The Heaven Sent
The spring breeze of 1916, the holy waters of the Ganges, the wee hours of March 21 waited with open arms, to welcome another member to the house of Rasool Bux Khan, the shehnai–nawaz of the King’s court in Bhojpur, Dumraon of Bihar – Bismillah Khan. The father of the child, Paigambar Bux and the elder Rasool Bux Khan were getting ready to go to the Prince’s palace to play the morning tunes. They had to wait to welcome the newborn. An elated Rasool Bux Khan, on hearing the news, remembered God and uttered "Bismillah". Thus the newborn was named Bismillah Khan. Although, the child’s parents called him Qamruddin to rhyme with their first born, Shamshuddin.
The little boy grew up like any other boy his age. He began to mumble innocent words in Urdu and Arabic. He sometimes, silently, unnoticed by his mother, went to seek the weeds of narkat (a special hollow kind of weed out of which the pipes of the hookah are made. It is also used at the end of the pipe of the shehnai to produce beautiful notes) that grew on the riverbank. Bismillah felt the narkat weeds knew they would be famous through him some day.
At the age of three, Bismillah went to his maternal uncle’s house in Benaras to celebrate Eid. His uncles were traditional shehnai players like his father and forefathers. Bismillah watched his Chhote Mamu (maternal uncle) Ali Bux Khan play the shehnai and would nod to his tunes. Mamu was astonished to see this innate musical sense in Bismillah and knew that here was another great shehnai player in the making.
Bismillah grew up at his uncle’s place and became more and more fond of the shehnai. The whole house was immersed in the tune and rhythm of music. His elder maternal uncle Vilayat Hussain also played the shehnai. Ali Bux, later became his teacher.
Bismillah detested studies, so he played marbles on the streets of Benaras. He spent most of his time in the corridor of the house where he could hear his uncles playing the shehnai. Sometimes he even played marbles to the shehnai’s tunes.
Ali Bux went to the Jadau or Vishnu temple every morning. There, he played the shehnai for the entire day to earn four rupees a month. Sometimes Bismillah followed him in the morning, listened to his music; he used get engrossed and bewildered. After the mornings sessions at the Jadau temple, mamu and nephew walked towards the Balaji temple. A room was reserved for Ali Bux. He practiced there for about five hours daily. When Ali Bux finished practicing he found Bismillah sitting beside him, listening to him and hungry as well.
Never did Bismillah disturb his mamu. They returned home each day after these morning sessions for lunch.
The First Tunes to Learning
Bismillah often wondered why his Mamu went to the room in the Balaji temple to practice while he could practice at home without being disturbed. Unable to suppress his curiosity he asked his uncle one day. Mamu stroked his locks and answered, "You will learn it one day." Bismillah was quick to ask, "But, Mamu when will I start playing shehnai ?" "Why talk about when; you are going to start today," he said. Thus began Bismillah’s journey through the realms of music.
Initially, Bismillah had to practice for half an hour which later extended to six hours. Ali Bux was a hard taskmaster, but young Bismillah understood that the sonorous flow of music that emanated from his mamu’s shehnai was difficult to reproduce. When he tried, it only brought out funny and erroneous sounds. He failed in his attempts. But, determined, he practiced even when mamu was away. A family member, walking past his room heard the funny tunes and laughed mockingly. Turning a deaf ear Bismillah continued to practice with perseverance, never deterred by criticism and charged ahead, inspired by the power of his will.
Soon, Bismillah realized that the atmosphere at home was not conducive for meditative practice. He thought practicing at the Balaji temple, would suit him better. So he sought his mamu’s permission. Mamu’s expression changed and he asked, "Why ? What’s wrong in this house ? Why can’t you practice here ? And yes, tell me, have you prepared the lesson that I gave you yesterday ?" An obedient Bismillah sat down and reproduced each note in the hope of getting permission to enter the temple room.
That evening mamu took Bismillah to the Jadau temple, and after the evening shehnai recital to the room in the Balaji temple where he had practiced for over 18 years. Finally, he granted him the permission to practice there.
Overjoyed, Bismillah practiced in the room for 4 to 6 hours. Oblivious to the changes taking place outside the four walls he experimented and discovered new heights and depths of musical scales and melodies. Bismillah was overtaken by the thirst to perfect his music. So he missed evening games with friends, his evening snack and cakes, and other pleasures in a young boy’s life.
The following summer, Bismillah went to Dumraon to visit his father and grandfather. He was dying to show them his newly acquired skill at the shehnai. As he played his grandfather roared, "Bismille, Bismille, what are you doing ? Don’t you know you belong to a family of great shehnai players. Don’t miaow, roar like a lion. Play like a man." Bismillah was confused. He had no idea what his grandfather meant. On hearing these words Bismillah’s grandmother came and nagged, "Why are you after the boy ? Let him be in peace. We don’t want another shehnai player in the house. What do you get ? You are called to initiate every auspicious occasion, but do they let you enter their houses even now as most of you shehnai players have changed religion and become Muslims. You still belong to the lower caste. You still have to sit on the verandah at the entrance of the house while playing ! And what do they give you to sit on? Mats, hassocks and cushions made of sack. Ah ! What reputation ! Do you call this honor ? To hell with such honor ! Let the boys do some business. Let him learn some craft, which will be useful. At least he will be able to earn his living."
But nothing could move the old man. Saying this he picked Bismillah’s shehnai and blew it. Bismillah was astounded to hear such a bursting of thunder from his own shehnai. He wondered how his grandfather could play with such command and breath control ? When he stopped playing he said, "No health, no breath, no music."
It was a great awakening for Bismillah. He was determined to blend the sonorous quality of sweet tuning of mamu with the strength and command of his grandfather’s volume. He realized that he had to give up his whims and fancy tastes he had in eating. He took the matter seriously. He ate healthily, drank milk, chewed almonds in the morning and ran long distances. Within seven days at Dumraon he realized that there was a change in the tonal quality of his music and his breathing had improved dramatically.
The First Spiritual Wonder
Bismillah returned to Benaras to his maternal uncles. Here he began to fuse the clarity and voluminous strength of his grandpa, the sound techniques and lilting peculiarities of his Chhote mamu. He continued practising at the room of the Balaji Temple. He would now listen to his music and saw the influence of his predecessors. Suddenly he grew scared, caught in a dilemma. On one hand he wanted to use his grandfather’s playing techniques, on the other it would be betraying his guru. He told himself, " I can’t do this".
He stopped playing, opened his eyes and saw a beautiful pair of feet in front of him. He slowly raised his quivering eyes. And there stood in front of him a six feet tall, saffron-clad holy man, with a stick in his right hand and a kamandal (copper-brass flask of water) in his left hand. The gleaming face gestured him to continue playing. But a scared Bismillah could not play and a spell of silence enveloped him. Finally the holy man laughed thunderously and said, "You will produce bliss." Bismillah’s body quivered. He blinked and lo, the man was gone. Bismillah saw that the door was bolted from inside as before. He ran out and saw no one. He wanted the holy man’s blessings and wondered why he didn’t play for him. Captivated, he picked the shehnai and ran home to tell this to mamu.
Overridden by fear, his body still trembling, he blurted the happening to mamu. He received a hard slap with, "Didn’t I tell you not to tell me anything, you idiot ? You little ass ! You have lost it. You have lost it ! Where does the teacher come in between you and whom you saw ? It’s a private affair for everybody. You want to become a musician, you who fail to suppress even a breath ? Gone, gone, you’ve missed the opportunity !" Bismillah had such spiritual experiences for the next three and half years but he never let it out to anyone. It was only later that he understood that such restraint is essential to become a true musician and to get the assar (mystical union) in one’s music.
Growing To Youth
In adolescence Bismillah became fond of the silver screen of the silent era. His favorite actress was Sulochana. Going to the cinema was an important affair for Bismillah. He grew up into a handsome and well-groomed lad. Dressed smartly with twinkling mischievous eyes and thickly pomaded curly hair he would enter the cinema hall and watch the enchantress Sulochana. To watch movies he had to perfect his practice so that he could win a reward from his Ustad. He also managed to convince the other members of the family. Such was his love for the bioscope.
On one side of Bismillah’s house in Benaras is situated the Narial Bazaar, where lived famous musicians of that time. To reach the Balaji Temple Bismillah had to pass through a narrow lane called Dalmandis, a seat of well-known professional singers. It was an era when music was the only form of popular entertainment other than cinema. It also brought the glorious period of classical dance and music to its peak.
So, everyday after his practice at the Balaji temple, young Bismillah was invariably attracted to these voices. So he would stop below their homes to hear them sing. He heard the golden voices of the singer sisters Rasoolan and Batoolan, a little ahead he heard the musical strain of Vidyadhari. Further down the lane sang the high pitched voice of Mushtari, then he eavesdropped at the court of Rajeshwari. Then he passed by Moti Bai, Anokhi Lal’s chambers, finally reaching the gates of the thumri queen, Siddheshwari Devi. It was music, their voices, and their styles, their tonal quality and perfection of twist that enchanted Bismillah. He reached home humming the same strains he heard that day. Then he locked himself in a room and played all the tunes on his shehnai, incorporating the various styles in his music.
When Bismillah was 14 years old, his Ustad, his mamu, had to leave for the Allahabad Music Conference in 1930, with Bismillah in tears. He could not bear the thought of parting from his beloved Ustad even for a few days. Tears gave way to hiccups and it seemed he would not survive without his Ustad. Finally mamu decided to take Bismillah along. At the conference Ustad Ali Bux started the evening with raga Kedar. It was an unusual composition. After a while he nodded at Bismillah to play while he was cleaning his fret. Bismillah followed his master and reproduced the composition. His notes were flawless but, the bars were different, which brought out a new dimension. It evoked a ‘Wah Wah’ of appreciation from the ‘Aftabe Mausiqui’ – ‘The Sun of Music’, Ustad Faiyaz Khan. At that time great singers and musicians did not consider shehnai as an important instrument. But, Ustad Faiyaz Khan sat through the whole performance and congratulated Ali Bux for his brilliant performance and patting Bismillah on the back told Ali Bux, "Dear God, keep him guarded. The music of his shehnai has the flavor of vocal articulation." Later he told Bismillah, "Work hard and you shall make it." This appreciation inspired Bismillah to listen to other great musicians with deep interest. Bismillah cherished the memories of those delightful days.
Single No More
Bismillah Khan began the next stage of life, with marriage to his elder mamu’s daughter in 1932. It was a marriage arranged by the elders. When he caught the first glimpse of his bride, he felt shy and embarrassed. Adorned in silk, brocade and gold, was a maiden he would spend his whole life with. She was not a heroine from the silver screen but a simple girl. They have nine children. His eldest son Naiyyar Hussain is a Shehnai player wlile his youngest son Nazim has chosen tabla playing as his vocation.
A night after his marriage, Bismillah was lying on bed beside his wife when a unique music touched his ears. It seemed like an angel’s voice. After hearing a few words he recognized the celestial voice of Begum Akhtar. He sat up and listened intently and a Wah !
Wah ! occasionally escaped his lips. Unable to understand his joy of music, his wife asked him what he was doing in the dead of the night. Bismillah was infuriated at her inability to understand such greatness in music. Bismillah continued his married life. But, music remained his only love throughout.
A Professional Beginning
Bismillah Khan always played with his elder brother. And when they played together, he always played down his own part, fearing that he would overshadow his elder brother, which was considered against the manners, tehzeeb. He used to say, "Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my elder brother." He said later, "He was my elder brother, hence it was not proper for me to play better than him". This humility and humbleness has always remained characteristic of him.
In 1937, Bismillah Khan attended the All India Music Conference in Calcutta. His brother Shamshuddin also accompanied him. Their enchanting performance earned them three gold medals and national fame.
On April 16, 1938, on All India Radio (AIR) Lucknow, he gave an opening performance. This brought him recognition, even from the common man. AIR became a new venue of performance for Bismillah. But the happiness was short lived. Bismillah received a great shock, with the death of his beloved mamu, his Ustad in 1940. He could not bear the separation. Bismillah wept ceaselessly for days.
He tried to play his mamu’s favorite tunes but couldn’t reproduce it. With a broken heart he fell asleep. That night he dreamt of mamu. His mamu scolded him for not being able to reproduce the tune and instructed him how to go about it. Bismillah woke up weak and ashamed but was able to reproduce the tune perfectly. Such was the attachment between the Ustad and his student.
The Silent Struggle
India’s freedom struggle was becoming intense in the 1940s. Artists started their performance with an invocation to the motherland. Bismillah began to realize the claustrophobic condition of the shehnai players in the country, shehnai was sidelined and no more an essential part of marriages and religious events.
Bismillah wanted to begin the fight for freedom of the shehnai from the clutches of casteism and bias. He wanted to free his shehnai from the fate of playing in a procession, walking on the street, getting a second grade position in the hierarchy and never considered worthy of a jugalbandi or musical duet.
He has incorporated the bourgeois and the highbrow technical maneuverings that musical wizards employ in stringed instruments. He introduced all the skills and craft in the tone of the shehnai. The memory of Ustad Allaudin Khan’s music and Faiyaz Khan’s treatment of ragas came into his music. He developed endless enchanting melodies with arduous practice, which later became effortless improvisation. His music became pure, perfect and incorporated all his musical experiences of life. His amazing skill was noticed and he became the wizard of shehnai.
Bismillah Khan became the first free Indian to address the nation with his music on Independence Day in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the Independence struggle were part of the audience. Finally shehnai and shehnai players got their deserved status and significance in the realm of classical music of free India.
The year 1951 brought the sad news of his brother Shamsuddin’s untimely death. Now Bismillah was the only shehnai player left to keep the torch of the Benaras Gharana alive. The sad demise of his loving brother left a deep scar on his heart. His attraction for the notional world dwindled although there was no looking back in his musical career.
Awards and honors came his way, he took them with detachment. Everything became insignificant to him except his music.
With Independence Indian musicians came to be recognized in Europe and America. And thus came into being the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR). ICCR sponsored trips to various countries and this gave exposure to the Indian musician. In 1965, Khan Sahib was to go for the Edinburgh Festival and the Commonwealth Arts Festival. But he agreed to go only on one condition that he would not fly since he was scared of flying. It took great persuasion on the part of the ICCR officials to convince him to fly. Finally he agreed on the fact that his troupe be taken first to a pilgrimage to Haj. On board Khan Sahib was scared to death. He recited verses from the Quran to dispel fear. But when the journey began and he saw the airhostesses and other people moving freely, he felt reassured. He enjoyed the journey as well.
Bismillah Khan was the main attraction at the Edinburgh festival. He played for hours before a totally enthralled audience and the next day the newspapers were filled with praise and admiration for the devoted musician.
The golden era of Indian cinema arrived with the works of the well-known Bhatt Brothers of the Bombay film industry – Vijay and Shankar Bhatt. Their historical film Baiju Bawra was based on the life of a great classical singer, in which renowned professional classical singers agreed to sing. Another master director V Shantaram envisaged a unique film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje with classical dancers. The film made a silver jubilee and a grand classical musical festival celebration was arranged. Top musicians were invited to perform at the festival and Ustad Bismillah Khan was one of them. He played the beautiful raga Bihag. Vijay Bhatt began pondering over the idea of making a film in which the hero did not sing but played the shehnai. Thus, came into being the famous film Gunj Utthi Shehnai, which popularized the shehnai and Ustad Bismillah Khan brought a beautiful grace to it.
To record the music Ustad and his band were invited to Bombay. The studios, big machines, rush, flattery etc. gave him a strange feeling. The producers, and directors, unfamiliar with the Ustad’s style of work, thought Khan Sahib might make it too classical. They started telling him what made a hit tune. Khan Sahib listened to them silently with a smile and mischievous eyes. At the end of their dialogue, he quietly told his troupe members that these big shots knew more than they did and that they were wasting their time. This mocking brought the directors to their knees. The most famous song Dil ka Khilona hai toot gaya, composed by Bismillah Khan, became a major hit.
In the film, Khan Sahib also played for the child protagonist who learnt the shehnai. His amazing modulation to suit the child was unbelievable and appreciated by all.
For the film, a musical duet was to be recorded featuring Khan Sahib’s shehnai and Ustad Halim Zafar Khan’s sitar. Since the pitch of the sitar was much lower than the shehnai’s, Khan Sahib requested Halim Khan to raise it a little; Halim Khan refused outright. Khan Sahib agreed but, said that he had to pluck his instrument with his hands while he had to blow into his.
To the great surprise of the sitar maestro, Khan Sahib could generate better and complex patterns than the sitar. After the performance, Halim Zafar got up and bowed to Khan Sahib with tears in his eyes.
Ustad Bismillah Khan is a simple-hearted person without any glory or glamour surrounding him. Once, he had a recording appointment at 8:30 in the morning. Thought he was suffering from conjunctivitis, he reached the studio on time. hen the recording company officials asked him why did he come despite his ailment, he replied, smiling, "Oh no! I couldn't do that, I gave you my word.... I didn't want you to say that I don't keep my promises." Bismillah Khan played for about two hours, forgetting his troubling eyes and the world around.
Ustad Bismillah Khan has only one disciple Jagdish Prasad Qamar who joined him as per the traditional Gurukul system. A simpleton son of Shree Deepchand, a famous nafiri player, of Delhi. Jagdish joined Ustad at the age of 10 in 1946. He lived and learned shehnai at the Ustad’s house in Benaras.
Khan Sahib was a hard taskmaster. He initially would give Jagdish a little line of a raga to practice and then totally forget he existed. This he did because it is only through perseverance and love for learning that a student can pass tough tests and prove himself worthy of his Guru. Later, Jagdish had to patiently wait until it suited his teacher.
Jagdish soon became the manager of Ustad’s house. Ustad would give him the monthly funds required to manage the household. This often brought him into conflict with the Ustad’s wife. Khan Sahib would intercede on some occasions and sometimes leave it to them to sort out things. Despite all these, Jagdish found the Ustad’s wife motherly and affectionate.
Khan Sahib shared the deepest secrets of the shehnai with Jagdish, so much information that his sons might not have received either.
During the training days Khan Sahib would ask him to keep awake at night till everybody retired to bed. Ustad then would go upstairs and play a tune, which an eager Jagdish listened carefully and repeated it from downstairs. Such strenuous training sessions went on. Even though Jagdish missed a few tunes sometimes, Khan Sahib loved his devotion and earnestness. Because he believes that love for work and devotion are the essential requirements in a human character. With this comes the divine unification or ‘assar’ in one’s music.
Khan Sahib loves his students because of their devotion and dedication. He does not look at them and their religion. He loves Jagdish even though he is a Hindu. He also sends money to each member of his party during each festival of the year, be it Hindu or Muslim. Some other members of his shehnai party were Vishnu Prasanna and Mohanlal, who were Hindus.
Bageshwari, daughter of Jagdish, the first and probably the only woman shehnai player in the world, learnt it from Ustad Bismillah Khan. She went to him in 1989, and is his favorite student. This also shows that Khan Sahib only knows one religion, which is music. He knows no difference between man and woman. He sees only the true artist in a person.
A True Muslim
"Music, sur, namaaz, is the same thing", says Ustad Bismillah Khan. He is soaked in religion, his only sustaining force. A devout Shia Muslim who never misses his namaaz (prayer). Khan Sahib believes his music is divine, his shehnai is his Quran. He questions, "How could my music that gives me such peace and happiness be haraam ? My music is my search for the ultimate truth." The staunch shias fall silent before him each year, when on the eighth day of Muharram he leads a procession through the lanes and bylanes of Benaras, proudly beckoning people with his special silver shehnai. He leads the mass affecting people by his emotional musical strains and reaches the shrine of the martyr Imam Hussain. Here he sits and plays for hours weeping incessantly. And the people throw coins at this white clad epitome of devotion.
In one argument with some Shia Muslim in Iraq he replied to their belief that music ought to be damned, by singing Raga Bhairav, "Allah-hee, Allah- hee, Allah-hee…." and raised his pitch as he continued to sing. Then he questioned them if calling out the Lord’s name was haraam, if thinking about Him, searching Him was haraam and if it wasn’t namaaz.
Like all other staunch Muslims, Khan Sahib observes the 30-day fast of Roza, gives alms, observes Muharram unfailingly, and abstains from pork and liquor. But to him music is the greatest religion. And this he practices with complete surrender and devotion
A Continuing End Note
Bismillah Khan asks for only one thing in prayer to God. He asks his music to be ba assar (immaculate through divine union and harmony). His music brings tears in eyes and joy in the hearts of the listeners. His shehnai loves all his audiences, be it young or old, mystic or de bauch, thug or a family man. He lives in his abode ‘Sarai Hara’ in Benia Bagh in Benaras. He neither uses an electric fan or an air conditioner in the scorching summer but cools himself with a filled cane hand fan. He is touched by the children on the street, the poor and the artlessness of life only because his music has attained its highest level. He serves the world with the gift of his enchanting music and willingly suffers the pain that the common man has to undergo everyday.
In winter, Khan Sahib sits all by himself, by a clay oven, lost in thoughts, and warming himself. His home is scantily furnished and lacks luxury. His plain and simple way of life inspires. There is no dearth of fame, wealth, humility and simplicity. He still roams on the streets of Benaras with his shehnai. His city is his inspiration. This is his strange luxury of life too.
Ustad Bismillah Khan’s life is like an open book, readable, simple and awesome. Nothing exaggerated. Nothing hidden. There are no lanes and bylanes in his life. His music is his only love, his only goal. He has visited the earth to bring solace to our hearts with the gift of his soulful music. The generations to come shall feel blessed to have had a wonder like Ustad Bismillah Khan.
March 21, 1916
Birth of the maestro, Bismillah Khan.
Went to stay with his maternal uncle in Benaras.
Attended the All India Music Conference with his uncle and made his debut performance.
Wedding bells ring.
Attended the All India Music Conference at Calcutta with brother Samshuddin Khan.
April 16, 1938
Gave an opening performance at the inauguration of All India Radio (AIR), Lucknow.
August 15, 1947
First musical performance for free India at Red Fort, New Delhi.
Since then has been performing in India and all over the world, spreading sweet music and inspiring people with his enigmatic music.
Jan 25, 2001
Bharat Ratna Award – the highest civilian award by the Government of India.
Music, sur, namaaz. It is the same thing.
Unless a musician can mix his music with religion, unless he strives to meet God, he will only have kalaa (art) but no assar (mystical union).
The religion of music is one.
If music be a sin, sin on.
I always knew I would be a shehnai player.
Only true devotion, only unfailing perseverance can make you a pure and real musician.
Ustad Bismillah Khan’s music is famous all over the world. Even before he first toured the world, LP records had recognized and popularized the music of his shehnai. He has been awarded and recognized in India and the world over for his musical ability.
He won the Sangeet Natak Academy Award for Hindustani Instrumental Music.
Tansen Award of the Madhya Pradesh Government.
Honorary doctorates from the Benaras Hindu University, Marathwada University (Allahabad) and Shantiniketan (West Bengal).
Bharat Shiromani Award.
Gupta Award for the year 2000.
January 25, 2001
Bharat Ratna Award – the highest civilian award presented by the Government of India