Tansen of our time


MELODY AND MAJESTY: Ustad Bismillah Khan presenting a concert in New Delhi.

MELODY AND MAJESTY: Ustad Bismillah Khan presenting a concert in New Delhi.  

I HAVE known Ustad Bismillah Khan for as long as I can remember. He has been a close friend of my father's, Dr. N.P. Seshadri, for over six decades.

Bismillah Khan was born in village Dumraon in Bihar on March 21, 1916. His father, Paighambar, was a shehnai artiste. Bismillah Khan learnt to play the shehnai under Ali Bux of Ahmad Hussain of Varanasi. He started giving public performances from the age of 14. In those days, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan were great crowd pullers. They played in almost all cultural festivals and marriages. Soon Bismillah Khan was giving performances abroad, enthralling all with his scintillating shehnai.

Bismillah Khan (Khan Saheb) became a close friend of my father's in 1950 when my father started the National Cultural Organisation in New Delhi, which was opened by Jawaharlal Nehru. Khan Saheb has been giving performances there regularly. The inaugural notes of the Tansen Festival, organised by my father under the auspices of NCO, always came from his enchanting shehnai. Admission was free so that everyone could enjoy the music.

Khan Saheb makes pure classical ragas come alive with his own style without disturbing the grammar. He always says that he sees the lovers of music as devotees and therefore his playing is spontaneous and rich. He has always spoken highly of nadaswaram maestros such as T. N. Rajarathnam Pillai and his cousin Kulikarai Pichaiyappa Pillai. He has great regard for M.S. Subbulakshmi. He often mentions the great musician Abdul Karim who influenced him tremendously.

He likes the ghazals of Begum Akhtar. Once when he and his wife were in Bombay, he suddenly got up from bed exclaiming `Wah Wah.' When his bewildered wife wondered what was happening he was upset that she did not hear Begum Akhtar singing in a concert held at the adjoining ground.

A strict disciplinarian, Khan Saheb keeps his fellow artistes in line and has laid down a code of conduct. For any function, he arrives an hour earlier and practices and then goes on stage without any pomp or show. He says that there is no shortcut to success in music and one has to work very hard and do `sadhana' sincerely to learn music under a guru.

According to him, the youngsters of today enjoy listening to pop music and he feels that though it is alright to enjoy it, hybrid orchestration could be avoided. He advises youngsters to learn classical music, as it will give them immense joy.

He takes pride in the `Banarasi Shehnai' and loves `paan.' (Whenever he was abroad, he insisted that my father sent him `Banarasi paan' which ``put him in the right mood."

His melodious playing of Maduvanti and Yaman Kalyan ragas in detail always received thunderous applause as did thelight songs from film "Koonj Uti Shehnai." (Incidentally Karukurichi Arunachalam played in "Konjum Salangai" and when he gave a recital at NCO's Tyagaraja Festival at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi on May 4, 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru, who presided, stayed glued to his chair, listening with eyes closed.)

His elder son, Ustad Nayyar Hussain, accompanies him on the shehnai while the younger one, Nazim Hussain, does so on the tabla.

Khan Saheb has always been very simple. He used to travel in Janata Class till 10 year ago along with his troupe. Now age makes him travel by plane.

He regularly visits the Kasi Visvanathar temple and offers music there. His most favourite place is the bank of the Ganga in Varanasi, where he resides, and he spends the evenings there.He likes `Medhu Vadai' and "Nariyal Chutney.' In a year he used to present at least three performances, which were thrown open to the public for free. In those days he used to charge Rs. 20,000, as didUstad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and today Khan Saheb is paid a minimum of Rs. 2 lakhs for a single performance.

He has been conferred many titles and awards including the highest civil award Bharat Ratna. The National Cultural Organisation also honoured him with the title `Akhil Bharatiya Shehnai Chakravarthy.' on March 30, 1965. The function was presided over by the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadhur Shastri.

Surdas once said of Tansen:

`Bhalo Bhayo vdhi na diye Sesnag ke kan, Dhara mairu sab dolte Tansen Ki tan' (Thank God Seshnag is not blessed with ears otherwise the melodies of Tansen would have swayed the earth and the mountains)

Ustad Bismillah Khan is our present day Tansen. Khan Saheb turns 89 on March 21. All lovers of music can join this writer in wishing him a long life.

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