Discordant notes?


Ustad Bismillah Khan ... an issue of our attitude towards culture.

Ustad Bismillah Khan ... an issue of our attitude towards culture.  

THE shehnai is an instrument of celebration but it has overtones of melancholy in it. The sadness has been emphasised in the recent controversy featuring Ustad Bismillah Khan.

In case you have forgotten, the shehnai maestro recently appealed to the Prime Minister for financial help. (He didn't actually ask for money; he just wanted the PM to sanction a gas agency to his grandson. The banality of this request somehow made matters worse). Another maestro, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, came out at the top of his vocal range (which is considerable), against Khan saheb's appeal. "I am disgusted," he said publicly, adding that such conduct was unbecoming of so senior a maestro.

Would any of us disagree with the Pandit? To a modern sensibility, particularly a modern urban sensibility, in the Ustad versus Pandit stand-off, we would surely be on the side of the latter. To us, it is undignified, in fact, undignified in the extreme, for a Bismillah Khan to ask for government favours. Such a favour-seeking reeks of the old values of patronage and feudalism, and these are habits we want to shake off.

Yet has the world of arts and culture shaken them off at all? Or is the Ustad only the extreme manifestation of a very commonplace phenomenon? Extreme he certainly is: Bismillah Khan, years before everyone called him Ustad, had taken the shehnai from the marriage mandap to the concert hall. He single-handedly pioneered the conversion of a mundane ceremonial instrument into one capable of expressing a range of human emotions and musical nuances. His long career and his eminence have assured him of a continuously busy performance calendar as well as the highest fees. In other words, the Ustad at this stage in his life should have been more comfortably off than most of us. He isn't for two very simple reasons: the first, he hasn't invested his money wisely. Two, his joint family has invested in him rather wisely and rather largely: at the last count, his joint family, totalling 60 people, all lived off him.

Yes, the Ustad is an extreme, but apart from that, is he any different from all other maestros and artists who keep him company in today's cultural territory? To start with, there's the nepotism. Pandit Ravi Shankar's star pupil is his daughter; Ustad Amjad Khan's star pupils are his sons. Then there's Pandit Jasraj's daughter, someone else's son, or brother or sister or, even, spouse. Not all of them are stars because of talent; in fact, some of them would never have been on the same stage as their famous relative if it weren't for the fact that they are relatives. This is nepotism by any modern definition, but when you use the word gharana, suddenly the negative connotations of the N word disappear. Ustad Bismillah Khan's nepotism, you could argue, is far purer because there is no pretence to it: he is a famous artist, capable of earning reasonable sums of money, so he supports an army of relatives, many of them completely devoid of talent. Perhaps instead of condemning him, we should thank him. For couldn't he too have had a gharana and inflicted many unmusical musicians on us, who would have first shared a stage with him, and later continued to give solo concerts on the basis of a name already famous? Then there is the issue of patronage. Most of us would have no hesitation in agreeing with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi that Bismillah Khan's posture of supplication was unbecoming of him. But has patronage and hierarchy and feudalism ever been far from the world of music and musicians? It hasn't; the state has always been a patron. First musicians had as patrons yesterday's kings and princes. Now they have today's kings and princes, i.e. ministers and politicians. Nothing much has changed.

Ustad Bismillah Khan's mistake was in asking for such a small favour. A gas agency! How petty and lacking in vision! On the other hand, if he had asked the government for land to house a musical academy and funds to raise the building and a continuing supply of money to run the academy, most people (possibly including Joshi) would have applauded. And there wouldn't have been a murmur if the Ustad had appointed all 60 of his family to man (and woman and child) this academy. That would have been the ruin of a whole future generation of musicians attracted to the academy by the Khan name. A gas agency, on the other hand, gets a lot of kitchens going without doing anyone any harm.

And why stop at the academies? The government has a whole lot of schemes, which bestow favours on artists of all kinds: there are subsidised houses; or freely gifted plots of land and honours and honorariums... All the government ever asks for in return is that the musicians genuflect a little and be obsequious a little more. Corporate sponsorship may be somewhat more sophisticated, but it too asks for the beneficiaries to be suitably (and publicly) grateful.

Yes, the Ustad is like everyone else, just more extreme. He is more unselfish, less discriminating in his largesse, less financially capable and more limited in his requests for favours. But he is like almost all musicians ever have been in India and ever will be. Unless, of course, a whole lot of things change. Our attitude to culture, for instance.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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