BHARAT RATNA Ustad Bismillah Khan was an icon of ‘Ganga-Jamuni Sanskriti’ (communal harmony). The passing of Khan is truly the passing of one who held the Indian heart in his palm.
He was credited with being single-handedly responsible for elevating the shehnai from an auspicious pipe played at weddings to a solo concert instrument.
Consequently, Khan reaped every honour that the government could award — from the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan to the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, in 2001. Khan became the third classical musician to receive this honour, after Pandit Ravi Shankar and the late M.S. Subbulakshmi.
Born in the Bihar village of Dumraon to a family of musicians who played for the local raja, Khan was sent to learn music from his uncle, Ali Bux 'Vilayatu', who played the shehnai at the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Growing up in the unique musical atmosphere of the holy city, Khan learnt Hindustani genres like hori, dadra, chaiti and thumri and rendered them with skill and feeling on his shehnai.
He developed the shehnai’s range further by playing weightier song forms like khayal and exploring classical ragas through elaborate alaap.
His first concert, as a little boy in Kolkata in 1924, was also the first public performance of a very young Begum Akhtar.
The little boy was piping manfully behind his uncle while the girl trembled with fear when her turn came soon after. Both invoked help with the prayer, “Ya Maula Ali Madad!” Thereafter, Khan burst on the world fully formed with his shehnai solo at the prestigious Calcutta Music Conference of 1937, after which his legend grew unstoppably.
Long celebrated as a symbol of India’s syncretic multi-faith culture, Khan often said his happiest moments were those spent playing for Kashi Vishwanath and for Sri Hanuman at the Sankat Mochan temple. His most poignant moment, certainly, was when he played in New Delhi, at Jawaharlal Nehru’s request, to mark India’s first Independence Day. His choice of music then, Raga Kafi, usually dismissed as light and sensual, had deep Indian resonance across the board. Not only did it have ancient origins in folk music, but it also corresponded to the hoary Carnatic scale, Raga Kharaharapriya. Besides, it evoked the Punjabi Kafi genre that conveyed the verse of ‘Shah Husain’, the medieval Sufi lovers Madholal and Husain, a Hindu-Muslim love story: Maai ni main kinoon akhan dard wachore da haal (To whom shall I relate the state of parting’s anguish?) and keened the sorrow of Partition.
To say that the fabric of modern India has had a shining thread snipped off would be no cliché. The ustad’s music, however, endures to inspire national identity. On India’s first Independence Day, the Ustad had enthralled audiences with a sterling performance from the ramparts of the Red Fort. But fate did not allow the shehnai maestro to fulfil his last wish, that of playing at India Gate.
The man who mesmerised generations of Indians with his mellifluous music wanted to make the performance a memorable one. But a concert at the venue, scheduled for August 9, was cancelled due to security reasons. The maestro played in Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world. In Khan’s words, music was an ocean and he had barely reached its shores even after 90 years. Despite his fame, Khan’s lifestyle retained its old world charm and he continued to use the cycle rickshaw as his chief mode of transport.
A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private and said musicians were supposed to be heard and not seen. He was critical of today’s musicians and said they only craved for instant success.