Ustad Bismillah Khan is no more

With the passing away of shehnai maestero Ustad Bismillah Khan, the subcontinent is a lesser place – a legend of our times has left us and more importantly the Indo-Muslim culture, nurtured over centuries, has lost one of its best exponents. I came across thenews report below on how the Lahore-ites mourned his death. Wish I could be there to be counted. Thanks to blogging, at least I can mourn in the cyberspace!

Samples of his music can be downloaded can be found here. Read this evocative quote from here:

“Where others see conflict and contradiction between his music and his religion, Bismillah Khan sees only a divine unity. Music, sur, namaaz is the same thing. His namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. Even as a devout Shia, Khan Sahib is also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music.”

Lahore mourns Bismillah Khan

By Shoaib Ahmed

LAHORE: Classical musicians of Lahore condoled the death of legendary Indian shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan who died at Heritage Hospital in Varnasi on Monday.

They said his death had created a void that could never be filled, and an era of classical music had come to an end. Bismillah Khan was the third classical musician (after Pandit Ravi Shankar and MS Subbulakshmi) to be awarded Bharath Rathna, the highest civilian honour in India. Khan brought the shehnai from weddings and temples to the mainstream, making it a popular instrument.

Born in a poor family in Bihar on March 21, 1916, Bismillah Khan learned the shehnai from his uncle who used to play in Varnasi’s famous Vishwanath temple. He learnt various forms of music of Uttar Pradesh from him, such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri and Sawani, and later studied Khayal music, mastering a large number of ragas. Khan brought the instrument into the spotlight in India after his concert at the Calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937, mesmerising the audience with the humble two-foot-long instrument. Khan’s troupe consisted of three or four accompanists, one of whom gave complementary support on the shehnai. He used the duggi (a hollow spherical percussion instrument) for rhythm, instead of the traditional tabla.

Khan was afraid of travelling by air, which hindered his performances abroad. In 1965, he was invited to play in Europe, but the organisers gave up the idea because of his extraordinary demands. In 1966 he was invited through the Indian government to perform at the famous Edinburgh festival. Khan agreed on the condition that the state would first fund the troupe’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The wish was granted and Bismillah Khan, at last, boarded a plane. After the tour of England, Khan also toured the US.

After the success of jugalbandi records by sitar player Ravi Shankar and sarod player Ali Akbar, a shehnai and sitar jugalbandi by Bismillah Khan and Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan was used in the film Goonj Uthi Shehnai, and became a great success.

The Government of India gave him the title of Padmashri, then of Padmabhusan and eventually of Padmavibhusan. Inspite of being glorified, he continued his modest and humble lifestyle, cycle rickshaw being his only transport until he died. Condoling his death, Ustad Hamid Ali Khan said he was a great artist and his death was a great loss. He said he had been listening to Khan’s immaculate shehnai since he was a child.

Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shagan said that Khan’s death had left a void in the world of music, which would be felt for years to come. “An artist like him is born rarely,” he said.

From the Daily Times, Pakistan -Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Photo credits here, here and here.

Published on September 4, 2006 at 10:07 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. He was one of the legends of the Sub-continent. I had the chance to see him in the lanes of Varanasi (Benaras) in 1994. I was simply awestruck.

  2. Thanks BP for visiting and leaving the comment. Wow, seeing the great Ustad in Benares setting must be a life-times visual experience..

  3. Ustad Bismillah Khan’s story should be a lesson to all those Muslims and Hindus who believe we are separate nations – especially Pakistanis who are fed on anti-hindu sentiments. All we Hindus ask is for respect for our traditions and for our gods. Respect for other religions is given without asking – the nature of Hinduism demands it – let alone all the Hindus in the world, I would find it difficult to say that my family has one particular set of beliefs.


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