Khan of Shehnai

Print edition : January 15, 2010

Bismillah Khan in concert in Bangalore in May 2005.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

USTAD BISMILLAH KHAN (1916-2006), who first brought shehnai, a problematic reed instrument, to the concert stage nearly 70 years ago, passed away in his beloved city of Varanasi on August 21. He was tired and old, though not full of sleep. A singular man, he had certainly earned his reprieve from the material world after his prodigious artistic labours and dedicated, though not always, efficient attempts to meet the needs of some 70 dependents.

Of Khan Saheb it can be said that there was no dichotomy between his life and art as one fused into the other effortlessly. He was 21 when he astonished listeners at the All India Music Conference in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1937. For almost 50 years since then he remained a peerless shehnai player. Ali Hussain of Calcutta, Anant Lal of Varanasi, not to forget Jagadish Prasad Qamar from the walled city of old Delhi, all played the shehnai with a certain mastery of technique and the understanding of a given raga. But no one had Bismillah Khans poignant tone or subtle sense of harmonics.

He could bring a lump in the throat of the layman and the connoisseur alike playing a simple folk tune or a many-layered bandish in a majestic raga like Yaman. Where he got this gift of music from is a matter of conjecture though he attributed all his accomplishments jointly to Allah, the formless maker of the universe, and Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Musically, he certainly had a genetic advantage. His ancestors were court musicians in Dumraon, a small principality in the United Provinces, now in Bihar. His uncle Ali Baksh alias Vilayatu was attached to the Viswanath temple in Varanasi and groomed him in the art of playing simultaneously to Siva inside the precincts and the public outside. The two of them and their accompanists sat on the parapet adjoining the entrance to the temple, unintentionally finding a way to negotiate with a society that was still divided along the lines of class, caste and religion.

There may not be too many examples of how the shehnai may have been played during his youth or before. Perhaps extant 78-rpm recordings with their three-minute time limit may throw some light on the matter. We do not know if there are any discs by Ali Baksh or any of his contemporaries though there are some of one Meer Saheb who was quite an artist. However, one can say with some conviction that no one got the shehnai to yield with so many nuances as Ustad Bismillah Khan did.

With Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (right) at a rare shehnai-sarod jugalbandi in Kolkata in December 2003.-PTI

His breath control was truly amazing, even more so because he remained a heavy smoker, primarily of beedis, almost all his life. His tone till his 72nd or 73rd year was rich and full and the odd squeaky note a rarity. To quote an expression often used by old-time jazz musicians, he could make his instrument talk. Bismillah Khans music always had the quality of an intimate conversation. He was at his profound, moving best when he revealed the personality of a given raga through his melodies.

Khan Saheb was extremely fond of singing and could carry a melody well into his late 70s. He knew hundreds of thumris, dadras, chaitis, baramasas and khayals and punctuated his conversations with apt examples from any of these genres. Since he was a gregarious man he enjoyed the company of people he could regale with anecdotes on Varanasi, its lore and, of course, music.

A man of rustic simplicity, he was wary of travelling abroad in the early days. Not only were the cultural differences too great but there were other difficulties of a more intimate comic nature. With time, however, he became a seasoned traveller and captivated audiences all over the world. He was happiest playing to Indian audiences; not the elite of the metropolitan cities but the ordinary music lover. The westernised, rich, microscopic urban minority was touched by the simplicity of his personality and the emotion in his playing. But for him a real dialogue was possible only with the genuine rasika of the streets, particularly of Varanasi and other such culturally rich places.

Many honours came his way, including the Bharat Ratna, a distinction he shared with M.S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar. But worldly success meant nothing to him. He lived austerely, travelled by cycle rickshaw while at home and spent all his considerable income looking after his very large extended family. He accepted his role as patriarch with equanimity and grace.

Khan Sahebs own style was firmly influenced by the vocalists in his own environment and he felicitously absorbed the styles of improvisation of the great thumri singers of his time. The thumri is an extremely difficult form of vocal music and mastering it is the job of a lifetime. Bismillah Khan understood the inner working of the fundamentally feminine form of the thumri and incorporated its most captivating and difficult features into his shehnai playing. When he improvised on the ascending and descending curves of a raga, he was not just making orally pleasing sound patterns. There was more to it than mere decoration. He was, when informed, opening new trains of experience of thoughts and feelings.

He played for Vijay Bhatts hugely successful Hindi film Goonj Uthi Shehnai and his accompaniment to Lata Mangeshkars rendering of the title song Mere sur aur tere geet is considered an ideal marriage of voice and instrument. Such perfect harmony can also be found in Lester Youngs tenor saxophone playing behind Billie Hallidays jazz vocals in numerous recordings made together in the late 1930s and early 1940s in America. Bismillah Khan also played for a few other films, including Satyajit Rays Jalsaghar (1958), which had music by Ustad Vilayat Khan, and more recently, Ashutosh Gowarikars Swades.

He recorded duets with Vilayat Khan on the sitar and also with Prof. V.G. Jog on the violin. He also recorded with N. Rajam, an exceptional violinist trained in Hindustani music by Omkar Nath Thakur, and Shahid Parvez, a young sitarist of uncommon sensitivity. These recordings may not have been jugalbandhis in the strict sense of the term with each instrumentalist complementing the other to create a given composition but they most certainly made for lovely listening. EMI India released an album of his thumri singing.

Khan Sahebs unusually robust constitution slowly began to buckle in his old age. He continued to give good, bad and indifferent concerts and make recordings all out of sheer financial necessity. He became aware of his mortality as his magical playing gradually fell away, particularly in the last 15 years.

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