When he touched the tip of Shehnai with his lips he blew a part of his soul into the instrument. And then the music instrument could do nothing but to produce perfect and enchanting music. The player and the instrument would become one soul in two bodies. The player would become one with the instrument and its music.
Don’t be surprised if the future Hindi thesauruses show you “Ustad Bismillah Khan” as a synonym of Shehnai (a clarinet like aerophonic music instrument). Such was the influence this man had on the instrument. In Northern India, this music organ is also known as Mangal Vadya (Hindi for auspicious instrument) and is played at celebratory occasions like weddings. Bismillah Khan was the best player of this instrument which produces amazing music.
A couple of days ago I was talking with a friend and the name of Ustad (meaning the maestro) Bismillah Khan cropped up during the conversation. Since then I have been feeling like writing about the gentleman. In my view he was among the people about whom I talked about in my recent post on Siddhartha Gautam. Khan saheb loved everyone around him and as a result he got love in return multiplied a million times. He loved his family, friends, countrymen and everyone else. His passion for Shehnai began when he was just a kid. Rest all is history. He perfected the organ like no one else had ever done. He would do riyaaz (practice) on the ghats (banks) of Ganges -would play during the aarti (prayer) in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and would happily eat laddoos (a sweet) that the priest gave him as compensation. Despite of being a devout Muslim, he considered Saraswati (Hindu goddess of arts and knowledge) as his music’s deity. Khan saheb was the epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity.
He chose to live his life in destitution because of his love for the city of Benaras (also known as Varanasi and Kashi). He had a small ancestral home in Benaras. There he lived with his large family. He never ran after money though money always chased his brilliance. Still he never accepted more than what he needed. A few rich Indo-American fans offered him to come and live in the US. They promised that they will buy him a big house and everything else of a luxurious life. Khan saheb refused the offer saying that he likes to be in Benaras. The group of fans went ahead offering to build his house in a place that they would construct to mimic Benaras. The Ustad still refused the offer saying “Benaras to wahan bana doge lekin Ganga kahan se laaoge?” (You would build me a Benaras in the US but how would you bring the Ganges there?). Such was his love for the city, for the country and for the music.
He hardly accepted students because he wanted to have only those as a student who were ready to do the real hard work in order to master the art of Shehnai playing. Only three people got lucky enough to be his formal students. Khan saheb played Shehnai for 80 years! The Independence Day of India, 15th August, used to start with his performance being telecast by the National Broadcaster Doordarshan from the Red Fort in Delhi . The Ustad died in 2006 and since then I have been missing his performance on this day. Many years have passed since but there still feels something missing from the overall celebrations of the Independence.
He cast such magic on music lovers all over the world because he was who became one with his instrument. A Shehnai was buried with him at his funeral.