On the occasion of his fifth death anniversary, musicians recall their association with shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.

It was in August five years ago in Varanasi that the shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb breathed his last. Despite the passage of time he remains etched in the memory of his admirers. “Though we did not meet him regularly, we always used to feel his presence. There was all round activity, an aura around Sarai Hadaha, where his daily movements ran rhythmically. Now all that we feel only in our hearts,” recalls Balwant Rai Bhatt, the senior most vocalist of the Gwalior gharana and a resident of Banaras (Varanasi). His elder son, who represented Khan Saheb's musical lineage, is also no more.

This is the season of Kajri, especially celebrated in Banaras, and Bismillah Khan was fond of this style of singing. It is famously known that he used to sing and play on his shehnai the kajri “Kachauri jalebi soon kareloo”. This is a kajri from Mirzapur which says the absence of one's beloved in the season of Sawan (monsoon) makes delicacies like kachauri and jalebi tasteless. At the end of his every recital, Khan Saheb was expected to sing and then play this kajri on his shehnai.

He was as simple and lucid as the sweetness of his shehnai. He liked to stay in Banaras because of his fond memories of his childhood. He also relished his second childhood from moment to moment in his old days. “We still miss his charming presence on the stage,” says Vanmala Parvatkar, a senior vocalist of the Banaras gharana.

Sucharita Gupta, another Banaras gharana exponent and a disciple of Savita Devi, misses Khan Saheb a lot. She recalls, “At a time when we are approaching Id-Ul-Fitr, his memories come rushing. Khan Saheb loved to share the taste of sevain with everyone. He was a gentle soul, lovable, generous and musical. He understood and deciphered everything in terms of music of Allah.”

Humble genius

So humble was this genius that in his interviews to this writer, he used to claim innocently that if he was unable to play a correct note, he would pray to God to bless him with a pure note. “He was addicted to praying in a divine sense,” adds senior guitarist Shibnath Bhattacharya of Banaras. “He had a tremendous sense of religiosity which emerged in his personal life and in his music life. He never uttered a word of double entendre. He never criticised any artiste. He loved them all.”