committee were incompetent in judging artistic creativity. 'Let the man on the audition board tune a tanpura,' he roared, 'and I'll accept his judgement.'The sitar master also had refreshing views about what is today the celebrity musician's most powerful tool - publicity:
Some enthusiasts became preoccupied with comparisons between Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar, but to do so is to compare an apple with an orange... Although they remained close friends until Vilayat's death in 2004, it is known that Khan took against Ravi for a time, attacking what he saw as vulgar publicity-seeking and the increasing flashiness of his technique. Ever the guardian of his heritage, Khan was firmly against fusion, or any type of musical hybrid that might diminish the purity of the raga. 'We should first achieve mastery over our 484,000 ragas and raginis and only then we should attempt to invent new ones,' he demanded, 'On the piano you can play the Moonlight Sonata, and on the sitar you can play raga Chandni Kedar. Don't mix them up'.We can only speculate on how the politically incorrect Ustad Vilayat Khan would have behaved had his record label negotiated for him to play at the wedding of a former reality TV bit-part player whose favourite music is 'Dog Years' by Maggie Rogers, 'Don’t Run' by Mr Little Jeans, and 'Dance Apocalyptic' by Janelle Monáe. But the following account, which first appeared in Peter Lavazzoli's invaluable The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, gives us more than a clue:
Khan's irreverence is legendary. One famous incident occured when the Indian prime minister was scheduled to appear at a Vilayat Khan duet performance with shehnai master Bismillah Khan in Delhi. Vilayat Khan always prioritized his audience, and announced he would start on time as planned. The organizers informed Khan that the prime minister would arrive a half-hour late, sit for ten minutes to hear the music,and then leave; and Khan would stop the performance twice, to acknowledge the prime minister's arrival and departure. Khan flatly refused,and had no intention of disrespecting his audience or the music by allowing such interruptions. Indeed, why was the prime minister coming for ten minutes if he knew that such comings and goings would disrupt the concert? After Khan and the promoters reached an impasse, Bismillah Khan agreed to perform solo and go through the rigmarole for the prime minister. Vilayat Khan appeared after an intermission, apologizing to the audience and explaining that he had no desire to compromise his performance for such a charade. As expected, Khan's flagrant snub made headlines, further dramatizing his glacial relations with the establishment.
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