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A Tribute to Bismilla Khan
- Syed Ali Mujtaba           Let us know what you think about this feature article

"Music has no boundaries, no language!" - Ustad Bismillah Khan

Legendary Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away on August 21, 2006 due to a cardiac arrest. He was ninety years old. The Government of India declared one day of national mourning.

He was the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honor in India. He also had the distinction of being one of the few people to be awarded all the top four civilian awards.

I had a great privilege of meeting and chatting with him during one of his concerts couple of years back. "Music has no boundaries, no language - it is a message of pure love that is divine", said the maestro. In an exclusive interview, the Bharat Ratna was anguished over the way decline in the classical music has set in our country. He said given the pace in which the things have been moving, it seems time is not far away when for listening to our classical music we have to go abroad.

He has played in Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world.

He narrated an incident, when he was offered car, house, servants, money and even the nationality during a concert in Europe. ‘But I refused all of them, and in turn asked my admirer ‘can he get my ‘Gangaji’, the river which flows near his home in Benaras, the holy city of the Hindus, and with whose water he does ablution before praying every day.

Despite his fame, Khan's lifestyle retained its old world Benares charm. His chief mode of transport was the cycle rickshaw. A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private, and that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen.

Born on March 21, 1916, he was the second son of his parents, Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. He was christened as Qamaruddin initially, before his grandfather uttered Bismillah after looking at the newborn.

His ancestors were court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar, India. He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', a Shehnai player attached to Varanasi's Vishwanath Temple.

He was a devout Shi'a, but he worshipped goddess Saraswati as well. He often played at various temples and on the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi, besides playing outside the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.

The doyen of Indian classical music held Shehnai first when he was probably five or six. He gave his first performance in the aristocratic city of Lucknow when he was barely 14.

Ustad Bismillah Khan was perhaps single handedly responsible for making the Shehnai a famous classical instrument. He brought the Shehnai to the center stage of Indian music with his concert in the Calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937. Ustadji had a rare honor of performing at Delhi's Red Fort on the eve of India's Independence in 1947. Recalling his most memorable performances, Bismilah Khan said ‘it was playing on 15th August 1947 with Pandit Nehru and host of dignitaries listening’. It was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out into Raga Kafi from the Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony, on January 26, 1950.

He was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as him and Shehnai are almost synomyms. His recital had almost become a cultural part of the Independence Day Celebrations telecast on Doordarshan every year on August 15th. After the Prime Minister's speech from Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast live performance by the Shehnai maestro. And this tradition had been going on since the days of Pandit Nehru.

The octogenarian recalling his childhood said when he was not playing Shehnai, he enjoyed swimming in the Ganges the most. He said this sport came to him naturally due to the proximity with the river. He attributes his ability to play Shehnai at this ripe age to swimming which requires strong lungs to blow the wind instrument.

In one of the rare moment’s music composer A.R Rehman facilitated the maestro with Amir Khusro life time achievement award. Ustad in an impromptu remark told Rehman; ‘where were you, so far I have just heard of you, it is for the first time I am meeting you.’ ‘Nevertheless I take your name five times a day during my prayers, he quipped.’ Rehman is one of the names of the God. He showered his blessings on the young musician and said ‘he prays that God gives you a long life to attain the great heights in the music world.’

To this Rehman shot back; ‘even I take your name any number of times in a day, by saying Bismillah, before starting anything new. Bismillah means, ‘I start in the name of Allah.’ Rehman said that while listening to Ustad he felt crying, as so griping were his compositions. He said he was amazed that at 86, Ustad is playing the instrument like a kid. Rahman recalled, he had tried to learn playing Shehnai, but gave it up within a week finding it too difficult to handle.

The maestro had some words of wise advice to the lovers of the Hindustani classical music. ‘It is the duty of every elder to teach the children their musical moorings!’. He stresed that ‘everything may not be learnt, but at least the basics could be grasped which is essential to understand the soul of any music.’ He also confessed that 'earlier there was a lot of taboo to learn music but now things have changed for better.'

Ustad Bismillah Khan will forever be remembered as one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian Classical music, and one of the best examples of hindu-muslim unity in India. His concept of music was very beautiful and his vision, superb. He once said, "Even if the world ends, the music will still survive!"


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