OBITUARY : Ustad Bismillah Khan

August 21, 2006 09:00 IST (PTI):
Ustad Bismillah Khan: On the shore of the ocean of music

On India's first Republic Day, Ustad Bismillah Khan had enthralled audiences with a sterling performance from the ramparts of the Red Fort. But fate did not allow the shehnai maestro to fulfil his last wish, that of playing at India Gate. The man who mesmerised generations of Indians with his mellifluous music wanted to make the performance a memorable one. But a concert at the venue, scheduled for August 9, was cancelled due to security reasons. The 91-year-old Bharat Ratna awardee, said to be single-handedly responsible for making the shehnai a famous classical instrument, had earlier alleged he had been denied the opportunity to play at India Gate because he was a Muslim. However, Khan was quick to point out he never faced any hurdles on account of being a Muslim. "Music has no caste. I have received love and affection all over the world. The government has given me all the four highest civilian awards in the past five decades," he said. Khan 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. Where others saw conflict and contradiction between his music and his religion, Bismillah Khan saw only a divine unity. Even as a devout Shia, he was also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music. During his long and fruitful career as an artiste, Khan enthralled audiences at performances across the globe. He was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the Tansen award as well as the Padma Vibhushan. In 2001, Khan became the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. He was also bestowed honorary doctorates by the Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan. The maestro played in Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world. In Khan's words, music was an ocean and he had barely reached its shores even after 91 years. Despite his fame, Khan's lifestyle retained its old world charm and he continued to use the cycle rickshaw as his chief mode of transport. A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private and said musicians were supposed to be heard and not seen. He was critical of today's musicians and said they only craved instant success. Bismillah Khan has often been credited with taking the shehnai from the marriage mandap to the concert hall. He single-handedly pioneered the conversion of a mundane ceremonial instrument into one capable of expressing a range of human emotions and musical nuances. His long career and eminence assured him of a busy performance calendar as well as the highest fees. However, he was not very well off in his last days as his joint family of 60 members literally lived off him. In 2003, he had to appeal to then prime minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee to sanction a gas agency to his grandson. Life for an ailing Khan was far from easy. Hardpressed for money and after repeated pleas to the central government for financial assistance, Vajpayee granted him 'delayed aid' of Rs 5 lakh.On August 3 this year, Khan was given a cheque of Rs 2.51 lakh on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Varanasi. Four years ago, when he did not have money and resources to meet the cost of his needs, the then government arranged for his performance at Parliament Annexe, where Khan had to virtually give a charity show for his own benefit. It was then that Delhi-based couple Neena and Shivnath Jha, who had launched a programme to protect musicians, academicians and artists who brought pride and laurels to the nation, thought of bringing out a monograph on the life and art of the Ustad to extend financial support to him. Their movement gained a victory of sorts after the centre allowed Khan to play 'Tune India' from the India Gate to pay tribute to the 'unsung heroes of World War-I and for the global peace and security'. However, the programme was cancelled due to security reasons. His other wish, to perform at Darbhanga, where he had spent a considerable period of his early days, also remained unfulfilled. The Ustad was identified with the shehnai but found the greatest fulfillment in singing bhajans to children. "The applause that I get from children when I sing the bhajan Raghupati Raghav Rajaram gives me the greatest fulfillment," Khan had said in 2004 while performing at a cultural programme in New Delhi to mark Gandhi Jayanti. Khan said it gave him tremendous satisfaction to know that at least some of the children will remember the 'old man' for the song that he sang for the same.


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