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Ustad Bismillah Khan

Ustad Bismillah KhanThe shehnai is perhaps the most popular of all the instruments in Indian music, because it sounds extremely sweet. It is an ancient wind instrument played all over India. It is played morning and evening at the time of prayer in most big temples, during holy festivals, and on all auspicious occasions. The sound of a shehnai at once fills the atmosphere with a soothing sweetness and sublime peace. This small instrument, hardly two feet long, produces magic notes that hypnotize listeners.

Ustad Bismillah KhanBismillah Khan, the most outstanding and world-famous shehnai player, has attained astonishing mastery over the instrument. He was born in a small village in Bihar about 60 years ago. He spent his childhood in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, where his uncle was the official shehnai player in the famous Visvanath temple. It was due to this that Bismillah became interested in playing the Shehnai. At an early age, he familiarized himself with various forms of the music of UP, such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Sawani etc. Later he studied Khayal music and mastered a large number of ragas.

I met and heard Bismillah for the first time in 1941, when he came to our studio for a recording. At that time his elder brother also played with him. Both the brothers were expert players, but the famous Urdu saying "Bade bhai so bade bhai, lekin chhote bhai - Subhanallah!" perfectly described the brothers. When they played together Bismillah Khan always played down his own part as he did not wish to overshadow his brother. 'Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my elder brother' he always said with humility and modesty. I ventured to question him about this after the death of his elder brother. He said again, 'He was my elder brother, hence it was not proper for me to play better than him'.

Bismillah Khan's party included three or four accompanists, one of whom gave him the main complementary support. Instead of a tabla, a duggi player provided rhythm accompaniment. Nowadays, Bismillah Khan has a tabla also. The duggi consists of two drums, like a tabla and dugga, but smaller in size. The duggi has neither the resounding quality of the tabla nor the peculiarity that the tabla has of sustaining the frequencies of a note (aas) but since it is the traditional instrument in UP, Bismillah Khan prefers to have it.

Ever since Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar introduced Indian music to the West, a number of Indian musicians have been invited to perform abroad. It was therefore hardly surprising that a musician of Bismillah Khan's calibre should be one of them. In 1964, when I visited London and Europe, I found that many music lovers in UK, France, Germany and other countries had already come under the spell of Bismillah's LP records.

On my return I repeatedly urged Bismillah Khan to accept invitations from those countries. But he was mortally afraid of air travel and hence avoided going abroad. When in 1965, he received an invitation to play in Europe, he made impossible demands just to get out of it. The LP records which we used to release every three or four months further increased the interest of western listeners. In 1966 he again received through the Indian goverment a flattering invitation from the UK to participate in the famous Edinburgh festival. He resorted to his old tactic of making impossible demands such as, 'I won't go by plane, I want 10 people to accompany me and I want so much remuneration besides...',etc etc. This was done in the hope that the invitation would be withdrawn. But he was pressurized into accepting the invitation by a very senior official in the Indian government who offered him fresh inducements. Bismillah Khan agreed to go to Edinburgh, but on one condition. He demanded that he and his staff should be first taken, at state expense, on a pilgrim- age to Mecca and Medina. This wish was granted and, at last, Bismillah Khan boarded a plane. He completed the Haj pilgrimage at state expense and, fortified by prayers and blessings received from Allah, reached England safely. Bismillah Khan was the star attraction at the Edinburgh festival that year. His shehnai, sometimes soft and sweet, sometimes vibrantly alive with sonorously rich alapi, filled the air and brought the vast audience under its magic spell. The next day the papers were full of lavish praise for his divine performance. The following year, he received an invitation from the USA. Having realised how comfortable it is to travel by air, he did not raise any objections. He toured all over America regaling millions of people. He has since become a veteran air traveller and is always willing to visit any country of the world.

The Government of India bestowed on him the title "Padmashri"; later he was further honoured by the title "Padmabhusan", and now the "Padmavibhusan" has been conferred on him. Inspite of being glorified in this manner he remained as modest as ever. When invited for a recording he always came withour demur. He once had a program at seven in the evening, and had a reservation on a early morning train the next day. At my request he came to our studio at about midnight, after the concert. By early dawn had recorded material sufficient for two records. After having breakfast in our studio he went straight to the station to catch the train.

I was always trying to find new ways to increase the sales of our records. When the jugalbandi record of Ravi Shankar's sitar and Ali Akbar's sarod proved to be a hit, I decided to record a jugalbandi of the shehnai with some other instrument. A jugalbandi of the shehnai and the sitar was used in the film 'Gunj Uthi Shehnai' and it was a great success. It had been played by Bismillah Khan and Sitar Nawaz Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan. When I put my idea to Halim Jaffar he said to me candidly, 'It won't work. The jugalbandi in the film fit in the situation in the picture'. Also the jugalbandi in the film lasted for only three minutes. An LP record, 20 minutes long, would not according to him, be able to hold the interest of the listeners. The sitar sounds very soft and gentle compared to the vibrant and powerful notes of the shehnai. The volume of a sitar can be electrically magnified only upto a certain limit. Any further increase will result in distortion (This is true of all musical instruments). I therefore gave up the idea for the time being. But when Bismillah Khan went abroad to perform in the Edinburgh festival where Ustad Vilayat Khan also was giving a sitar recital, I grabbed the opportunity. Through our London office we were successful in bringing an LP with these two star artists on the shehnai and the sitar.

After this successful experiment, the idea of making another of the shehnai and some other instrument gripped me. The famous violinist Pandit V.G. Jog was at that time a producer at AIR Bombay. I made this proposal to him. Jog immediately favoured the idea and in a few days a joint programme of shehnai and the violin sponsored by All India Radio was held before a select audience. The programme, in my opinion, was not a success and was not at all what I had expected it to be. However, I still felt that it could be done well and came up with an idea which I discussed with my friend Pandit Jog. I suggested that the two instruments having similar tonal qualities would sound well together if they were played in different octaves. When, for instance, Bismillah Khan played in the Taar Saptak, Pandit Jog could play in the Mandra and Madhya saptak, and when Khansaheb was in the lower saptak, Pandit Jog could play in the Taar saptak. There would thus be a striking contrast in tone, pitch and timbre. The artistry of both the veteran players would be emphasized and there would be a perfect blending of the two instruments. When we did this and issued the record, true to my expectation, it was a thundering success.

During my 7-month trip around the world, no fresh record of Bismillah Khan was made. As soon as I resumed duty after my return in March 1971, I decided to record two fast selling artists who had not been available during my absence. They were Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi. The annual music festival of Sur Singar Samshad usually takes place in Bombay in April every year and it is usually inaugurated by Bismillah Khan. I therefore sent him a telegram and a letter asking him to spare time for a recording during his visit to the city.

As a member of the governing body of the Sur Singar Samshad I attended a meeting at the residence of its director Mr. Brijnarayan. Bismillah Khan also dropped in at the time of the meeting which was held on a Thursday. The sammelan was to open on Saturday and we therefore agreed to have a recording session the previous morning, that is, Friday.

Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, and devout Muslims take particular care not to miss their noon prayer. Khan Saheb therefore agreed to do the recording from 8.30 in the morning so that he would be able to attend the Jumma after the recording. Accordingly I came to the studio at 8.30 on the dot. I was followed almost immediately by Bismillah Khan's accompanists. Soon afterwards Khan Saheb came up in the lift. I went to greet him and was surprised to see him in dark glasses and all the more perplexed to see him wearing them so early in the morning. Bismillah gave an explanation. Bombay at that time was in the grip of a particularly infectious eye epidemic-conjuntivitis-and Khan Saheb had fallen victim to it. He said to me, 'I couldn't sleep at all last night and I'm feeling very miserable'.

I said, 'You shouldn't have bothered to come then'. 'Oh no! I couldn't do that,' he said, smiling. 'I gave you my word that I would come at 8.30. I didn't want you to say that I don't keep my promises'.

I was touched to the core. A true artist is always careful to preserve good relations with his friends. Khan Saheb really looked as if he was in great pain. Seeing him thus I said, 'We will cancel the recording'. 'No no', he said. 'Since I am here now we shall see what we can do'. He took his seat on the platform and in two hours he recorded two ragas and a thumri for an LP. I was standing right in front of him. He was holding the shehnai to his lips and was completely engrossed in the haunting music that poured out from the tiny instrument. He played on, completely oblivious of his discomfort and his streaming eyes. He finished the magnificent recording and asked me if I wanted more! What I miss most after my retirement from HMV is the pleasure I used to get from Bismillah Khan's shehnai. I am sure that by God's grace, he will continue to delight millions in our country and abroad for many years to come.

Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series
G.N. Joshi's 1984 book "Down Melody Lane".


A steady, rythmic thudding fills the air as hundreds of young Shias who have marched in the procession to the ziyarat of the martyred Imam Hussein in Varanasi - a replica of the shrine in Karbala, Iraq - beat their chests and sing a dirge. Bismillah Khan, who is part of this alam ka juloos stands at the entrance to the tomb, holding aloft the alam (Hussain's standard) in the memory of the slain grandson of Prophet Mohammed. He tries to join in the song but his mouth quivers and he starts to sob openly, wiping his tears with corners of the flag. Veiled women in black weep as the lengthening shadow of the neem tree brings in the evening. Aya hai karbala mein gharib-ul watan koi, the mourners sing, sub kuchh hai is jahan mein lekin mere karim, bhai ko zibah hote na dekhe bahen koi (let no sister ever suffer the fate of having to watch her brother slaughtered). On this special day of prayer and mourning, Khan Sahib has already spent two hours at the shrine which includes replicas of the rauzaas (tombs) of Fatima Zehra, the Prophet's daughter, and Hazrat Abbas, Hussain's younger brother. He has visited each site, dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, offered incense and prostrated himself in adulation. As he completes his rounds, stopping finally at the rauzaa of Imam Hussain, he reads out the names of the 72 shaheeds (martyrs) of Karbala, who were butchered in the 7th century A.D. when Hussain refused to assent to Yezid's Caliphate. His head bowed, arms streched out in supplication, Khan Sahib mutters a prayer: "You gave me everything. You gave me your life. Ya Khuda, Ya Rahmatkaar. My tears are the tears of gratitude." When finally the long evening turns into dusk, he washes his feet and settles down on arthritic knees, swathed in heavy bandages, to two hours of namaaz - a lonely, beatific figure doubled over in pain and ecstasy.

"Music, sur, namaaz. It is the same thing. We reach Allah in different ways. A musician can learn. He can play beautifully. But unless he can mix his music with religion, unless he strives to meet God, he will only have kalaa (art) but no assar (mystical union). He will always stand at the ocean and never reach the heights of purity."

Khan Saheb is soaked in religion. It is his sustaining life-force. But it is this same religion that damns music, condemns it as an act of rape. For the Shias, music is haraam (taboo). But for the man who took the shehnai out of the wedding processions and naubatkhaanaas - the shehnai player, traditionally was to be heard and not seen - and who was able to weave patterns of dazzling intricacy into his music as he brought it to the centre-stage of classical respectability, his instrument is also his Quran. Where others see conflicts and contradictions between music and religion, he sees only a divine unity.

"When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)."

"I was once in an argument with some Shia maulavis in Iraq. They were all well-versed in their subject and were making several effective arguments about reasons why music ought to be damned. At first I was left speechless. Then I closed my eyes and began to sing Raga Bhairav: Allah-hee....Allah-hee....Allah-hee...I continued to raise the pitch. I opened my eyes and I asked them: 'Is this haraam? I'm calling God. I'm thinking of Him, I'm searching for Him. Isn't this namaaz? Why do you call my search haraam?'" They fell silent.

Each year, on the eighth day of Muharram, this devoteee of the Shia faith who refuses to touch the reed of his shehnai with his lips unless he has offered his namaaz before sunrise, engages himself in his own private drama of religious apostasy . Dressed simply in white, he leads a procession, like a mischievous Pied Piper of rebellion, playing a silver shehnai reserved specially for the occasion. The procession winds its way through Varanasi's Byzantine lanes to the rauzaa of Imam Hussain. Here, just inside the gate, he sits cross-legged on the dusty ground in the fashion of a mendicant street ministrel and play for hours, weeping copiously all the time, while the audience pitches coins into his lap.

This is simple man. A man of tenderness, a gentle private man, yet given to unbridled display of emotion. When he laughs, the ground shakes. At 70, he is an immensely handsome man with a princely beard and eyes which glint with boyish mischief, his only "bad habit" he apologises, is smoking Wills cigarettes which he puffs with obvious relish. There is nothing about him that bespeaks his fame - his honorary doctorates, his Padma Vibhushan, his concerts in almost every capital around the world, his dozens of best-selling record albums.

On India's first Republic Day ceremony it was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out in Raaga Kaafi from the Red Fort. On a more pop level it was Khan Sahib who composed that magic film number 'Dil ka khilauna hai toot gaya' for the film Goonj Uthi Shehnai. He has made money but spent it just as fast. He supports nearly 100 relatives, including 10 children.

His house in Varanasi, in Sarai Harha, is an ample but decrepit structure. His living room which also serves as guest room, is sparsely furnished with creaky wooden benches and a large takht on which, at given time of the day, his children perform namaaz, oblivious of guests and visitors. Still in incessant demand as a player he travels by train regularly with his troupe, often by second class. He hates to fly. And when travel arrangements are being made, the house buzzes with activity as instruments are laid out, ancient steel trunks and torn British Airways flight-bags are packed with clothes and lunch boxes stuffed with rice and samosas. The shehnai player, whose name is familiar even to the international jet set as that of Ravi Shankar, travels by cycle rickshaw. And as he wheels down the city's streets at the head of a caravan of rickshaws, smiling at well wishers, he looks as happy as a British Lord in a Rolls Royce.

Until Bismillah Khan burst upon the centre-stage of Indian music with his strange little instrument at the All-India Music Conference in Calcutta in 1937 at the age of 20, the shehnai was considered an instrument reserved for wedding processions or Hindu religious rituals. His ancestors were court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar. His uncle, the late Ali Bux 'Vilayatu', was a shehnai player attached to Varanasi's Vishwanath Temple. Khan Sahib remembers him as a hard task master, "who may not be able to conjure up the rain with his playing but would bring you to tears in a minute."

"I was never interested in studies. While others were at their books, I used to sneak out and play marbles or blow on Mamu's (uncle's) shehnai. He always knew I would be a shehnai-player."

Even as a devout Shia, Khan Sahib is also a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of music. And at the age of 12, he recalls, he received a signal - a peculiarly Hindu signal - that his sadhana had been rewarded. He recalls:

"Mamu used to do his riyaz (practice) at the temple of Balaji (an avtaar of Vishnu) for 18 years. He told me to do the same thing. I would begin my riyaz at the mandir at 7 pm and end at 11 pm during which time I usually played four ragas. After a year and half, Mamu told me, 'if you see anything just don't talk about it'. One night as I was playing, deep in meditation, I smelled something. It was an indescribable scent, something like sandalwood and jasmine and incense. I thought it was aroma of Ganges. But the scent got more powerful. I opened my eyes - and when I speak about it I still get goose flesh - when I opened my eyes, there was Balaji standing right next to me, kamandal in hand, exactly as he is pictured. My door was locked from inside. Nobody was allowed to enter when I did my riyaz. He said 'play, son'. But I was in cold sweat. I stopped playing."

"He smiled, and disappeared. I unlocked the door. I thought a faqir may have come in. I took a lantern and searched all streets. They were empty. I ran home, ate quickly and slept. Mamu had understood what had happened. But he teased me, pretending he knew nothing, But as I blurted out the experience, Mamu slapped me, because he had asked me earlier not to talk about anything that might happen to me. Then he kissed me and asked me to go and buy vegetables. Mamu always told me 'never look back, keep going forward'. Even now I go to Balaji's mandir alone, at night and play all by myself. When I play before others, in my heart I'm listening to my gurus. In my heart, they clap for me at the appropriate time."

"In music, the sur is a clean thing, it is a pure thing. It cannot be deceived and it cannot deceive anybody. It is like a mirror in which you see the world, in which I see my own face when I play. When I start playing, the mind wanders here and there and takes me with it. But all the time I am striving for the assar. But when that comes, when the sur clicks, it is like I am unconscious and the heart has taken over. Sometimes I don't understand who is playing. Or I feel that I am playing at the mazaar, or in front of ancient sages. And all I can think of is 'he mere maalik tu mujhe lele (God, take me away), tu hi nirankaar, tu hee phool aur phal mein (God, You alone are formless, You alone in flower or fruit).'"

"I am getting old now. Not in my heart. But in my body. The heart yearns to go on and on but this body sometimes tires and these wretched knees start aching after four hours of playing. And I now have that all-too-human worry. Thirty years ago, I used to think I had conquered or was about to conquer the world. What foolishness! Now I say, Bismillah, you haven't reached anywhere. The world may know and listen to your ragas, but Bismillah, life will soon finish and your yearnings will still remain. This music is still an ocean. I want to cross it. But I have barely reached the shore. I haven't yet even taken a dip in it."

Khan Sahib has not groomed a disciple. He teaches students when he has the time but there is no special heir. Of his six sons - Mahtab, Nayab, Hussein, Famin, Kazim, and Nazim - the youngest, Nazim, plays the tabla.

"The days of adaab (old world manners) are gone," he says. "Musicians now go to school. They do not do sadhana with gurus. Thay want instant results. But the great old masters who did their penance - Fayyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Onkar Nath - died poor. No one knows about their sacrifices. Consider Swami Haridas. He produced Tansen. But no one knows Swami Haridas. They had no time for their own lives. No time for their families, their children. They are very few in this age who can do the real riyaaz. You have to have the ability to wipe yourself out. You have to get up before sunrise on freezing mornings, offer namaaz, go to the mandir, and begin practice. These days musicians want to rise at 10 am to go to music schools. But which music school has produced a Fayyaz or an Abdul Karim Khan? I say, leave those schools aur aao maidan mein (and come out into the real battle). But you have to have the discipline and the tenacity. Someone like me can give his time to a student, but the taker has to be willing to take, to wrest that time from his guru. He must find the time for his own tapasya. I remember when I was a boy and often my guru, tired from the day, would retire at 4 am. I would be awake. I had been waiting for him. I used to go to his bedroom and begin pressing his tired feet. He would look at me and he would know what I wanted. He would shake off his slumber and come alive. He would give me his shehnai and tell me: 'all right son, start playing.'"

Posted on RMIC by Rajan Parrikar 18 Nov. 1997
PHOTO ESSAY by Raghu Rai
TEXT filed by Inderjit Badhwar in Varanasi
From: INDIA TODAY, July 15, 1986, pp. 122-131

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