Vasant Rai, Profile and Interview

Vasant Rai

Vasant Rai is an artist well worth remembering, of interest to fretless guitarists as he developed the Sur-Guitar which he tuned B F# B F# B E. Thanks to John Wilton and Raga Records for the following information.

Vasant Rai, quick biography

Until his death at the young age of 43 in 1985, Vasant Rai was one of the world’s most acclaimed masters of Indian music. Born in Unjha, in the province of North Gujarat, India, in 1942, he began musical education at age seven. He studied vocal music with his father, Govindji Brahmbhatt, and instrumental music with his elder brother, Kantilal.

Vasant became proficient on sitar, violin, and flute, and appeared in his first concert at age 11. In 1958, after 13 years of musical experience, Vasant became the disciple of the incomparable guru Ustad Allauddin Khan, and was the last student to receive the Indian maestro’s complete musical training. He emerged a virtuoso on the sarod.

The sarod is a 25-string fretless lute. Developed during the Mughal period of India’s history, the modern sarod has a body of seasoned teakwood, a goat skin belly, a highly polished metal fingerboard, and is plucked with a plectrum made from horn or coconut. Like its relative the sitar, the sarod’s first four strings carry the melody. In addition to three chikari strings, which have drone and rhythmic accompaniment functions, there are three other support strings that serve a similar purpose. Fifteen additional strings, the taraf, act as sympathetic resonators. Like the sitar, the sarod is a delicate, highly sophisticated instrument that is extremely difficult to master.

Vasant studied and practiced under the strict guidance of Ustad Allauddin Khan, residing in his house, for eight years. He taught at the renowned master’s famed Music College in Maihar. Between 1964 and 1970, Vasant was given several important awards for musical excellence.

In 1972, Vasant became a visiting professor of music at Columbia University in New York City. He subsequently founded the Alam School of Indian Classical Music in New York, where he taught sarod, sitar, flute, violin, guitar, and voice. He lived in the Chelsea district of New York City infuencing many Western musicians, while carrying on the pure classical tradition of his guru. His son Satyam is an accomplished sarod player, and his daughter Sangita a Kathak dancer.

Vasant also explored new directions. “I am a musician,” he said. “I’m following the traditional ways, but I’m not orthodox to the point where I won’t do other things.” He appeared with electric guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughin (in 1974), and was perhaps best known for his remarkable series of “East-West blends” on the Vanguard label-compositions and improvisations recorded with members of the group Oregon.

Towards the end of his life, Vasant experimented with the sur-guitar, a fretless sarod-guitar hybrid of his own invention.

Interview with Vasant Rai

Ira Landgarten interviewed Vasant Rai for Frets magazine in 1980 in his New York apartment, shortly after a Carnegie Hall recital performance.

Ira – Would you briefly discuss your early musical background?

Vasant – My father was a singer-not professional, but he was like a saintly person. One of my elder brothers, Kantilal, was an amateur instrumentalist. He was very good on the dilruba (a bowed instrument that is a cross between a sitar and a sarangi). I learned sitar from him, and flute from another brother Parasnath.

Ira – Where did Kantilal learn?

Vasant – He learned sitar from whoever was available in Ahmadabad. Whatever Kantilal knew, I learned from him. Unfortunately he died at an early age, but his wish was to make me a good musician. At that time I had the idea that one who knows many instruments is a good musician, so I practiced violin, sitar, flute, voice, dilruba, and tabla. I could play everything equally well. Then when I was 13 I heard Allauddin Khansahib play sarod on the radio. I had never seen a sarod before; it is not as common as the sitar. I thought, “Oh! If only I could learn from him!” When I found out that he was the father of Ali Akbar Khan and the guru of Ravi Shankar, I thought it would be impossible for me to learn from such a great master. Even learning from the popular teachers was difficult. I finally got the address of Allauddin Khansahib, and I wrote to him for about five or six months before he replied saying. “Okay. You can come.” That was 1958. On the first day of lessons, he asked me to play something. Afterwards he asked, “Whose donkey has taught you?” He told me I would have to start at the beginning with scales-sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa. I thought that I would stay in Maihar for six months and that I would get “ustadi” (the honorable title of maestro) from him. I thought that I already knew something, even though I had never practiced the basics. He told me how and what to practice. But first he played his sarod. He began at a moderate tempo, progressing from one quarter note to eight thirty-second notes within one beat. Like lightning! Baba-my master-told me what to practice, and the next day he showed me his Maihar Band and his Music College (which the Indian government created for him).

Ira – What direction did your career take after eight years of studying with Baba?

Vasant – I left Maihar at the end of 1966 and went to Bombay, where I stayed for about four years, play-ing for radio and music conferences. Then a student from New York began studying sarod with me. During the same period I met a professor of Sanskrit from Columbia University, Barb-ara Stoller Miller. Both she and her husband wanted to study with me. I had made previous plans to come to America, and Barbara told me that I could teach a course at Columbia University.

Ira – Did you perform any concerts at that time?

Vasant – Yes. That was the first time I performed outside of India.

Ira – What types of Western music and which musicians have had the most influence on you?
I like mostly Western classical music-some of the many compositions of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and some of the later composers. Yehudi Menuhin was the first really good western musician I heard. (ed. note: They performed together several times.) When he came to India, he really attracted me. I also like the playing of John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. Besides them, I like country music and bluegrass very much. There’s a lot of picking and movement.

Ira – Did you actually live at Allauddin’s house in Maihar?

Vasant – Yes. For one and a half years. I had to do all these different exercises in different scales. He also gave me my first rags; in the morning, the rag Bilaval, and in the evening, the rag Yaman. My previous studies and knowledge of other instruments helped me a lot. After three years I was on the same level as some of his students who already had been studying for eight years. Then Baba asked me to help teach sarod at his college, and I did for three years. At that time Baba was quite old-his centenary was celebrated in 1962. I stayed until 1966, just to be with Baba. He taught me about the moods and qualities of the ragas.

Ira – Could you briefly discuss the historical background of the sarod?

Vasant – The present-day Afghani rabab resembles the sarod, and many musicians believe the sarod has come from the rabab. But many ancient temple sculptures in India depict sarod-like instruments. Even pictures illustrating the Ramayana, show something that looks like a sarod.

Ira – When did the modern sarod come into use?

Vasant – About 200 years ago. The shape has changed a bit, and a metal fingerboard has replaced the wooden one.

Ira – Did Baba change or develop sarod playing techniques?

Vasant – Because Baba learned from Wazir Khan, a beenkar (master of the rudra vina), he wanted to produce the same effects on the sarod; so he developed his own style. Also, because he played so many instruments, he used the techniques of violin-and even wind instruments-on sarod. In the old days, the sarod was generally used to play bols (rhythmic strokes) with less mir (glissando). There were hardly any long glissandos, vocal-like qualities, or continuous-tone effects.

Ira – You mentioned before that the sarod isn’t as popular as the sitar. Is that because the sarod is a newer instrument?

Vasant – The sitar is not much older than the sarod, so that’s not the reason. The sitar has frets, and if someone begins to play a little it won’t sound bad-even for someone starting out. With the sarod, it is hard for the beginner to play in tune. Until recently, the sarod had limited technical capabilities. It wasn’t as highly developed as the sitar. There were also fewer musicians who played the sarod, so it wasn’t often exposed to audiences. It is also more difficult for a sarod player to “capture” the audience than it is for a sitar player.

Ira – Are there any characteristics or idiosyncrasies of the sarod that you find to be drawbacks?

Vasant – String breaking is a very common problem with the sarod. The main problem is the skin-the belly is covered with goat skin. It is so sensitive that it is easily affected by weather. Whenever I would go from Maihar to Bombay to perform, the first day the sound would be very bad because of the humidity. Also, with sarod, if you don’t have good calluses on your fingers then the sound won’t be clean.

Ira – Do you use mostly the fingernail to fret the notes?

Vasant – Part of the nail, and part of the skin. For clarity, I use the nail. Sometimes in very humid climates the body sweats, the calluses get smooth, and the nails get soft. To achieve a good tone you have to press hard. That gradually cuts the nail.

Ira – What made you decide to open a school of Indian music in New York?

Vasant – While I was teaching at Columbia, several students, who were not enrolled at the university, wanted to study seriously with me. We founded the Alam School of Classical Music in Brooklyn Heights, and later moved to Greenwich Village.

Ira – What is the significance of the name “Alam”?

Vasant – “Alam” was the name of my teacher. He was known as Alam when he was a little boy: Alam is also the family nickname of my guru.

Ira – Are you more concerned with teaching your Western students Sangeet-the system of Indian classical music, or with teaching them techniques that may be adapted to various Western musical frameworks?

Vasant – I teach pure Indian classical music to those who are serious about learning it. Some students prefer to learn only scales so they can develop new types of music. If a student is sincerely interested in learning pure Indian classical music, he will have to spend at least a few years in devoted study.

Ira – You have recorded several “East-West blends” recently. As a classical artist, what motivated you to go in this direction?

Vasant – I would like to offer the best of Indian classical music to as many people as possible. But only about 10 percent of the population would go to listen to Indian music, or any Oriental classical music. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like it. It’s just new for them. I have tried to create something with Western musicians. I have mixed Indian and Western music so audiences hear something Indian when they are listening. When the general listener hears Autumn Song or Spring Flowers (Vanguard LPs), he would hardly know this is something from India.

Ira – Did you compose those pieces and then find Western musicians to suit your needs?

Vasant – Yes. I composed and then thought, “What instrument would work with this composition?” I thought of violin, cello, or any other continuous sound instrument. Because I play sarod, which is plucked, I wanted a bowed or wind instrument-and drums, of course. I thought if I used tabla the audience would decide, “Oh, this is something Indian.” So I included more conga drums. Then I tried many different violinists. They were good, but I wasn’t satisfied-they would improvise well but would go far away from the composition. Then I finally got Jerry Goodman. He’s a very good violinist who has been classically trained and who also plays jazz. When he played I was satisfied. I called him from Chicago and within a day he “felt it.” Collin Walcott of Oregon helped write the staff notation. I also wanted either oboe or alto sax, so I got Paul McCandless from Oregon. He’s a wonderful musician; his improvisation was a good match for my composition.

Ira – Can you describe the sur-guitar (fretless guitar) you have created?

Vasant – When I came to New York I had a student who wanted to learn guitar. Guitar and sarod are both from the lute family. When I first tried guitar I knew I could play Indian music on it. Sarod technique, both picking and fingering, lends itself to the guitar. I tuned the guitar to sarod tuning. The E and B strings are the same; the third string is lowered a half step to F#, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings are tuned B, F#, and B, respectively. Then I took off the fret board and glued a metal plate (fingerboard) in its place.

Ira – Have you used this new fretless guitar on any of your recordings?

Vasant – Not yet, but I’m planning to record with two guitars; on the fretless guitar I will play Indian classical music, with Zakir Hussain-Alla Rakha’s son-on tabla; and on regular guitar I will play free improvisations-not based on ragas, but with western drummers and Zakir.

Ira – In what direction do you see yourself going?

Vasant – One side of me is purely traditional; another is creative, going in other directions. When I play Indian classical music, I’m not orthodox to the point where I won’t play other things. Music is like a universal language. Inspiration comes through many things. I like all good music from any part of the world. Each of my compositions is different-not jazz, not rock, not classical. They are a blend of many different things, but each has its own special quality.


What famous musicians have said about Vasant Rai

I met Vasant Rai in 1969 while in India. He is just as great and beautiful a person as he is a great and beautiful musician. – George Harrison

It is my great pleasure to speak about the distinguished musician, Vasant Rai. I have known him since he was a child studying with my father, the late Padmabhusan Allauddin Khan. His personal attributes and conscientious habits are a complement to his gifts as a musician. He has made a name for himself as a music educator, spreading the deep and rich classical musical traditions to all who come to him. I believe him to be an artist of extraordinary merit. – Ali Akbar Khan

Vasant Rai is one of India’s best sarodists. His abilities as a performer, teacher and composer enable him to make a unique contribution to Indian music. I have been associated with Vasantji for many years and have a great regard for his artistry. – Ravi Shankar

Baba Allauddin Khan loved him like his son and taught him in a special way – that is why his approach is unique. He is very special in the manner he treats alap, in a meditative and peaceful flow, gradually unfolding the raga. – Shanta Prasad

Vasant Rai has earned a world wide reputation of being one of the leading sarod players of India. In addition, he is a composer and a distinguished teacher of Indian classical mucsic. Being a disciple of the late Allauddin Khan, he brings to this country a highly respected tradition of Indian music. I have a great regard for his artistic abilities. – Zubin Mehta

I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Vasant Rai on multiple occasions before his untimely death from cancer. He would come up to Boston to play with Pandit Shashi Nayak, a tabla teacher from Orissa with whom a Berklee drummer housemate of mine was studying (and assisting, as soundman, etc.) Shashi-da’s Commonwealth Ave. apartment and studio was the venue for most of these, so it was my first experience of mehfils (intimate house concerts, with only a couple of dozen or so guests.) I never saw him play the fretless guitar he developed, but it was the first time I saw a sarod player up close. (During the same period I saw sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, at whose school I would briefly study many years later, in a jugalbandi (duet) concert with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allarakha Quereshi, at MIT.) – Kai Matthews

I was on a long spiritual sabbatical from playing and music among other things in general, time passed and never found out that he passed so young. sometimes wondered why he didn’t do more guitar fusion w the Oregon members etc, as he was on a level beyond Larry and John, as much as we love them both of course, to really do the ragas in classic form on guitar. – Bob Rnett


We are indebted to John Wilton & Raga Records for the information in this post, and Kai Matthews and Rob Rnett for their comments.

More Interviews Alternate Tunings inc. Sur Guitar

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