Goonj uthi shehnai

What set Khan Sahib apart was the rare purity of the note that comes when the musician is one with the music. Whenever shehnai will be mentioned, his name too will be remembered.
Nirupama Dutt pays a tribute to Bismillah Khan, one of the greatest classical musicians of our times

Ustad Bismillah Khan poured his soul into the renderings of the shehnai
Ustad Bismillah Khan poured his soul into the renderings of the shehnai

OF the large variety of musical instruments, the shehnai enjoys a special status. It is considered to be auspicious and a harbinger of good luck. Thus it is played at weddings, which need all the good luck. The very notes of the shehnai spell romance in the air and the coming together of hearts and is much celebrated in poetry and song: Aaa gaye woh mit gayi tanhaiyan, Dil mein baji pyar ki shehnayian.

The 20th century in India was fortunate to have the great shehnai maestro who passed away in the wee hours of the morning of August 21. The legendary musician from Bihar sang his way into the 21st century, fighting old age, disease and financial difficulties till time called him to pass away into the goodnight at the age of 91. He leaves behind a great legacy of music and whenever this instrument is mentioned, Bismillah Khan’s name will be mentioned because he took it to a never-before ecstasy. He, along with M.S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar, belonged to the famous trio of classical musicians to be bestowed with the highest civilian honour of the country: Bharat Ratna.

Interestingly, the origin of shehnai has a quaint story attached to it. A less refined instrument called pungi was banned by some Shah ages ago in Persia. A barber or a nai took upon himself to improve the instrument and thus it got the name of ‘shehnai’. But it took Bismillah Khan, born on March 21, 1916, in a family of court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar, to take the shehnai to great heights. In fact, Khan Sahib poured out his soul into the rendering of Raga Kafi on the auspicious instrument from the Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony.

Trained under his uncle Ali Bux who was the official shehnai player in the Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Bismillah Khan went on to acquaint himself with thumri, chaiti, sawani, khayal and achieved mastery over a number of ragas. What set him apart was the rare purity of the note that comes when the musician is one with the music.

In one of his last interviews to Gautam Chatterjee for The Hindu, from the sick bed, the maestro said: "All my life I have been seeking the pure note. If I managed to play it, it was with the grace of God. I will be back, next time with more pure notes. Only the fortunate are allowed the grace of hitting the pure note. What dies does not disappear. It remains in the universe. Every note will remain in the sky."

His mastery over the shehnai brought him an honorary doctorate from Banaras Hindu University and Santiniketan as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Tansen Award of the Madhya Pradesh Government. His music could reach out to the connoisseur as well as the lay person . Ample proof of this was found in his composition of the songs for Vijay Bhatt’s film of the 1950s: Goonj Uthi Shehnai,starring Rajendra Kumar and Amita. The songs of the film that had a shehnai player as the hero are still sung and heard today like Dil ka khilona hai toot gaya or Keh do koi na kare yahan pyar.

The tributes to the maestro and the various grants being announced in his name for akademis are all very well. However, one cannot but look back at the hardships Khan Sahib and his extended family of 100 persons have had to face for pure survival. Pure note does not necessarily mean pure survival but when it is an artiste of the stature of our Bismillah Khan, then the worldly becomes small and divinity takes over as one hears all round the notes of the shehnai of this worshipper of Saraswati.