A hundred years ago on March 21, 1916, in the small town of Dumraon, Bihar, a son was born to shehnai player Paighamber Bux. When he gave the news to his father Rasool Bux, the latter raised his hands in a gesture of gratitude and said, ‘Bismillah!’ And though his newborn grandson was formally named Qamruddin to rhyme with his brother’s name Shamsuddin, it was as Bismillah that the world would know him.
Bismillah Khan’s was a family of shehnai players and had been court musicians to the ruling Dumraon family for five generations. As permanent retainers of the family they played the shehnai to greet each day from the ‘naubat khana’, (a small balcony built at the entrance of homes) and to play at the family temple, at festivals, to mark important family occasions and to celebrate whatever their patrons requested, according to their mood or tradition, from the changing seasons to a simple evening of entertainment. From these humble beginnings to rise to become an artist of international acclaim, be one of a handful of persons in India to receive the country’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, become a beloved symbol of the ‘Ganga-Jamuni’ tehzeeb of Benaras, a ‘secular’ artist at a time when the word had not been corrupted by opportunistic politicians, is as much a tribute to the genius of the artist as it is to the charisma of the man – Bismillah Khan.
When Bismillah Khan was barely four, Paighamber Bux , realizing that the restrictive Dumraon palace walls could not provide the right cultural and creative milieu for his sons, sent them to their maternal grandfather’s home in Benia Bagh in Benaras. Along with their mother Mithan, the brothers moved into a large household of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Benaras, or Varanasi, had a rich tradition of culture and was home to some of the country’s most eminent artists and musicians. Bismillah’s uncles were shehnai players of note and with the platform of Benaras available to his sons Paighamber Bux felt sure his sons would benefit.
Bismillah soon found a guru in Ali Bux, his maternal uncle, and under his tutelage his training began. Ali Bux’s style of teaching was unorthodox and he could begin a lesson even in the middle of the night. Halfway through narrating an anecdote the uncle would metamorphose into a guru and the ancient tradition of the guru-shishya parampara take over. Under the rigorous, if informal training of Ali Bux, Bismillah’s expertise and unique facility on the shehnai grew exponentially and he began to perform professionally at an early age. After the sudden death of his brother Shamsuddin, a shattered Bismillah Khan took upon himself the mantle of the tireless performer who was now the sole breadwinner in the family.
To say that Bismillah Khan transformed the commonplace shehnai into a concert level instrument for a global platform would be to state the obvious. Equally ubiquitous is the fact of his extraordinary, almost uncanny ability to coax emotion and melody previously unheard, from an instrument condemned for being loud and shrill. Today his name is synonymous with the shehnai and his position among the topmost echelons of the country’s musicians, unchallenged. What has however, baffled lovers of music, his fans and the artist community in general is the absence of a successor. Why have we not seen another Bismillah Khan – or at least another worthy of carrying forward the legacy that he left behind? Was he born with an inherent, exceptional, creative impulse that defined him almost from birth? Had Paighamber Bux seen a prodigy in his three-year-old son? And his ‘Mamu’, Ali Bux ? Even though both the brothers were his pupils and proficient musicians, did he too discern the special quality that Bismillah possessed? It is significant that Ali Bux took the younger, fourteen year old Bismillah to the Allahabad Music Conference in the year 1930, where the latter displayed a virtuosity that took the audience by storm and even surprised his uncle.
But if genetics was a major factor Bismillah himself had no dearth of possible heirs; if not of his genius at least one who might be deemed as a deserving inheritor. Nature and nurture could come together to help keep alive the legacy of Bismillah Khan.
Bismillah had nine children of which four were sons. They grew up in a household where the very walls reverberated with the sound of music, of riyaaz, at all hours of the day and night. Bismillah himself had initiated his sons into riyaz. According to his son, the late Nayyar Hussain, for many years the boys were restricted to singing and playing only the sargam and its variations, to ensure the sound foundation necessary for a successful artist. Bismillah had high hopes from Nayyar Hussain, his second son. But almost to the end Nayyar Hussain remained an accompanying artist who sat behind his father at concerts. Even after his father’s death most of the performances came to him and his family troupe because they were Bismillah Khan’s progeny. Bismillah also had another shishya – Jagdish Pratap who lived in the Benia Bagh house for years. But he too remained largely unknown. Bismillah Khan’s youngest son turned his hand to the tabla, and often in later years when Bismillah felt his breath and strength failing him during a performance, he would signal to Nazim to play solo.
Was Bismillah Khan the proverbial ‘Bargad’ tree whose towering presence allowed nothing to grow and flourish under his shadow?
There are no simplistic answers to what gave Bismillah’s music ‘assar’, the quality where music transcended art to become divine. Bismillah Khan believed in the guru-shishya parampara and often said that he held no brief for the formal regimentation of music schools. But although Bismillah tried to give his sons the same focused attention that his uncle Ali Bux had given him, his own increasingly busy schedule as a performer prevented him from doing so. He told his sons that to live and breathe in Benaras was enough inspiration for a true artist; the sweetness of music was all around them and all they had to do was to imbibe it. As for himself, apart from the training of his ‘mamu’, and the gifts of Benaras, Bismillah Khan was convinced that he had been blessed by Lord Vishwanath. He frequently recounted his mystical experience in which Lord Vishwanath appeared in a vision and promised him the boon of success and a life of fulfilment. Or could it be because Bismillah was a ‘sufi’ whose music was enriched by different streams of spiritual and religious thought and philosophy; as much by the ‘dohas ‘of Kabir as the folk songs of Radha and Krishna.
Whatever the unique circumstances that made Bismillah Khan the phenomenal artist that he was, as in his lifetime and nine years after his death, we are still struggling to find a successor to his legacy. Someone who had that special combination of talent, opportunity and luck needed to create the next shehnai legend. Perhaps Ustad Bismillah Khan’s own words summed it up best, “Allah agar Ilm de toh muquadder bhi de!” (“If Allah gives talent, let Him also bestow luck and good fortune!”)
(The author has directed “Bismillah and Benaras” and has written “Bismillah Khan- The Maestro of Benaras”)