Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan was paid Rs 28 as wages per month several years back when he worked for the All India Radio, Lucknow, recalls Doordarshan director, SK Grover, who had an opportunity to work with the late maestro several times.
“I have had the rare honour of being associated with him during my tenure at the AIR and Doordarshan. He used to play kabaddi in the vacant plot on the AIR premises in the evenings,” said Grover, adding that, “He was an emotional man and was hurt easily by slightest of things. But at the same time, he was very humble and a true friend. I remember, I was given the responsibility of inviting the great maestro to perform at the golden jubilee celebrations of AIR in 1988 because he had refused to come on the invitation of the then station director.
At that time, I was working as a programme executive and people knew that I had good relations with Khan saheb, as I had worked in Varanasi too. I went to his home and requested him to come to Lucknow for the performance. He agreed immediately and asked why I had to come all the way from Lucknow. He told me I should have telephoned him”.
About his fiery temperament, Grover said, “I sent a producer to receive him at the Charbagh railway station but the producer went to a wrong compartment and the Ustad was furious. He refused to perform in the programme. Again I was called by the director, and again, the maestro melted and performed for friendship sake”.
Former director KK Nayyar recalls, “I have heard that Ustad Bismillah Khan was associated with the AIR Lucknow but we don’t have any authentic record to prove his association.” Present station director AIR Gulab Chand said, “Yes! people say he worked for us but we have no records available with us. But surely he has performed for us number of times. We have the distinction of recording some of his memorable performances”.
Former Announcer and News Reader of All India Radio Yagya Dev Pandit says, “I have been associated with AIR Lucknow from 1948 to 1988, but I don’t think he was a staffer with AIR during my tenure. I made announcements for the maestro on several occasions. He was very humble. As a young enthusiastic man, I often used to ask him what he was going to present so that I could make an announcement. He used to reply calmly, ‘you just announce what you want to listen’. And he used to play whatever I announced. He knew I was fond of ‘chaiti’ and he never disappointed me.”
The maestro was a good singer too. Although he learned his music systematically under the expert guidance of his uncle Ustad Ali Bux Khan of Banaras and Ahmed Hussein, but he also took some tips for the shehnai from Ustad Ahmed Khalifa of Lucknow, claimed noted shehnai player Ustad Sartaj Khan, who is also a distant relative of Bismillah Khan.
Sartaj Khan said, “Bismillah Khan as a child participated in the music festival held at an exhibition in Lucknow. There, he was presented with a gold medal. In 1940 he formed a group of his own and started giving public performances. During this period he gave few performances on the Lucknow station of the All India Radio. He became an international celebrity.”
Bhatkhande Sangeet University Vice-Chancellor Pandit Vidyadhar Vyas said, “Khan Saheb as a great loss for the State. “He was an expert in Dadra, Chaiti, Keherwa, Sawani. Name any form, he was ready with it. My father Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas and Khan Saheb were good friends. My father was nearly 20 years older to him that’s why Ustad ji used to respect my father and me. My father used to do jugalbandi during his performance.”