bismillah khan

by Uma Lacombe

Ustad Bismillah Khan departed from this world on the 21st of August 2006 at the age of 90. He was the foremost exponent of Shahnai. The Shahnai (also written Shehnai) is compared to an oboe and its name comes from two Persian words, one is shah which means king, the other is nai meaning flute. This wind instrument has up to nine holes on its staff. The last two holes are used for tuning and can be left open or closed with wax.

Once was a night about twenty five years ago; a night that I would never forget. It all happened on the sacred river Ganges where hundreds of small boats were surrounding a bigger one decorated with garlands of flowers and oil lamps. From that big boat music was flowing which was spreading large and wide up to the sky. I was new in Kashi, the “City of Light”, and I knew close to nothing about Indian classical music at that time but I was overwhelmed and deeply touched by the pure and mighty sound I was listening to, so much so that years after, the memory of it still resounds strongly in my heart. I did not know the Râga which was being played and in fact I cannot remember the melody, but what remains in me until now are the impressions and the messages I could perceive and receive through this divine music. This music was like a pure clear sound which was light at the same time and it was filling up the night and the space. Yes, it is the light of pure sound in the space that first come to my mind, like plenitude in the vacuity. And the message carried through the music was love. Indeed, it was Ustad Bismillah Khan who was playing, filling all the listeners with grace.

Living in Varanasi or Benaras (the modern names for Kashi), I have been blessed to be able to listen to this great Ustad in his own city a few times afterwards and each time it was the same magic. Since then, for me the sound of Shahnai is linked to the vastness on the Ganges and even when I attended a concert in an inner hall or in some other town, the music Ustad Bismillah Khan was playing on his Shahnai was always bringing me back to the sacred river.

Though he was born in Dumraon, a small princely state in the Shahabad district of Bihar, Ustadji cherished the holy city of Benaras so much that he declined the offer made by America to build a replica of Varanasi in the states so that he could live there permanently. To this offer Ustadji replied that no one could bring his dear Gangaji (Ganga is the name for the Ganges and ji is a particle adding respect and affection at the same time) to America. He also preferred the city on the Ganges to the Indian metropolis where he could have had more facilities perhaps.

It was spring time, exactly on the 21st of march1916 in the morning; the birds were beginning to sing at the break of day when Mitthan felt the first pains of labour. Her husband Paigambar Baksh agreed with his own father Rasool Baksh Khan not to go to the temple to play the Shahnai as they were doing every morning at dawn to greet the day and open the prayers with their music.

Thus, a second boy was born to Mitthan and Paigambar and they called him Qamaruddin to match the sound of their first son’s name, Shamsuddin. The grand father seeing the baby boy exclaimed ‘Bismillah’, by the grace of Allah, and that is the name which remained attached to Qamaruddin and under which he was going to be known throughout the world.

At the age of six, Qamaruddin was taken by her mother to her own brother, Ali Baksh Khan who was living in Benaras. Ali Baksh was a renowned Shahnai player and the young boy was spellbound when he was listening to his uncle practising in the Balaji Temple close by the Ganges, in the early hours of the day. His Mamu (maternal uncle) was impressed by the young boy who would sit quietly listening for hours forgetting about eating and games.

One day the boy dared ask his Mamu why he always practised at the temple and not at home, and the answer was that one day he would himself understand why. Shortly after Bismillah asked his uncle when he could begin to play, the answer from his Mamu was “right now.”

From then onward his training began under the guidance of Ali Baksh Khan who thus became Bismillah’s guru. The boy would start his practice with only half an hour a day, but after some years it increased up to six hours every morning and one day, playing in the Balaji temple he had a spiritual vision that he had had better not revealed to his guru who scolded him for doing so.  All his life he kept a great liking for solitude and always preferred to be in the sole company of his music, undisturbed on his way to reaching Allah or God. One would even speak of him as an ascetic. Later on Bismillah also learnt from Ahmed Hussain Khan from Lucknow and also from a famous harmonium player from Gwalior, Laxmanprasadji.

After some years of doing his riyaaz (practice) with his Mamu, the young student was granted some holidays at his parents’ place in Dumraon. He was keen on showing his progress to his family, but to his dismay his grand father scolded him and taking the Shahnai from the boy he began blowing in the instrument creating a sound so powerful and so intense that the child was dumfounded. From this he understood that he had to take care of his health in order to harmonize and deepen his breath which would allow him such a great sound. He began changing his diet and taking physical exercises and soon he surprised his guru by his new strength. His music evolved and became a blending of the melodious and sweet musical intricacies learnt from his guru with the voluminous and mighty sound of his grand father.

From that moment in his life Bismillah knew the necessity of discipline, a discipline which he carried on through his long life, never allowing himself to drink alcohol and to get lost into sensual pleasures as he knew it would destroy his music. The only exception which he enjoyed till the end of his life was of smoking Wills cigarettes, a brand he found in India only. Another quality he had shown from his early childhood was perseverance and dedication without which even the greatest talent would not be able to unfold itself.

At that time one would not learn music in a school where one attends classes at a given time according to a routine; one would learn according to the “guru-shisya-parampara”, the guru-disciple-tradition, which implies surrender to one’s guru, devotion to him, to the music and to God, as well as the alienation of the ego. Even today, this deep relation between the guru and his disciple is the only way to really imbibe the intricacies and the beauty of the classical Indian music.

I never met Ustadji’s personally, but just by listening to the tunefulness, to the purity of his music I could guess much about him. Indeed, such music could come only from a heart fully opened by detachment, by humility, by supreme love.  When I read about Ustad and his life, I was not surprised to learn that he was not just a devout Moslem, doing his namaaz (prayers) five times a day, but he was really a sufi and a free thinker who was playing in Hindu temples for Saraswati, the goddess of music, and who dared break the haraam (taboo) of Islam which says that no music should ever be played.

So did Khan Saheb (as he was also called) play through the lanes of Benaras on the eighth day of the Muharram, a Moslem festival. For Bismillah, as it is also true for most of the great music masters of India, music is a prayer, is a way to unite with God, and his Shahnai was his Coran.  As the famous dancer and singer Rita Ganguly wrote: “Only when one walks the path of the religion of music, one become able to know that Allah and Brahman are one.”  

His modesty was shown in the way he dressed himself, wearing Shalwar-Kameez of Khadi cotton for everyday life, of silk for some special events. His house was modestly furnished, with no superfluous luxury and he dwelled all his life in the house of his Mamu in the old city and never was attracted by having a beautiful bungalow in Delhi or Mumbai. He never owned a car and he liked to take a cycle rikshaw to go through the city of Benaras.

The money he earned was in a great part spent to keep the hundred people of his family household healthy and happy. He was saying that life’s success is in Iman, righteousness, and he never took side lanes or low lanes. When we hear about the words he spoke on special occasions like after a concert or by receiving an award, we realize what a sense of humour he had, what an honesty and sincerity too.

Saheb Khan was the first Indian musician to perform at the Lincoln Centre in New York City; the audience was so overwhelmed and moved by his excellent rendering of the Râga that he had to take seven curtain calls. The audience begged him to say a few words which he found quite strange as he had already said everything he wanted to say through his music. Finally he accepted to speak so that hey would let him go and have the cup of tea he was longing for. He told them simply in his own language: “I beg your pardon, let me go now. I would like to have a cup of tea now.” Then with his eyes smiling he added: “In our country, there is a saying that a wise man talks very little. So please do not ask me to speak if you have not missed the wisdom of my music.” Clapping and laughter rose from the entire audience. Even after becoming world famous, he would remain very simple with other musicians and they shared a mutual respect for each other. Though he travelled through the whole world he was always afraid of flying and would remember the first time he did have to fly to play at the Edinburgh Festival as well as at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965. He first requested the organisers to let him begin his journey months ahead so that he could go there by train!

Ustad Bismillah Khan was not just a great and marvellous Shahnai player who had found his inspiration in various music styles like in the classical Khayal, in Thumri and in Ghazal, but his contribution to the Shahnai is that he could promote it to a concert instrument enjoying its full right in the Indian classical music. Before Khan Saheb, the Shahnai had no pedigree in the hierarchy of Indian classical instruments and it was played mainly at weddings, in processions or to inaugurate a ceremony, but Ustadji could honour it and enrich it introducing the entire realm of classical music in it. He could bring the intricate tunes without loosing the rustic quality of this instrument.

Furthermore he taught close members of his family as well as a few worthy disciples, the first and most devoted one having been Jagdish Prasad Kamar whose daughter Bageshwari also learnt to play Shahnai from Ustadji.

Bageshwari is the only woman playing Shahnai; the fact that she had been taught by Khan Saheb shows the broadmindedness of the latter who liked to say that there is no reason why a woman should not play as long as she is dedicated to her music and does her riyaaz regularly.

Apart from giving concerts extensively in the whole world, Khan Saheb also composed film music or even played the Shahnai in a few films which became great successes; to be mentioned first are the films directed by the two Bhatt brothers, Vijay and Shankar: “Vaiju Bawra” about the life of a famous almost legendary classical singer of ancient time, and “Gunj Uthi Shehnai” with Lata Mangeshkar. No need to give a list of all his many recordings as they would be easy to find in any music shop all over the world.

Saheb Khan always remained simple though had been on the front in many great occasions like when he played for the day of the independence of India on the 15th of August 1947. He was the first free Indian to greet the new nation with his glorious music. Just before Pandit J. Nehru would deliver his speech to the people, Bismillahji greeted the audience with his divine and magical tunes. Among the audience he could recognize Mahatma Gandhi, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Sardar B. Patel and other heroes of the struggle for independence.

The whole nation knew to show her gratitude to this master, sage and yogi musician in rewarding him with all the highest possible awards one could receive in India. He got a first gold medal at the age of fourteen at a music festival in Allahabad where he had been accompanying his guru Ustad Ali Baksh; three more gold medals followed a few years later. Then to mention only a few of those many awards, there has been the Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1936, the Padmashri in 1961, the Padmabushan in 1968, the Padma Vibushan, the Deshikottam, the Tansen Puraskar and honorary doctorates from Shantiniketan and Benaras Hindu University between 1978 and 1980, in 1990 the Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Puraskar and the Bharat Ratna in 2001 at the age of 85.

During the rainy season of 2006, a great master and a great soul has passed away, but as my own master the late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar once told me: the guru never dies. Indeed Ustad Bismillah Khan will always live, through and in his music, in the hearts of his disciples and in the hearts of all the very many people throughout the world, who will listen again and again to his divine music. Kabir a great mystic and poet who lived in Kashi during the 15th century sang: “The flute of the infinite is played endlessly and its sound is love……..the form of this melody is shining like millions of suns……”