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'Bismillah played the tune of India'

British media showers praise on the shehnai king, seeing him as typifying all that's best about Hindu-Muslim unity.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2006 16:28 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service

The British media showered encomiums on Indian shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, seeing him as symbolising all that is best about Hindu-Muslim unity.

In detailed obituaries, all four major newspapers - The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Times - narrated his unique life story and noted that he had played at India's first Independence Day celebrations in 1947.

The Daily Telegraph wrote: "Although the instrument is traditionally played at noisy Indian weddings, Bismillah was able to extract music of such classical purity that his compositions came to represent 'the sound of India'.

"He had always been a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Learning, and never saw a contradiction between his music and Shia Islam."

The newspaper quoted him as saying: "When maulvis and maulanas (Muslim preachers] ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it." He once said, "If music is haraam, then why has it reached such heights?"

He also observed: "I was once in an argument with some Shia maulvis in Iraq. I closed my eyes and began to sing Raga Bhairav (a composition in praise of Allah): Allah-hee, Allah-hee, Allah-hee. They fell silent."

The Guardian wrote: "For more than 70 years, Khan captivated his listeners with the range of his musical genius. He was also held up by many of his fellow countrymen as an icon of the secular spirit of the Indian constitution for his open-mindedness on questions of religious affiliation.

"He travelled all over India by train, but his dislike of air travel kept him away from the international scene. He was persuaded to appear at the Edinburgh Festival and the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965. Two years later he performed at Expo 67 in Montreal".

The Independent recalled that as early as 1914, the English musicologist and cultural bridge-builder AH Fox Strangways had "alerted English-speakers in his groundbreaking Music of Hindostan to "a kind of oboe" called the "shahnai" - and to its South Indian counterpart, the "Nagasaram".

"Between 1965 and 1967 Khan breathed life into the word shehnai. In 1965 he and the sitarist Vilayat Khan appeared at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1967 their remarkable album Duets was the inaugural release in His Master Voice/EMI's highly influential "Music From India" series.

"For the first time, the greater, non-Indian public got a chance to savour the enduring transcendence that only truly great art of Khan's magnitude delivers."

Calling Bismillah Khan a "living symbol of Muslim-Hindu reconciliation", The Times noted that his mastery over the shehnai made him a national hero.

It wrote: "A pious Shia Muslim who lived almost all his life in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, he came to symbolise Hindu-Muslim unity in India. It was indicative of the veneration in which he was held that on news of his death the Indian government declared a day of national mourning and announced that he would be accorded a state funeral".

First Published: Aug 23, 2006 11:34 IST