The legendary shehanai maestro, a man of tenderness, a man who believes in remaining private and who believes that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen. The legend was born on 21 March 1916. His ancestors were court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar and he was trained under his uncle, the late Ali Bux `Vilayatu. , a shehnai player attached to Varanasi. s Vishwanath Temple. It was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out into Raga Kafi from Red Fort on the eve of India. s first Republic Day ceremony.
Where others see conflict and contradiction between his music and his religion, Bismillah Khan sees only a divine unity. Music, sur, namaaz is the same thing. His namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. Even as a devout Shia, Khan Sahib is also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music. His honorary doctorate from the Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan bespeaks of his fame.
Bismillah Khan has been bequeathed with the Sangeet Natak Academi Award, the Tansen Award of the Madhya Pradesh government and also the prestigious Padma Vibhushan. He has played in Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world. His music is an ocean and he feels that he has barely reached the shore after 81 years of his life and his search is still incomplete.
Bismillah Khan, the most outstanding and world-famous shehnai player, has attained astonishing mastery over the instrument. He was born in a small village in Bihar about 60 years ago. He spent his childhood in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, where his uncle was the official shehnai player in the famous Visvanath temple. It was due to this that Bismillah became interested in playing the Shehnai. At an early age, he familiarized himself with various forms of the music of UP, such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Sawani etc. Later he studied Khayal music and mastered a large number of ragas.
His brother also plays with him sometimes. Both the brothers were expert players, but the famous Urdu saying
"Bade bhai so bade bhai, lekin chhote bhai - Subhanallah!" perfectly
described the brothers. When they played together Bismillah Khan always
played down his own part as he did not wish to overshadow his brother. '
Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my
elder brother' he always said with humility and modesty. I ventured to
question him about this after the death of his elder brother. He said
again, 'He was my elder brother, hence it was not proper for me to play
better than him'.
Khan Saheb is soaked in religion. It is his sustaining life-force. But it is this same religion that damns music, condemns it as an act of rape. For the Shias, music is haraam (taboo). But for the man who took the shehnai out of the wedding processions and aubatkhaanas - the shehnai player, traditionally was to be heard and not seen - and who was able to weave patterns of dazzling intricacy into his music as he brought it to the centre-stage of classical respectability, his instrument is also his Quran. Where others see conflicts and contradictions between music and religion, he sees only a divine unity.
"When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)."
Each year, on the eighth day of Muharram, this devoteee of the Shia faith who refuses to touch the reed of his shehnai with his lips unless he has offered his namaaz before sunrise, engages himself in his own private drama of religious apostasy . Dressed simply in white, he leads a procession, like a mischievous Pied Piper of rebellion, playing a silver shehnai reserved specially for the occasion. The procession winds its way through Varanasi's Byzantine lanes to the rauzaa of Imam Hussain. Here, just inside the gate, he sits cross-legged on the dusty ground in the fashion of a mendicant street ministrel and play for hours, weeping copiously all the time, while the audience pitches coins into his lap. This is simple man. A man of tenderness, a gentle private man, yet given to unbridled display of emotion. When he laughs, the ground shakes. At 70, he is an immensely handsome man with a princely beard and eyes which glint with boyish mischief, his only "bad habit" he apologises, is smoking Wills cigarettes which he puffs with obvious relish. There is nothing about him that bespeaks his fame - his honorary doctorates, his Padma Vibhushan, his concerts in almost every capital around the world, his dozens of best-selling record albums.
On India's first Republic Day ceremony it was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out in Raaga Kaafi from the Red Fort. On a more pop level it was Khan Sahib who composed that magic film number 'Dil ka khilauna hai toot gaya' for the film Goonj Uthi Shehnai. He has made money but spent it just as fast. He supports nearly 100 relatives, including 10 children.
His house in Varanasi, in Sarai Harha, is an ample but decrepit structure. His living room which also serves as guest room, is sparsely furnished with creaky wooden benches and a large takht on which, at given time of the day, his children perform namaaz, oblivious of guests and visitors. Still in incessant demand as a player he travels by train regularly with his troupe, often by second class. He hates to fly. And when travel arrangements are being made, the house buzzes with activity as instruments are laid out, ancient steel trunks and torn British Airways flight-bags are packed with clothes and lunch boxes stuffed with rice and samosas. The shehnai player, whose name is familiar even to the international jet set as that of Ravi Shankar, travels by cycle rickshaw. And as he wheels down the city's streets at the head of a caravan of rickshaws, smiling at well wishers, he looks as happy as a British Lord in a Rolls Royce.