Bismillah Khan: The Maestro from Benaras
Rs 795 pp 176
My enduring memory of Bismillah Khan is of a sunny winter morning on the terrace outside his roof-top room in Benaras. He sat cross-legged on a charpoy soaking up the sun, with a half smile playing on his face. He was the picture of a man content and at peace with himself. I realised later when I was doing my research for the book that this was only partially true, for Bismillah Khan, at the age of 90, had many concerns. His arthritis had severely restricted his movements, he worried about his inability to play for long periods at a stretch, and was apprehensive about the future of his large family. His older sons had neither the talent nor the physical fitness needed to play the shehnai, a “phoonk ka saaz” that required enormous breath control. As his grandfather had once told the young Bismillah, “No health, no breath and no music”. Words that he never forgot.
This was only one example of the dichotomy inherent in the character of Bismillah Khan. As a Muslim, there was a certain discipline that he followed — regular Zakat or charity and visits to Mecca . Every year, on Muharram, he walked from his house in Benia Bagh to the mosque at Faatman. There, he sat under an old neem tree and played the shehnai all day.
There was Bismillah, the sufi, who far from accepting the Islamic dictum that music was a gunah or sin, believed that his music was the means to his union with the divine. There were numerous occasions, he told me, when even though he played alone he could feel the presence of the immortals around him.
And then of course there was Bismillah the Benarasi, one who whole-heartedly embraced the Benarasi ethos of ‘fakkadpana’— a carefree enjoyment of life and living. As a young boy, Bismillah’s daily riyaz was in a small room high above the Ganga. “On one side there was Gangaji and the Jadau temple, on the other, the Mangala Maiyya temple, and then there was the temple of Balaji. Teenon taraf sthhan thhe, aur beech mein hum baja rahe thhe.”
Bismillah was convinced that the unique spiritual vibrations of the location flowed through his music such that it ceased to be mere art. It was here that Bismillah had his first mystic experience, when he believed that Balaji himself had appeared to him in a vision.
The question that has perhaps been asked more than any other is what made Bismillah Khan the artist extraordinaire that he was? Of his nine children, four were boys who grew up under the tutelage of Bismillah, and to whom he would have passed on, if not his genius, at least his experience, training and expertise. He also had another disciple, Jagdish Pratap, the young shishya who lived for years in his guru’s somewhat overcrowded household.
There are no easy answers — it would be simplistic to suggest that Bismillah Khan’s changes to the shehnai, giving it better sound modulation and precision, were the cause. Or the fact that true to his khandan, he gave the shehnai a gayaki ang — variations in tonal quality and range akin to a vocalist. None of this explains his first stage performance at the Allahabad Music Conference in 1930, at the age of 14. After his Mamu and guru, Ali Bux had finished playing, Bismillah Khan took the stage, playing the same piece that his mamu had played, yet managing to give the rendition subtle nuances that were entirely his own.
It could be that Bismillah and his brother Shamsuddin had the advantage of the focused attention of Ali Bux — something that Bismillah during his early days of struggle could not give his own children. Later as his success grew, between riyaz, conferences, concerts and travel, there was simply no time. Or perhaps Bismillah Khan had the enormous advantage of opportunity, talent and luck. As he put it “Allah agar ilm de toh muquaddar bhi de” (If God grants talent, let him also bestow luck and good fortune).
Bismillah Khan was that rare artist who became a legend in his lifetime. His was the raga to riches story that can only be dreamt of. For thousands of his fans, he was the man who could play malkauns and bhopali, kajri and thumri, bhajans and naat with equal melody and emotion. He was the man who greeted India’s first Independence day in 1947. How many years before we see another like him?
Juhi Sinha is a filmmaker and author