Play it again, Shyam

Meena Banerjee | Updated on January 04, 2021

Bringing it together: The Hindustani classical vocalist Vijay Kichlu helped set up the ITC Sangeet Research Academy   -  RITAYAN RIKH MUKHERJEE

Zakir Hussain was called the ‘Krishna of Kaliyug’, Vilayat Khan was a good mimic, Ravi Shankar had a stock of juicy jokes and Amir Khan, a quiet sense of humour. A biography of Pandit Vijay Kichlu, the Hindustani classical vocalist who helped set up the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, turns the lens on the many stalwarts who ruled the world of music

* Vilayat Khan was a great ballroom dancer and would frequently visit the Maidens Night Club of Grand Hotel decked up in three-piece suits, flaunting a 555-tin or a pipe

* Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s world revolved around music, good food and nature — in that order

* Kishan Maharaj enjoyed literature, did sketching and painting, played carom passionately, was fond of wine, the comapny of women


Vijay [Kichlu] ... realized that there are two types of artistes. Some remain focused and believe in doing nothing except riyaaz, chilla, etc. without crossing the doorsteps of their dingy room or making an extra effort to expand their horizon. Others enjoyed life to the hilt and yet worshipped music. Some chose to be musicians despite having coveted degrees in science or literature. Jnan Prakash Ghosh, who was busy writing and composing songs of different genres and grooming hundreds of excellent tabla players, harmonium players and vocalists, was a great Pali scholar. Then, some erudite musicians straddled parallel careers as technocrats and bureaucrats...

With ease: Ravi Shankar was a widely travelled, multilingual, well-read, multifaceted personality   -  THE RAVI SHANKAR FOUNDATION


This different approach reflected on each one’s personality differently. Among them, Ravi Shankar was a widely travelled, multilingual, well-read, multifaceted personality. He was a natural dancer like his eldest brother Uday Shankar. When Baba Alauddin Khan spotted his musical genius and wished to have him as his disciple, there was a great tussle whether to opt for music or dance. A great showman, he reinterpreted the musical etiquette of classical music and introduced glamour on stage. Sophisticated and warm, he had a great stock of juicy jokes.

One man, many parts: The highly intellectual Ustad Vilayat Khan was also a great mimic and loved a good laugh   -  THE HINDU


Ustad Vilayat Khan was a great mimic, loved laughter and was highly intellectual. In his younger days, he lived in a garage in Delhi to do riyaaz unhindered. Once he earned ten rupees, a respectable amount in those days, ate a lot, returned and fainted due to excitement and exhaustion. Despite such hardships, he reached the dizzying heights of fame very early and later enjoyed life on his terms. He was a great ballroom dancer and would frequently visit the Maidens Night Club of Grand Hotel, or Maxims of the Great Eastern Hotel — decked up in three-piece suits, flaunting a 555-tin or a pipe. But he was very choosy, maintained exclusivity and lived like a shauqeen nawab.

And yet, at times he would behave like an insecure child.

Once, he was playing in Kala Mandir. After an hour or so, an old man came from the back row, stood in front of the stage and shouted, ‘Are you doing riyaaz here? We have bought tickets to listen to music. Are you fooling your listeners?’

Vilayat Khan was very upset. He picked up his sitar and left the stage in a huff. The top dignitaries of the city ran after him and took him to the green room.

‘I refuse to play anymore,’ declared Vilayat Khan, ‘this show is sabotaged!’

The organizers went down on their knees while the dignitaries tried to humour him for a while. Vilayat Khan cooled down after some time and returned on stage. He was happy to see the audience waiting for him patiently. Now he started playing like a man possessed and gave an incredible recital!

Ustad Imrat Khan, younger brother of Ustad Vilayat Khan, was a wrestler, and a good one. Vijay admired him for that. Maybe, that was why he could handle a heavy instrument like surbahar with dominating vigour. Both the brothers were extremely temperamental.

Comparatively, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan were easy to please. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s world revolved around music, good food and nature — in that order. He was a great philanthropist as well. Amir Khan looked like a professor — very dignified, a man of few words, very intelligent and witty.

Once, Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan was invited by Vijay and his musician friends for a concert in Kala Mandir. On the day of his arrival from Badaun, there came the devastating message that the Ustad had a fall and had been badly hurt. He, therefore, would not be able to make it to the concert. The organizers were shell-shocked! A quick replacement as grand as the veteran Ustad was an urgent requirement. Fortunately, Ustad Amir Khan was in town. When contacted and earnestly requested by Vijay, he readily agreed.

On the D Day, Ustad Amir Khan was his magnificent best. The meditative alap had cast its spell on the packed house. Suddenly, a swooping taan covering three octaves came at lightning speed and was greeted by thunderous applause. The ustad opened his eyes, gauged the effect on the listeners, spotted an awestruck Vijay in the front-row seat and softly said, ‘Extra ke liye itna hi kaafi hai (this much is enough for a replacement),’ and continued singing with a hint of smile on his lips.

Vijay knew Pandit Kishan Maharaj and Girija Devi since his Benares days. Kishan Maharaj enjoyed literature, did sketching and painting, played carom passionately, was fond of wine, women, bhang, paan, etc., and was very moody and tough at times. Despite his riotously colourful lifestyle, his warm personality and unmatched mastery of his art made him popular. Girija Devi always carried herself with dignity. A perfect homemaker, she believed in doing mundane chores with a touch of delightful aesthetics. Both were typically Banarasi — apparently very simple, almost rustic, but deeply philosophical.

Ustad Sharafat Hussain Khan was addicted to hunting while his mentor, Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan was a good cook. His kebabs were just out of this world! Both Latafat Khan Sahib and Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan came from a different social background. They had hardly any social life beyond their relatives. Music was the only common ground where they felt comfortable when in public and, ironically, music was the only arena where they faced other musicians as their arch-rivals.

During a concert organized by Bombay’s famous Sur Singar Samsad, Vijay had met young musicians Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia. He grew very fond of both and invited them over to stay with him when in Calcutta. In those days, this kind of practice was quite common because air-travel and hotel-stay expenses were unheard of. Both the musicians were happy to find such a gracious host and Vijay earnestly looked forward to their visits. He was happy to note that apart from sharing excellent music, both knew how to charm the elite crowds. Shivji had a very tough life in the beginning. A stranger from Jammu with a strange instrument — he could survive only when films gave him a foothold, but he was determined to bring the santoor on the classical platform! And that, within a few years, inspired thousands of santoor players all over the world. Shivji happened to be one of the finest mimics, very fond of fun and laughter, but not with everyone. Hariji was not so selective and could easily mingle with anyone.

Cult classic: Zakir Hussain, who trained under his legendary father (Alla Rakha), gained celebrity status as a young table exponent   -  SUSANA MILLMAN


A much younger Zakir Hussain was brought up in Mumbai, studied in good schools, trained with his legendary father and got celebrity status very early. Vijay found him one of the most intelligent, well-behaved and well-spoken people, who remained grounded despite his star status and skyrocketing popularity. Dipali Nag, very aptly, would call him ‘Krishna of Kaliyug’!

A Sculptor Of Talent Vijay Kichlu: An Authorized Biography; Meena Banerjee; Roli Books; Non-fiction; ₹595


Excerpted with permission from Roli Books

A Sculptor Of Talent Vijay Kichlu: An Authorized Biography was published in January 2021

Published on January 04, 2021

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