Ustad Bismillah Khan’s life, when you think about it, holds several interesting reminders for harried people today. It goes beyond the way he built a brand out of virtually nothing. Not all of us can hope to be Bharat Ratnas. But we can see how the Big Idea exemplified by Khan Saheb’s life can apply to our everyday lives. I’d rather not go down the path of critiquing how he should’ve managed his finances and family better. I’d rather not dwell on something that upset many music lovers in later years, his promotion of his tabla-playing youngest son. The dugdugi. which usually accompanied the shehnai and seemed to suit it better tonally, was virtually silenced in Khan Saheb’s later concerts. Instead, he’d showcase his younger son, giving him as many as five long tabla solos in the course of one raga. Mood, melody and raga delineation went for a toss while the tabla-playing son spat out a storm of high-decibel sounds at high speed, sounding, alas, more like a popcorn machine gone berserk than his obvious role model, Ustad Zakir Hussain.
No, these regrettable things belong to the realm of human frailty and, presumably, family pressure on an old man and should be put away, especially the horrible lack of dignity in the spectacle of a Bharat Ratna-awardee wailing aloud for a gas agency. At another level, it’s like Bapu-bashing. But what Bapu did ‘right’ was a million times greater than what we think he did ‘wrong’, isn’t it?
Suppose we look instead at the personal take-home from this incredibly long life that was witness to so much in our history. Something apparently unrelated comes to mind unbidden: the story of Mrs Rajni Bector, a widow living in the Punjab. Some 15 years ago she made use of her skill as a good cook and built a brand called Cremica. It’s now a rocking brand I’m told, not known much outside the Punjab, but great stuff: cookies, breads, sandwich spreads, salad dressings, salsa.
I remember reading about Mrs Bector long back as a plucky start-up story in a business magazine and somehow, never forgot her. I look for her products in Delhi and they’re good. Why am I going to town on this lady I’ve never met? I guess the taste lingers and the story inspires because here’s someone who parlayed an incidental domestic skill into a whole life.
So what connects these two lives, both from places marked by great rivers but otherwise unlinked? I guess it’s their proven ability at having made something out of ‘nothing’. All our lives have ‘nothing’ that holds great life-changing potential, if we think about it. But we don’t need to feel oppressed to become shehnai maestros or businesswomen and win awards. Instead, suppose we focused on rewards? The personal kind that give meaning and interest to our everyday lives? For one, it seems a shame to waste precious evening hours just hanging out as one of the great mass of Educated Unskilled. Instead, in many parts of urban India, young people are taught to acquire accomplishments like music, dance, cookery, the care of house and garden, whatever. This translates into a lifestyle that improves the quality of everyday existence and can empower us enormously when things go wrong.
They can teach us to obsess with quality, with getting things ‘right’, with finding and giving pleasure. Famous lives are useful to us because they remind us that we all have the potential to get a kick out of this messy and often incomprehensible business of existence. In knowing how others managed things, we pick up clues on managing ours (politicians love reading biographies for this reason). The life of Ustad Bismillah Khan tells us clearly that if we find something we love doing and stick with it for its own sake without an eye on the main chance, that transformative magic happens, called ‘quality’. And life appears in its best colours to us!