Monday, November 20


Brad Pitt is chilling out in Varanasi (it can be quite cold at this time of the year), relishing the paan and lassi, playing chess on the steps of the ghats, happy at last to find a place on this planet where no one recognizes him.

The Vishwanath temple and the Ganga are the same, only, since August 21, Bismillah is not there.

Bismillah Khan's ancestors were Bhojpuri court musicians. His father, Paigambar Baksh, was employed in the Dumraon palace by the Raja of Bhojpur, as were his grandfather and great grandfather. When he was born his grandfather exclaimed 'Bismillah!' (In the name of Allah!) when he first saw the infant, that name stuck. In his teens, Bismillah Khan was apprenticed to his uncle Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', who was attached to the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi as a shehnai player. 'Nai' or 'Ney' is a turko-persian word for flute (Besh No Az Ney), and a shehnai is thus a kingly flute. Its ability to cut stridently through a hubbub made it especially suitable for celebrations and weddings, and it was the culprit behind many a reedy wee-hours caterwaul. It was Bismillah Khan who made the instrument a respectable one; India's independence celebrations in 1947, for example, started with his rendering of Raga Kafi at the Red Fort -- a shehnai recital has since become a 15th August tradition for All India Radio. One of the few times he was able to overcome his fear and mistrust of planes (his prefered transportation modes were trains, and cycle-rickshaws) to perform in Edinburgh, the London Evening Standard declared, in a quote that entered the Oxford English Dictionary, "You are now expected to know about Bismillah Khan and his shehnai."

Last year, a Pakistani acquaintance had asked me in exasperation -- "Where is this composite Indo-Persian culture the chattering liberals in India carry on about? They talk about it, I never see it." A devout Muslim who never missed namaaz, Bismillah considered Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and music, to be his ma. His home court was that most holy of Hindu shrines -- Baba Kashi Vishwanath. When asked why he didn’t move to comfort and fortune in America — like Ravi Shankar, or Zakir Hussain — he plaintively asked, "Lekin main apni Ganga kahan se laaoon?" (But from where will I bring my Ganges?).

My acquaintance will probably say one dead Shia doesn't count. He will also point at APJ Abdul Kalam and caustically wonder if in order to be considered a Good Musalman in India, you have to call Saraswati ma.

At a conference on music, a Hindu musician remarked abrasively: "The problem with Islam is that it has downgraded music." Bismillah Khan replied with a twinkle in his eye: "As you know, sir, most of the best classical musicians of north India are Muslims. Can you imagine what would have happened if Islam had upgraded music?"

I first met Bismillah Khan when he came (in a cycle rickshaw) to play at the SPIC MACAY chapter of my college campus. During his pre-concert talk, he recalled with tears in his eyes how one evening when he was playing by the river, the Goddess Ganga herself appeared in front of him to correct a note, with which his rendition finally became perfect.

Kiran Seth, one of the founders of SPIC MACAY, has written:

I had expected him to be staying at a five star hotel, but when I went there, I found this unshaven man wearing a lungi and a baniyan, sitting on the floor. I had gone to request him to perform for the students. He heard me out, at the end of which he asked, “Par paisa kitna doge? (But how much money will you give?)” When I told him that we had only a small dakshina to offer, he immediately refused. I tried hard to argue with him, but he would not oblige. He said that he had a large family of his own and of his musicians to look after and that he would not perform unless he was paid properly. I had given up and was preparing to leave when he asked me to sit down. He talked to me some more, and realising the genuinity of the effort, finally gave his consent. This gave SPIC MACAY a boost. After that he performed all over India for this movement.

At the SPIC MACAY annual convention at Dehradun in the early nineties, Ustad Bismillah Khan was scheduled to give the concluding recital of the classical music overnight. The whole group had been booked by a train reaching Dehradun, one day earlier. The tickets were waitlisted, but we had contacted the Railway Board to get them confirmed. This did not happen and the group could not board the train at Mughalsarai. We were very taken aback. Many people coming solely to listen to Khan sahib would go back disappointed. In those days, there was only one flight from Varanasi to Delhi (there were no flights to Dehradun), and there were no SUVs. The only way that we could have the whole group reach on time was to fly them down to Delhi and have a matador take them from the airport on a whole night journey to Dehradun. Very hesitatingly, I suggested this to Khan sahib on the phone. His reply was: “Jab hamne vayda kiya hai, hum use nibhayenge (When I have given a word, I will honour it).” He reached Dehradun in the early hours of the morning just in time for his concert. I suggested that we postpone his programme to the afternoon so that he could rest a little. He asked me if people were there in the hall. When I replied in the affirmative, he decided to go straight onto the stage. He gave a memorable concert. “Insaan ki pehchan hai uski zaban.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hai, Banarsi Paan with Thandai -- brings back memories. Fortunately there is Utube. Check out (Khaike Paan Banaraswala)

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sandeepan,
Incredible facial shots & music, thanks! Bismillah Khan' instrument (a kind of flute?) reminds me of an oboe (I wonder if the mouth piece is a cane reed?).

1:06 AM  
Blogger Grandpoohbah said...

The Shehnai is indeed an Indian oboe, typically double-reeded vs. most single-reeded oboes or shawms. Other related instruments are the Turko-Persian Ney, the English Horn (cor anglais), the German Heckelhorn, and the Baroque Oboe D'amore, used for example by JS Bach.

4:28 AM  

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