Bombay Showcase

Ustad Bismillah Khan: The king of shehnai

His eyes sparkled like diamonds, blending playfulness and childlike innocence. His words were pearls of wisdom, whether he talked seriously about music or indulged in jovial banter. His heart was pure gold, and his shehnai tone richer than the biggest jewellery chains.

The late Ustad Bismillah Khan was a true gem. A Bharat Ratna in every sense. Today, March 21, happens to be his birth centenary, and yet, nobody really seems to know. There are no mega-concerts, and his tunes will be played at weddings without anybody knowing the date’s significance.

There is some confusion too. While Wikipedia insists he was born in 1916, some other sites say the year was 1913. Somebody had an event to celebrate his 101st birthday in 2014, and others had his 99th birthday bash last year. But nothing’s happening today. Nor did anything take place three years ago.

In his biography, Murli Manohar Shrivastava mentions he was born in 1916. So does the Narendra Modi government. They have announced an event, but that will be for a select group. Khan- saab’s children haven’t been invited. There may be some smaller concerts here and there, but in Mumbai, one hasn’t seen a single ad. Where are the event organisers?

Bismillah Khan deserved much more. He had the privilege of playing live at New Delhi’s Red Fort on the eve of India’s Independence Day and Republic Day. It was former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to have his recital telecast on Doordarshan every year on August 15.

Much is known about his contribution to elevating the shehnai in classical music, or about his collaborations with sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, and violinists VG Jog, N Rajam and L Subramaniam? A lot has been written about his devotion to goddess Saraswati, and how his music is played at weddings and temples. Let’s talk about the man himself.

I was lucky to meet him thrice. The first time, in the late 1990s, he was to play with Vilayat Khan at the Brabourne Stadium. A 15-minute interview was fixed an hour before the concert. Many people tried distracting him. With his famous smile, he said: “It’s your problem if you fixed this now when I was free all morning. If you disturb me once more, I may get a bad review.”

The next time, he was staying at Hotel Sahil in Mumbai Central. The conversation focussed on his musical side, and he hummed semi-classical forms like thumri, chaiti, kajri and hori. He was also critical of many things in the music world, but used words in such a way one would believe he was actually praising his targets. I last met him in 2004, again at Hotel Sahil. He was in a great mood. He said: “When I first came to this city, I stayed here. I love their hospitality. They tolerate my quirks more than any five-star hotel.”

Khan- saab had his own approach. Within India, he travelled by train with his group. He explains: “On a flight, I would often sit next to some rich person who wouldn’t recognise me. He would get irritated if I hummed something, and I couldn’t speak his kind of English.”

We talked about his food habits. He loved kheema and mutton roganjosh. “On a regular basis, daal, chawal and dahi is what I prefer,” he added with that immortal twinkle, before picking up the shehnai and playing Raag Bhimpalasi for an exclusive, one-man audience. On his birth centenary, the tune lingers in my head. It shall remain.

The writer is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 7:30:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/ustad-bismillah-khan-the-king-of-shehnai/article8380152.ece

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