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Ustad Bismillah Khan dies, aged 90

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Atiq Khan

``He gave a new meaning to shehnai and did not go abroad in search of greener pastures''

LUCKNOW: "An upaasak of Naad-Brahma puja," an embodiment of "Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb", "a symbol of secularism"... shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan defied all descriptions. He breathed his last in Varanasi's Heritage Hospital on Monday. He was 90.

Bismillah Khan leaves behind a rich legacy of shehnai recital, which remains unparalleled in the annals of Indian classical music. Ailing for some time, he turned down requests from the Central and State Governments for treatment elsewhere as he could not leave his favourite Banaras.

He was a wonderful human being, who knew how not to differentiate between communities or persons, people close to him said.

"He was the undisputed jewel in the crown of Indian music; one who will not be born in the next few centuries. He gave a new meaning to shehnai," Ranjana Srivastava, Dean, Faculty of Performing Arts, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), said.

Talking to The Hindu from Varanasi, Dr. Srivastava said the Ustad had great love for his country. Unlike his peers, he did not go abroad for money and fame. "He did not even leave his favourite Banaras where the notes of his shehnai wafted across the Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan temples and intermingled with the placid waters of the Ganga," she said.

Chittaranjan Jyotishi, former professor in the Department of Vocal Music, BHU said: "In his death, an era has come to an end. Perhaps, God wanted that instead of India Gate the notes of shehnai should reverberate at the doors of Heaven."

Shehnai for the maestro was a way of life. Had it not been for his godly devotion to music, shehnai would have been confined to being played at marriages and religious gatherings.

As Pandit Vidyadhar Vyas, Vice-Chancellor of Bhatkhande Music Institute, Deemed University, Lucknow, says: "With his enormous talent, the Ustad lifted the shehnai to the pinnacle of glory which will remain unsurpassed for many years."

The Ustad personified secularism. "He was a practising Muslim who offered `namaz' five times a day. Yet he had immense faith in Baba Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan and Ganga maiyya. Asked to hunt for greener pastures, he used to remark, ``where will I find Baba Vishwanath and Ganga," says Pandit Vyas.

Born in a poor family in Bihar on March 21, 1916, the Ustad was aware of his humble origins. This reflected in his demeanour and his conduct towards others.

The Ustad once narrated to this correspondent how he refused requests from the district administration and a company selling air-conditioners to have an a/c installed in his room. "How could I have slept in the cool comfort of the a/c when my neighbour Ramzan Ali poured buckets of water on his `tattar' [made of tin] for keeping the heat away in the summer," he asked.

Ustad Bismillah Khan was laid to rest in Dargah Fatimaan in the evening.

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