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.

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

On ‘The Great War for Civilisation’

Robert Fisk is the boldest and the most brilliant frontline reporter/journalist of his generation (I have avoided the term ‘war correspondent’ as he dislikes it). He has lived in the Middle East for the last 30 years and has produced, based mostly on eyewitness accounts, a remarkable book – The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

It took him 16 years and approximately 350,000 notes, documents and dispatches to write this chronicle of “the betrayals and treachery and deceit of Middle East history”. He has described the humiliation, plight and misery of the Muslim world, documented the pathology and arrogance of power, and catalogued the horrors of war, which he believes signify the total failure of the human spirit.

A master raconteur, Fisk combines the writing style of a novelist with a historian’s scholarly command over his subject. He is known globally for blaming and bashing Bush, Blair and Sharon (not necessarily in the same order) for the agony of the Iraqis and the plight of the Palestinians, but in this book not a single political leader in current Middle East history draws praise from him or escapes criticism. He does not spare fellow journalists either, whose works he describes, with very few exceptions, as cowering and dishonest.

In his previous book, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon , Fisk contended that a journalist’s job is to write the first draft of history. After meeting Amira Hass, an intrepid Israeli journalist who reports on atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza for a liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, Fisk now believes that a journalist’s job is more than writing the first draft of history or being the first impartial witness to history.

Amira tells him: “There is a misconception that journalists can be objective… What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power.” Fisk has adopted the philosophy of challenging “authority – all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war”. He has repeatedly been in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and other Gulf states, which were theatres of war during the last three decades. After reporting from so many battlefields, Fisk observes that war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death.

He has witnessed both wars and revolutions. Covering Iranian revolution for the London-based The Times , Fisk met Ayatollah Khomeini, conversed with Sadeq Khalkhali, the much-feared ‘hanging judge’, and was amused when American-educated revolutionaries introduced themselves – Shias – to the foreign press as the ‘Trotskyites of Islam’.

During the Iran-Iraq war, he was present at all the major battles and met Iranian and Kurd victims against whom Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons.

In 1988 after serving for 18 years, Fisk resigned from Times, when his editors distorted his investigative story about the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by an American warship Vincennes – killing 290 passengers and crew. A few months later he switched to The Independent and has been writing regularly for that paper.

Fisk met Osama bin Laden thrice – once in Sudan in 1993 (when very few Westerners had even heard the name) and twice in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Osama told Fisk that one of his ‘brothers’ had dreamed that “you came to see us one day on a horse”, adding, “You wore a robe like us. This means you are a Muslim”. Fisk found the proposition ‘terrifying’ and struggled for a moment to come up with an objective answer. He emphasised the importance of his role as a journalist, whose job is to “tell the truth” – whatever his faith. “If you tell the truth” Osama retorted with a smile, “you are a good Muslim.”

Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who claims to have met Osama in Afghanistan after the bombing started, told Fisk that Osama wanted to meet him and had previously sent a message. Fisk never received the message and missed the ‘scoop’.

Fisk has often been described by the Western media as an apologist for the Muslim World and anti-American. In this marvellous book he has discussed, in graphic detail, the inhumanity of Saddam’s regime, excesses committed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and the brutality of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All these regimes have opposed American policies and plans and yet the right wing press/neo-conservatives of America label Fisk as ‘anti-American’ and criticise him for his ‘bias’ against America and anti-Israeli ‘rants’.

Regarding the arrogance of power, Fisk says that he would previously laugh at Iranians when they called the United States the ‘centre of arrogance’, but has now begun to understand what it means. This weighty tome provides interesting insights into the dangers and perils that confront and characterise the life of a foreign correspondent.

Fisk first achieved prominence as a British journalist while reporting on Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. Banned by Afghan police to use the hotel telex machine (there was no email or Internet in those days), he managed to regularly smuggle out his typed copies to Peshawar that were then telexed to London with the assistance of Reuters’ staff and Ali – a daring, street-smart Pakistani bus conductor who travelled daily from Kabul to Peshawar.

Most readers are likely to be overawed by the size (1,328 pages) of the book and might delay the decision of reading it. However, the narrative is so gripping and captivating that even those who disagree with Fisk’s political stance or opinions would face difficulty in putting it down once they have started reading his powerful testament.

This is a fascinating, massive book that leaves the reader dazzled and drained but, more importantly, with a feeling that never before has the history of Middle East and the misery of its people been narrated with such candour and verve and in so amazing a style.
Contributed by the author Ammar Ali Qureshi
First Published in Daily Times on 27-02-2006

The book was published by “Fourth Estate”

Published in: on September 4, 2006 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment