Friday, November 23, 2007

A Tribute to Bismilla Khan

A Tribute to Bismilla Khan
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Sehehnayee maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, who was in Chennai, for one of his concerts, says music has no boundaries, no language; it is a message of pure love that is divine. In an exclusive interview, the Bharat Ratna was anguished over the way decline in the classical music has set in our country. He said given the pace in which the things have been moving, it seems time is not far away when for listening to our classical music we have to go abroad.

The legendry Sehehnayee player who was born in 1916 in a family of Sehehnayee players at the court of the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar narrated an incident, when he was offered car, house, servants’ money and even the nationality during a concert in Europe. ‘But I refused all of them and in turn asked my admirer ‘can he gets him ‘Gangaji’, the river which flows near his home in Benaras, the holy city of the Hindus, and with whose water he does ablution before praying every day.

The maestro had some words of wise advice to the lovers of the Hindustani classical music. ‘It is the duty of every elder to teach the children their musical moorings’, he says adding that ‘everything may not be learnt, but at least the basics could be grasped which is essential to understand the soul of any music.’ He said earlier there was a lot of taboo to learn music but now things have changed for better.

The doyen of Indian classical music who has seen over seven decade’s fleeting past him held Sehehnayee first when he was probably five or six. He gave his first performance in the aristocratic city of Lucknow when he was barely 14. He said it was his uncle Allah Bux who blooded him in his family profession and was the greatest source of inspiration. Recalling his most memorable performances, Bismilah Khan said ‘it was playing on the ramparts of Red Fort on 15th August 1947 with Pandit Nehru and host of dignitaries listening’.

The octogenarian recalling his childhood said when was not playing Sehehnayee, he enjoyed swimming in the Ganges the most. He said this sport came to him naturally due to the proximity with the river. He attributes his ability to play Sehehnayee at this ripe age to swimming which requires strong lungs to blow the wind instrument.

Bismillah Khan is recipients of many awards including the highest the country can offer. He has toured almost all the seven continents and one of the few surviving treasures trove which symbolises the composite culture of our country. He is so gentle and elements so mixed in him that anyone who has interacted with him may not hesitate to say, he is gem of a man. Perhaps that’s the reason Sehehnayee has become synonym with Ustad Bismillah Khan.

The lilting melody of Sehehnayee lifted the spirits of Chennaits, when the king of the instrument Ustad Bismillah Khan played “Kajri,” usually synonym with coming of rains and starting of agricultural season in north India when farmers dance in joy. He was accompanied by his youngest sons on tabla and host of other musicians at a concert organised by Amir Kushro Sangeet Academy.

Ustad played four pieces which left the audience mesmerised. Every composition was greeted with elation and reverence by the music loving audience of the city. It was not just the music that had hooked the audience, but also Ustad’s witty remarks that left the Chennaites in splits.

In one of the rare moment’s music composer A.R Rehman facilitated the maestro with Amir Khusro life time achievement award. Ustad in an impromptu remark told Rehman; ‘where were you, so far I have just heard of you, it is for the first time I am meeting you.’ ‘Nevertheless i take your name five times a day during my prayers, he quipped.’ Rehman is one of the names of the God. He showered his blessings on the young musicians and said ‘he prays that God gives you a long life to attain the great heights in the music world.’

To this Rehman shot back; ‘even I take your name any number of times in a day, by saying Bismillah, before starting anything new. Bismilah means,‘I start in the name of Allah.’ Rehman said that while listening to Ustad he felt crying, as so griping were his compositions. He said he was amazed that at 86, Ustad is playing the instrument like a kid. He recalled, trying to learn playing Sehehnayee, but gave it up within a week finding it too difficult to handle.
Bismillah Khan said he has received any number of awards by many eminent personalities, but it is a great feeling for an artiste to receive an award from another artiste.

Paying obeisance to the living legend, the revered Tamil music composer, M.S. Vishvanathan touched the feet of the Ustad by his head. He lauded the maestro’s aura saying “Khansahib is an ocean and we are just droplets.” Bismillah Khan who had no clue of the language said that though he has not heard the Tamil musician, but feeling the pulse of the audience, he believes that he must be a big man.

Amir Kushro Sangeet Academy, the organiser of the concert is engaged in promoting Hindustani Music in Chennai. It helps young artists by providing them a platform and also financial assistance to those who are in need in old age. AKSA annually holds a concert featuring a prominent Hindustani classical Musician.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a television journalist based in Chennai and can be contacted at

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