"Vatanasi is my pavitra janma bhoomi and I am its atoot anng (Varanasi is my holy birth place and I am its inseparable part," was Ustad Bismillah Khan’s response to my mother’s suggestion that he spend more time in Delhi to popularise the shehnai. My late mother was at that time working with Akashvani in its music department.
My inner voice compellingly tells me that in a heterogenous society such as India’s, people of diverse faith and ethnicity should invoke the divine in a manner that becomes binding glue for the populace. The melody, rhythm and harmony crafted by them withers away parochialism, mean mentality, pelf and self aggrandisement. What results is music to the ears, both literally and figuratively.
Ustad Bismillah Khan firmly believed in the philosophy that the Almighty is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. It is a manifestation of his belief, that after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, the maestro remarked, “A mosque is merely a physical manifestation of a prayer venue. I believe that since the Creator has made the entire universe, I can pick up my prayer mat at any little available space and recite my namaaz .”
During an interview to a popular television channel in November 2004, the ustad said that musicians were beyond narrow bigotry and subscribed to the universality of religions. He exhorted Indians to preserve the art of shehnai, which was witnessing decay.
The decades-old movie Goonj Uthi Shehnai is an eloquent exposition of the magic which the Ustad created with shehnai, an instrument which ushers in divinity. Ironically, just a day prior to his death, the maestro hummed a few lines of a melody, from his hospital bed, to convey a philosophical and stoic acceptance of Allah’s will. If ever a man personified aceptance of what came his way as fate and then quietly proceeded to do his best, surely it was this true son of Varanasi. He lived and died as befits a resident of the heart of India, in a sense that is both geographical, social and very, very emotional.