M A I N   N E W S

Ustad Bismillah Khan is no more
Thousands bid farewell to shehnai maestro
Shahira Naim
Tribune News Service

Varanasi, August 21
The cool shade of a neem tree provides an ideal canopy to shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan’s final resting place at Fatmain graveyard. The 90-year-old Bharat Ratna awardee was buried this evening with full state honours at the exact spot where he sat year after year playing mournful ‘nauha’ tunes on his shehnai during the month of Mohurram.

He succumbed to a massive heart attack at the ICU unit of Heritage Hospital at 2.20 a.m. today just when his family and countless fans were hoping that he would pull through his illness. He was admitted to the hospital on August 17 after old-age related fatigue was compounded by his refusal to take any nourishment.

While a national one-day mourning was declared in his memory, the city of Varanasi virtually came to a standstill with the bazaar, offices and schools closed for the day.

All roads led to the Beniya Bagh park where his body was kept in state from 1 p.m .

Thousands of admirers with moist eyes came to pay their last respect to this son of the city, who refused to be moved to Delhi or Lucknow for medical treatment as he wanted to breath his last in Varanasi.

An overbearing fragrance of rose petals was in the air as the departed Ustad, a faint smile still playing on his lips, lay surrounded by flowers and wreaths.

Barely a stone’s throw from his Harh Sarai residence, Beniya Bagh saw a stream of VIP visitors pouring in as the news of his death spread. It included Governor T.V. Rajeswar, Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, Minister Shivpal Yadav and UPCC President Salman Khurshid.

“His last performance was on June 14 at Jaipur where he could play barely for 10 minutes. The programme was taken to its finale by my brother Naiyer Khan”, said his eldest son Mehtab Khan, himself a shehnai player. All the four sons kept vigil near the body at Beniya Bagh.

While Mehtab, Naiyer, Zamir and Kazim follow their father and play the shehnai, the youngest Nazim is an established tabla player. The Ustad also has three daughters — Zarina, Kaniza and Uzra — besides an adopted daughter Shoma Bose, who learnt the shehnai from him and often played in jugal bandi with him.The Ustad had lost his wife in 1980.

The 2 km route from Beniya Bagh to Fatmain graveyard was lined by thousands of admirers and common citizens of Varanasi as the body draped in the national Tricolour inched its way on a CRPF DCM-Toyota. Moving slowly through Sheikh Salim phatak, Dhakbar Tola, Kali Mahal Pitarkunda, Lallapura the procession took more than two hours to reach the Fatmain graveyand, which has the distinction of being the final resting place of many renowned musical and literary figures, including Shiekh Ali Hazi from Iran.

An old relative hugged his eldest son Mehtab and wept saying that now he would have to carry on the family’s tradition. Mehtab talking about his father said that he had moved to Varanasi, his maternal grandfather’s place, in 1921 from Dumrao in Bihar where he was born on Marchy 21,1961.

His ancestors from the father’s side were patronised by the princely states of Dumroa, Darbhanga, Girdhaur and Patiala. So his childhood was spent between these places. He however came to Varanasi sometime in 1921 to learn the shehnai from his maternal uncle Ali Baksh Khan, who was not only his guru but later became his father-in-law as well”.

Speaking of his love for the city Kishan Maharaj the famous tabla player, who often accompanied him on the tabla, pointed out that he and Bismillah Khan continued to live in the Varanasi city while the other artists from the city gradually moved to bigger cities like Mumbai, Kolkatta and Delhi.

A family friend and a senior correspondent with a national channel Rajesh Gupta recalled a couplet by local poet Bhiya ji Banarsi which Bismillah Khan was fond of quoting,

“Chana Chabaina, Ganga Jal aur sookhi roti baasi; Dhaat tari London ki, humko pyaari apni Kashi” (Roasted grams, Ganga jal and stale dry bread Who cares for London, I love my Kashi)

Recalling his sense of humour Gupta said when he met the Ustad at his hospital bed two days ago he not only recited his favourite kajri but also reprimanded his grandson Bande Ali for being “out of tune” as he rhythmically stroked oil into his grandfather’s grey hair! Performing for as little as a rupee for a night -long performance, he was now commanding a fee of Rs 5 lakh per performance but continued to be his humble self, pointed out Gupta.

Known as a man of impeccable secular values, old-timers narrate that he not only refused to migrate after partiition but instead rejoiced by playing the shehnai at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947. According to his son Mehtab Khan one of his last unfulfilled wish was to play at the India Gate.

A performance had been fixed at the venue early this year but was cancelled due to security reasons. This year the ustad did not celebrate his 90th birthday in respect of the memory of the 100-odd Varanasi citizens who died in the twin bomb blasts on March 7. 



Ustad’s death marks end of an era: Kalam
Tribune News Service

Bismillah Khan gestures as Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, BJP leader Jaswant Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi look on prior to a concert at Parliament House in New Delhi
Bismillah Khan gestures as Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, BJP leader Jaswant Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi look on prior to a concert at Parliament House in New Delhi. — AFP photo

New Delhi, August 21
President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today joined prominent leaders, including Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha L.K. Advani, and the nation in mourning the death of Bharat Ratna shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, who passed away in Varanasi this morning.

Describing the death of Ustad Bismillah Khan, who has been credited with taking the shehnai from the marriage mandap to the concert hall, as the end of a great era of a great musician, they said the legacy of the world-renowned maestro would continue to inspire generations to come.

The Centre observed a day’s state mourning in the country as a mark of respect to him. Flags were flown at half-mast in all government buildings.

Dr Kalam said his passing away “marks the end of an era in shehnai music. He was a rare jewel and a musician who comes only once in a lifetime.”

“The maestro’s melodious tunes were a household name throughout the country and brought happiness all around. Everyday Bismillah Khan’s music enters into me and brings peace and gladdens my heart. It will be true to millions of our people. I had many occasions to interact with him and listen to his beautiful music, the last one was just early this year at Rashtrapati Bhavan,” the President said.

Mr Shekhawat expressed grief over the death of one of the “most popular and respected classical musicians.” He said the Ustad brought a rare vibrancy and resplendence to Indian classical music. “An instrumentalist with gifted artistic genius, he enthralled his audiences across the globe and elevated the shehnai to a position of pride and glory in the Indian classical music,” he said.

Describing Bismillah Khan as one of the greatest musicians, Dr Manmohan Singh said he was joining millions of admirers across the world in mourning the death of the king of shehnai. Acknowledging that it was a sad day for the world, he said, “The passing away of the shehnai maestro has brought to an end the “era of one of the greatest living musicians”.

“Ustad Bismillah Khan was not only a musician but an embodiment of the country’s composite culture which made the government honour him with the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. Though he is no more with us, his legacy would survive and his ideas and ideals which inspired many a musician would continue to remain so for generations to come,” he said.

Dr Manmohan Singh said Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib single-handedly elevated this simple instrument of popular folk music into a famous vehicle of Hindustani classical music. “A true symbol of our composite culture, Khan Sahib, through his mellifluous rendering of the shehnai, showed us that while God may manifest himself in many forms, piety finds its true expression through music. Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib was a great son of India,” he said.

Mrs Gandhi described him as “a unique symbol of legacy of India’s composite culture.”

“He not only brought name and fame to India in the realm of music, but was also a unique symbol of the legacy of the thousand-year-old composite culture within the country. At the time of this tragedy, I express my heartfelt sympathies to his family members, thousands of his disciples, well-wishers and fans,” she said.

The Congress also condoled the death of the eminent musician, saying that his name and his instrument had become synonymous with each other.

Mr Advani, terming him “a legend of Hindustani classical music,” said the world would always remember the shehnai wizard for his dedication towards preserving the great legacy of Indian classical music. “The void caused by his death will be difficult to fill and it’s important that young musicians reflect the dedication of the great shehnai exponent in their lives by drawing inspiration from the Ustad,” he said

Before leaving to attend the funeral, Culture and Tourism Minister Ambika Soni, condoled the death of Ustad Bismillah Khan, describing him as “the most brilliant exponent of shehnai” who took the classical instrument to towering heights.

Meanwhile, in Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh Government declared a one-day mourning on the death and ordered closure of all government schools, colleges and offices. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also declared a day’s mourning in the state on account of the Ustad’ death.

Music exponents from across the country today paid rich tributes to Ustad Bismillah Khan. Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan termed the shehnai maestro’s demise as a “personal loss”, but said his music “will always be around us.”

“His shehnai has become a symbol of our country ... his music had a beauty of its own ... his demise is a personal loss to me,” he said.

Melody queen Lata Mangeshkar said the Ustad was like a father figure to her. “ His demise is a great loss to the world of Indian music,” she said. 



A player of divine melodies, icon of composite culture 
Ashok Vajpeyi

The mortal remains of shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan at Benia Bag where his admirers paid their last respects in Varanasi on Monday
The mortal remains of shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan at Benia Bag where his admirers paid their last respects in Varanasi on Monday. — PTI photo

IN the death of Ustad Bismillah Khan, not only has the world of Indian music lost one of its all time great masters, but also Indian culture one of its living legends of compositeness.

There has been hardly any other master with whom the name of an instrument has been so inevitably identified as to become synonymous. In the last half a century or more, no one could think of shehnai without Bismillah Khan or vice versa. It is he who, in fact, gave a popular folk instrument the capacity and courage to rise to be admitted to the hoary company of instruments of Hindustani classical music.

He, of course, in all humility, continued to give the credit for this to his guru and uncle Ali Baksha alias Vilayat Miyan. He expanded the range of the shehnai from one and a half octave to two. But more than that, he popularised the instrument all over the sub-continent.

It is significant that he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of India; the only other instrumentalist being Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Unlike Ravi Shankar, who has been an international musician, the Ustad was and remained a homely native of Banaras (now Varanasi); a quintessentially Indian rooted in the soil although much travelled around.

Bismillah Khan started his musical career in shehnai by playing and practising it in Bihariji Mandir on the Panth Ganga Ghat in Banaras. He graduated later to the major shrine - the Vishvanath Temple. He continued to play regularly at this shrine until old age prevented him from doing so.

His daily routine was to get up, do namaz and then take to his musical practice. In the scheme of things, the Ustad held that god and music are one and that they are not the exclusive property of any one religion.

He became an icon of Banaras, of the composite culture of the holy city. In his death, a part of the eternal city also has died. It is difficult to think of Banaras without the great Ustad just as it would be impossible to imagine Banaras without the Ganga and the Vishwanath temple.

In the best tradition of Indian music, Bismillah Khan combined in his own unique music the two elements: the sacred and the sensuous. At one level his music would rise to become a fervent prayer and, at another, it would tend to be impatient persuasion.

He is easily one of those classical musicians who, through their highly appreciated and popular performances, substantially contributed towards creating a large audience for classical music. Full of subtitles and endearing embellishments, he avoided needless complexities rendering ragas in uncomplicated ways and sticking to its authenticity. It was this total dedication to the authentic that must have been the major cause of the purity of his music.

It is said that whenever the Ustad returned from abroad, he would not only have a cleansing bath in the Ganga but his beloved instrument shehnai would also be given a 'Ganga-Snan'.

In his generosity he took upon himself to feed them all, which all too often landed him in financial difficulties. His other drawback has been that he could not really train anybody to be his worthy heir in music. It is difficult to see how his legacy would survive in any living form.

There is no doubt that the luminous names by which the 20th century of India would be remembered would include the name of Ustad Bismillah Khan. He is truly one of those who through their memorable art have made the century so different from all the previous ones. — IANS

Ashok Vajpeyi is a well-known Hindi poet and a patron of the arts. 



HOME PAGE | Punjab | Haryana | Jammu & Kashmir | Himachal Pradesh | Regional Briefs | Nation | Opinions |
| Business | Sports | World | Mailbag | Chandigarh | Ludhiana | Delhi |
| Calendar | Weather | Archive | Subscribe | Suggestion | E-mail |