Had he been alive, the shehnai maestro would have turned 107 on March 21.
Ustad Bismillah Khan first played internationally at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, but in the storied biography of the shehnai maestro, this date is now only a footnote. It is, in the end, a dateless anecdote that best illustrates the levels of fame Bismillah had come to enjoy overseas. Those who knew him—neighbours, journalists, his grandchildren—all repeat this story the way they would a favourite legend.
During a tour to the US, a wealthy admirer once asked Bismillah to move to America. Wanting to put the benefactor down lightly, Bismillah thought it best to raise the stakes. “I would then have to come here with my family. And what about the families of those in my party?” Seeing that all his conditions were being met—“Bring them all!”—Bismillah, everyone thought, had caught himself in a bind. His grandson Nasir Abbas tells us: “It is then that Dadaji asked if Ma Ganga also flowed through America.”
Abbas’ version of events comes with a punchline that seems to match the drama of his narration, but Bismillah himself had remembered this experience somewhat differently. In Meeting a Milestone, a 1989 documentary directed by Goutam Ghose, we see Bismillah speak with his trademark toothy grin: “I asked the gentleman to first make me a Banaras in America—a place where the Ganga flows and Siva is worshipped. I like to play my shehnai surrounded by temples and prayer. I asked for that.”
While it is hard not to be taken by Bismillah’s disavowal of foreign pleasures and worldly progress, by his utter loyalty to his roots, it is also difficult to disregard his secular and fraternal sentiments. The ease with which Bismillah, a Shia musician, embraced the tenets of the Hindu faith seems improbable in the present day.
Born in Dumraon, Bihar, on March 21, 1916, Bismillah moved to Banaras when he was only a child. In this city, one that Bismillah adored and made his, the air simmers with palpable tension each time someone challenges the legitimacy of the Gyanvapi masjid, either in court or on its streets. More than 16 years after his death, we must ask if Bismillah was an exemplar of Banarasi camaraderie or simply an outlier. Is his legacy only fodder for despair, or can we find solace there, too?
The family man
The lanes of Banaras’ Sarai Harha are thin, and the path to Naseer Abbas’ ancestral home resembles a labyrinth. It is, at first, hard to tell if the three-storeyed house is deliberately austere or in a state of desperate disrepair. Visitors and journalists are mostly ushered into a small room on the terrace. The walls here all seem plastered with photographs and paintings of Bismillah. The space is clearly a shrine.
“I was born in this house,” says Abbas, 50. “We grew up under Dadaji’s watchful eye. He raised us. We saw the simplicity with which he lived his life.” The shehnai that Abbas brings out to play was given to his father, Nayyar Hussain, by his grandfather. Abbas’ playing feels hesitant, and his notes, you think, sometimes falter. But like Bismillah, Abbas also stops to demonstrate the bandish he plays by singing it aloud. His voice is more unhindered than his shehnai. There is a tangible pathos to his vocal rendition.
Kahkashan Begum sits nearby. At one point, her cousin’s singing leaves her overwhelmed. Wiping away her tears, she remembers the nights her grandfather would return home after having played at a concert. “He would distribute amongst everyone, both adults and children, the money he had earned.” Any amount he had left would be stored away for lean periods when recitals and performances were few. “Dadaji was always in the habit of taking everyone with him,” adds Abbas. If one adds to his family the number of impoverished musicians he would support, “the total sum would be some 300 persons.”
Bismillah Khan had nine children—five sons and four daughters—and nearly 50 of his descendants still live in the house he inherited. Unlike her male cousins, Kahkashan was never trained in music, but she laughs and says she has found success as a bathroom singer. “Music brings religions together,” she later adds. “This is what my grandfather would teach all of us. It’s important that we don’t forget him.”
“The ease with which Bismillah, a Shia musician, embraced the tenets of the Hindu faith seems improbable today. ”
Though Kahkashan and Abbas together champion the memory of their grandfather, they also go on to argue that their own financial distress is a sure sign of societal and cultural amnesia. In 2017, life had begun to seem dire. Their cousin, Nazre Hasan, felt compelled to steal five of Bismillah’s shehnais. After melting them for their silver, a goldsmith agreed to pay Hasan all of Rs.17,000 for the instruments.
“We feel terrible about what happened,” says Abbas. “Our cousin’s mind had been corrupted, and he has since been punished, but why should a whole family suffer for one member’s crime?” While Abbas feels let down by governmental indifference, his family’s relationship with the BJP has not always been straightforward.
In 2014, when Narendra Modi contested to become an MP from Varanasi for the first time, his party had asked Abbas’ uncles to step forward as proposers. Turning down the BJP, Abbas felt, had been a mistake. In an effort to right the wrongs of his relatives, Abbas then wrote to Modi, hoping he could bury the hatchet by proposing the Prime Minister’s name in 2019. “But all I received was a formal note of congratulation from Modiji’s secretary,” he says. “No one looked interested in taking my request further.”
Seated on a charpoy, the managing trustee of the Bismillah Khan Foundation, Syed Abbas Murtaza Shamsi, picks his moments to intervene. “We appeal to the State and Central governments to also think about Bismillah Khan’s family. During his lifetime, Bismillah Khan taught his whole family how to play the shehnai. Even if not directly, our hope is that members of his family get invited to some of the festivals that these governments organise.”
Shamsi feels he has reason to feel optimistic. When inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor in 2022, Modi had made mention of Bismillah Khan: “Modiji referred to him from inside a temple. This goes to show the special place that Khan sahib has in the Prime Minister’s heart.”
On the few occasions that Shamsi has met the Prime Minister, he says he has tried impressing upon him the need to look at Bismillah as an ideal, “an ambassador of unity and brotherhood”. A neighbour to Bismillah when growing up, Shamsi remembers the fondness with which the ustad would meet him and members of his family: “He would sit in our house for hours at a stretch, talking about the world. He had an incredible sense of humour. If he was around, I knew we were in store for plenty of laughs.”
Bismillah Khan, it is clear, was truly a “family man”. Even with people who were not related to him by blood, he forged a familial bond. “Khan sahib usually only left our house post midnight, and invariably it was me who went to drop him,” says Shamsi. “One day, he demanded that I start calling him Mamu. From that day on, he referred to me as his nephew, no matter where we went in the world.” Finally, as they travelled to nearly two dozen countries together, Shamsi became Bismillah’s confidant. “I was 42 years his junior, but he always turned to me for advice. His was so compelling and loving a personality that he never saw the people he met as rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, big or small, literate or illiterate.”
His guiding light
Hearing them recount tales from their Bismillah repertoire, one feels struck by Abbas and Shamsi’s constant allusions to Hindu gods and deities. Shamsi, for instance, refers to Bismillah as “an ardent devotee of Ma Saraswati”. Abbas, on the other hand, likes telling stories of the three divine visions Bismillah had when doing his riyaz in the Naubat Khana of Banaras’ Balaji temple: “In the three-and-a-half years he went there to practise, Dadaji was once visited by Baba [Vishwanath], but he never told us what he had seen on the other two occasions. Later, when Dadaji would again want to play for Baba Bholenath, he would just take his shehnai and turn it in the direction of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir.”
The Naubat Khana that Abbas takes us to looks all the worse for wear. Though locked, its doors and windows seem rickety, and the steps that lead up to the veranda are littered with sacks of mud. Pandit Narayan Guru, 78, mahant (head priest) of the adjoining Mangla Gauri temple, remembers the days when Bismillah would play his shehnai here in the wee hours of the morning. “He would do his riyaz in the glow of a single diya, focussing all his attention on Ma Gauri and Ma Ganga.” Guru says it was Bismillah who carefully taught him the basics of sadhana (learning) and aradhana (worship).
Hearing us talk of Banaras’ “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”, Sanjay Kumar Pandey, a junior priest at the Mangla Gauri temple, joins the conversation. “That tehzeeb is still very much there in this city, but there are some people who vitiate this atmosphere from time to time.” Pandey believes that it is in Banaras’ commerce that we can still find proof of its syncretism: “Go to any market and you will see purchasers and sellers of different religions working together. No politician can ever erode that bond.”
Past and present tense
Sari trader and weaver Ateeq Ansari cuts spare strands of thread from the back of an embroidered border in his living room. His words are as sharp as his scissors. “It’s simply a matter of time before the Gyanvapi mosque is destroyed, either violently or quietly, if law and order is to be maintained,” he says. Ansari’s convictions, he says, are based on inference, not fear. In May 2022, tensions in Banaras seemed to reach a crescendo when a lingam-like structure was discovered in the Gyanvapi premises during a court-mandated survey. Though the masjid’s administrators insisted that the structure was a defunct fountain, a group of Hindu devotees wanted immediate permission to worship their newfound “Baba”.
Ever since Aurangzeb destroyed the famed Vishweshwara temple in 1669, building Gyanvapi in its stead, the mosque has been a Hindu-Muslim flashpoint, but it is only in recent months that the site has again become a hard line in the sand for those who want to reverse a historical wound. Ansari says: “Anyone viewing this matter objectively will be able to say that the days of the Gyanvapi mosque are numbered. Cases against the mosque have been in the courts for years, but how is it that Gyanvapi has become such a hot-button issue for everyone only recently? There is obviously some agenda here.”
Strangely, Ansari’s resignation is not altogether pessimistic. “This Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb you speak of might not manifest as something tangible, but it is certainly present in people’s dispositions, their relationships.” Ansari stops to compare casualty figures. “If you look at the number of people who have died during communal clashes in Banaras, and if you look at victims of such clashes in places like Aligarh, Meerut and Moradabad, you’ll see that the Banaras figure is much lower. It takes just a few deaths, maybe just eight or 10, for Hindus and Muslims to both take to their rooftops and make loud proclamations of interfaith brotherhood. It’s not just saris, our attitudes, you’ll find, are reshmi [soft as silk], too.”
Before Ansari immersed himself in his family’s sari business, he worked as a stringer for several Hindi newspapers. “In those 15 years, I had plenty of opportunities to write about Bismillah Khan, but not once did I see him say or do something that could ease religious tensions.”
When the Ayodhya movement had peaked during 1989 and 1992, Banaras saw a series of small, intermittent communal clashes, but Bismillah, laments Ansari, was never on the right side of history. “He once said something like, ‘What do I have to do with mosques? I can perform my namaz anywhere—under a tree, at a station.’ This earned him a reputation of being ‘secular’ and ‘broad-minded’, but that was only because non-Muslims heard his claim and said that those defending mosques were orthodox and communal.”
Since Ansari was never in the habit of keeping safe his newspaper clippings, the history of Bismillah he tells is strictly oral. “It was only in music, his field of work, that he received great recognition by way of a Bharat Ratna. Otherwise, it would be fair to say that he had no say in society.” Ansari reminds us that Bismillah belonged to the Lal Begi community, a Scheduled Caste whose people were tasked with the carrying and handling of corpses. “Amongst Muslims here, Shias are already a minority, and Bismillah Khan was part of a yet smaller minority. So, no majority or minority would ever really pay heed to him.”
The “secular” test that Ansari wants Bismillah to have passed is a hypothetical one: “Imagine if Bismillah Khan were told that Shias must be disallowed from ceremonial matam [chest-beating] in the streets for the sake of maintaining peace, or law and order, would he have agreed? I’d have liked to see him display his large heart if it were.”
In Goutam Ghose’s Meeting a Milestone, we see Bismillah amid a Muharram procession. His cheeks are streaked with tears, and even the loud, mournful cries of matam are unable to drown out the melancholic strains of his shehnai. In retrospect, this moving and poignant image only belies Ansari’s insistent refrains: “What do Muslims have to do with music?”
Making a difference
Speaking at the Indian Documentary Film Festival of Bhubaneswar in 2019, 30 years after he released Meeting a Milestone, Goutam Ghose told a young audience that by opening all his doors for him and his crew, Bismillah had changed “his concept of art”, teaching him the true values of a “composite culture”.
The filmmaker then narrated an anecdote which squarely challenges Ansari’s earlier claims. According to Ghose, Bismillah was not at all impervious to the clamour of the Ayodhya movement. At one point, Bismillah is believed to have said: “I don’t think anyone has done more Ram-naam than I have. Every time I perform somewhere, there is a request for me to play Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.”
In January 2020, some opponents of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) helped make viral a scene from Meeting a Milestone. Standing by the Ganga, Bismillah is seen reminiscing about his youth, again proclaiming his love for Banaras: “I would bathe in the Ganga and then run off to perform my namaz. After that, I’d go to the Balaji temple for my riyaz. We lived like fakirs. There is no place like this in the world.” For Bismillah, Banaras’ inclusiveness was an ideal he had to imbibe and replicate.
““I would bathe in the Ganga and then run off to perform my namaz. After that, I’d go to the Balaji temple for my riyaz. We lived like fakirs. There is no place like this in the world.” For Bismillah, Banaras’ inclusiveness was an ideal he had to imbibe and replicate. ”
Almost a year after the Babri Masjid was demolished, Bismillah Khan performed at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in November 1993. In a five-minute speech he gave at the end of his concert, Bismillah implored his rapt audience to look at music as glue: “Look around the world and you’ll see that there is something happening everywhere. Maulvis, pandits, and priests are all devotees of the same Almighty, but their paths are different. It is only music that can bring everyone together. Music has seven notes. I challenge anyone in the world to show me an eighth! Music sees no caste, no difference.”
Having once seen Bismillah copiously weep during a Muharram procession, the senior journalist Amitabha Bhattacharya feels “it would be wrong for someone to say that he was not an honest Muslim”. Bhattacharya likes referring to Bismillah as a “crusader”. He says: “Bismillah Khan made music his religion, and he exceeded the strict limits of sectarianism. He was never communal, but he was community-conscious. There’s a difference between those two things. Bismillah Khan carried in him a unique DNA, one that he inherited from saints like Kabir.”
In Bismillah of Benaras: Maestro of the Shehnai, a documentary Nasreen Munni Kabir directed for the BBC in 2002, we find further proof of Bismillah’s radical outlook. After mentioning the names of great Muslim musicians—Fayyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, and so on—Bismillah says: “All these musicians were told they should stay away from music, that it is haram [forbidden]. Imagine the heights we’d have reached if music were permitted to us.”
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In no way does Bismillah’s critique of religious orthodoxy impinge on his devotion to Islam. He had also told the BBC that namaz was the only intoxicant he knew. The advice he gave young musicians was pithy—“immerse yourself in music the way you would immerse yourself in God”—and his humility seemed unimpeachable: “I never want to be arrogant. I just always want to have felt that I was doing God’s work.”
For Amitabha Bhattacharya, Bismillah had a twofold legacy. Not only had he taken the shehnai from the temple and wedding hall to the concert stage, he had also, with time, scaled the social ladder of Banaras. “He is the pride of Kashi. I feel sad that we live in a time when Banaras seems infected with a sociopolitical covid, and there is no Bismillah to defuse tensions with a couplet or two.”
When asked about his mastery of the jugalbandi (duet) format or his amalgamation of several gharanas (styles of music), Bismillah never hesitated to say that he learnt his many variations from the music of those he admired. “I’d pick a flower from each stem to make my own bouquet, but I would always add to all that I had picked some flavour of my own. I soon developed a style that was mine, a style I have never forsaken since.”
This attitude towards music seems to smoothly align with his views on life and religion. Once, when he was being chastised by a maulvi, Bismillah began to sing. Hearing his paean to Allah, the maulvi was appeased. “But I was singing in Raga Bhairav,” Bismillah adds, again flashing his teeth.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist.
- The shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan was born in Dumraon, Bihar, on March 21, 1916, and moved to Banaras when he was only a child.
- The ease with which this Shia musician embraced the tenets of the Hindu faith seems improbable in the present day.
- More than 16 years after his death, we must ask if he was an exemplar of Banarasi camaraderie or simply an outlier.
- Ever since Aurangzeb destroyed the famed Vishweshwara temple in 1669, building Gyanvapi mosque in its stead, the mosque has been a Hindu-Muslim flashpoint, but it is only in recent months that the site has again become a hard line in the sand for those who want to reverse a historical wound.
- Bismillah’s legacy is twofold: Not only had he taken the shehnai from the temple and wedding hall to the concert stage, he had also, with time, scaled the social ladder of Banaras.