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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ustad Bismillah Khan

Shehnai Maestro – Ustad Bismillah Khan
An ode to Ustad Bismillah Khan

The legendary shehnai maestro, Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, was a very humble personality who believed that he “should be heard, not seen”. Representing a brilliant symphony of India’s religious pluralism and a symbol of harmony for people of different faiths, Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib elevated shehnai to a position of pride and glory in Indian classical music. He enthralled audiences across the globe with his mesmerizing performances of scintillating tunes and magnificent pauses.

Voyage of the virtuosic master of the Shehnai

Born on 21 March 1916 in a small village in the northern Indian state of Bihar, Khan belonged to a family of court musicians. His ancestors were musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar.

Aged six, Khan moved to his maternal house, located close to the Ganges at Varanasi. He started his formal training under his uncle, Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’, who was a shehnai player attached to the Vishwanath temple. Khan Sahib remembers him as a hard task master, who may not be able to conjure up the rain with his playing but would bring you to tears in a minute.

Bismillah often wondered why his uncle went to the room in the Balaji temple to practice while he could practice at home without being disturbed. Unable to suppress his curiosity he asked his uncle one day. His uncle stroked his locks and answered, “You will learn it one day.” Bismillah was quick to ask, “But, when will I start playing shehnai?” “Why talk about when; you are going to start today,” he said. Thus began Bismillah’s journey through the realms of music.

Soon, Bismillah realized that the atmosphere at home was not conducive for meditative practice. He thought practising at the Balaji temple, would suit him better. So he sought his uncle’s permission. Uncle’s expression changed and he asked, “Why? What’s wrong in this house? Why can’t you practice here? That evening his uncle took Bismillah to the Jadau temple and after the evening shehnai recital to the room in the Balaji temple where he had practised for over 18 years. Finally, he granted him the permission to practise there. Bismillah was overjoyed to get the permission and continued with his practice within the confines of the four walls, oblivious of the outside world. This led him to discover the heights and depths of the music scales and melodies.

Main aur Meri Shehnai – The Divine Unity

Shehnai Goonjti RahegiBismillah Khan is identified in synonymy with Shehnai. He gave a new meaning to Shehnai, transcending the auspicious musical instrument played in weddings to the centre stage of Indian Classical Music. Where others see conflict and contradiction between his music and his religion, Bismillah Khan sees only a divine unity. “Music has no caste,” he often said. Music, sur, namaaz is the same thing. Even as a devout Shia, Khan Sahib was also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music.

He said: “We reach Allah in different ways. A musician can learn. He can play beautifully. But unless he can mix his music with religion, unless he strives to meet God, he will only have kalaa (art) but no assar (mystical union). He will always stand at the ocean and never reach the heights of purity.”

Modest As Ever

He was the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (in 2001), the highest civilian honor in India, and was honored with Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the Tansen award as well as the Padma Vibhushan. He also had the distinction of being one of the few people to be awarded all the top four civilian awards. Despite the worldwide fame, he remained the man of simplicity and continued to use the cycle rickshaw as his chief mode of transport. He often played in the Hindu temples of Varanasi. The melodious paradox is that the man who best embodied the spirit of the holy Hindu city of Varanasi was a Muslim. And his love for the soil transgressed all boundaries to an extent that no other country or city could allure him to depart from Varanasi; he lived and died in the city of Varanasi only.

Shehnai goonjti rahegi

On 17th august 2006 shehnai lost her master. The 91-year-old the greatest exponent of the shehnai died of a heart attack. The unique and exceptional music of Ustad Bismillah Khan still can be heard as he said music should be heard…

Shehnai goonjti rahegi…. Sur sazte rahenge…. Ustad zinda rahenge…

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Posted in  Interviews | August 7th, 2008
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