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Life on his own terms


Technique and spirit blended to make Ustad Bismillah Khan's music immortal.

Photo: Anu Pushkarna

FOND MEMORIES Shanno Khurana in New Delhi.

`Sur bhi kabhi Hindu ya Musalmaan hua? Sur to sur hai.' I have heard this sentence from two great men, two of the greatest musicians of our age who have lived by that statement: my guru Ustad Mushtaq Husain Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Their secularism was never a market-savvy, media or politician-friendly artifice, but a fundamental expression of their being. Bismillah Khan, who insisted on living in his beloved Kashi, bathed, with reverence, in the Ganga first thing in the morning, prayed in the local mosque and proceeded to a full day of riyaaz in a temple precinct, as a musician to the Vishwanath temple in Banaras, employed to play at the time of aarti. This man was a giant of our times, one of those true karm-yogis, saadhaks who have lived pure lives with moral integrity and strength, who have lived by the ideals we fought for to build a strong independent nation.

He was proud of being a true Benarasi and often recounted how he had resisted offers to relocate to the United States. In fact, he was one of those rare artistes who had even resisted the greater opportunities and money that has driven the art exodus to cities like Delhi or Mumbai in order to live by his honourable ideals, to live and practice in his beloved hometown. It was heart-wrenching and a sad comment on our times when his pathetic financial condition was reported in the media in recent years. The maestro, whose shehnai had proclaimed and sounded the first note of a free India from the ramparts of the Red Fort in 1947, whose music is featured in 70-odd albums and lauded the world over, whose auspicious notes are played at every other wedding in middle-class North India, was lying ill without the financial resources to seek effective medical attention. Pleas for support had to be sent to the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, foundations and philanthropists .

Not enough royalties

How was it that there weren't enough and steady royalties coming in for him? It drove home the point all too well in the artiste community that fame and talent can never assure fortunes, that record companies are driven by profit alone. If this is what happened to the mighty of our country, what must the plight be of the rest?

Bismillah Khan had a wonderful quality of complete self-assured confidence and ease. A strong and vibrant man with irrepressible wit, it was rare that he lost his cool. But by all accounts, when he did lose it, it was a short, furious and valid outburst brought on invariably by his irritation at inefficiency or callousness. Organisers and technicians at concerts would be at the receiving end of his ire when, even after playing for 75 years to packed halls, he found the microphones close to his seat on the stage, as if he were a vocalist, rather than three feet away to pick up the sound of the shehnai.

A commanding presence on stage with a relaxing and reassuringly frequent smile, always in a smart sherwani or a kurta, a rakish angle to his Nehru topi or turban and that earring in his right ear: we will miss him!

His strength was also evident on the concert stage. He held his own, in jugalbandis and never inveigled his way into a dramatic moment in a piece. His music unfolded as if led by an innate and natural progression, always led by the heart, a universally popular lilt in his melody or rhythm that was immediately enticing. This immediacy was no doubt because of his attraction to thumri and its related forms: wherein he truly imbibed the spirit and charms of the Poorab ang. An old fashioned and true been-kaar who had perfect training in vocal music, he was a remarkable storehouse of rare old compositions of the Thumri, Kajri, Chaiti and Khayal forms. Impressive also was his supreme control over ragadari especially evident in mixed (or mishrit) ragas, combining an arduous or serious classical piece with a pleasing or lighter raga to create a balance between sombre depth and the lilting joy that is expected of the shehnai. His superb breath control (despite being a smoker!) enabled him to give many meends or glissando beautifully from one note to the next. His music was also marked by the assimilation of different gharanas: the gamaks of Agra, the soothing aalapkari of Kirana or the phoonk of the Dagarvani of the Dhrupad tradition. But in the end, these were all synthesised within a style that has come to be known as one of the diagnostic imprints of a Benarasi bouquet.

Even though he had received every possible national honour and unparalleled fame, he lived a simple fakir's life, maintained his ideals in his thoughts and appearance, and the kuvvat (strength) of his riyaaz fell so softly on his entire personality that he would at once win your heart. Reminding us always that we are all, at the end, just simple worshippers on a journey of life, made all the more beautiful by the music we bear in our hearts.

(As told to Naman P. Ahuja)

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