It will not be an exaggeration to say that Ustad Bismillah Khan is one such name which is synonymous to the instrument of Shehnai . Born to a family of musicians in Bihar’s Dumraon, Khan’s musical journey started at a very young age under his uncle, Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’.
Today is his birth anniversary and his contributions in taking Shehnai to a global stage is immense. The New York Times in its September 10, 1982 edition wrote, “What Mr. Khan did was establish the shehnai as a concert instrument comparable to the sitar, the sarod and the violin. He did so in part by refining the instrument’s tone, which in traditional usage had a shrill, piercing quality.”
Awarded with numerable achievements in his life-time Khan is one among few musicians who have received the Bharat Ratna for their contributions to the Indian music. When our country was on the verge of getting independence from the British Raj, it was Khan’s Shehnai which was adorning the atmosphere as Pt Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted the tri-colour from the Red Fort for the first time in the independent India.
India is known for ‘Unity in Diversity’ and Khan was one who truly signified it. In an documentary made on his life titled ‘Sange-Meel-Se-Mulaqat’ [Meeting the Milestone] by Goutam Ghose, Khan describes his typical day at Benaras, (Varanasi) as, “Ganga mein nahaaye, masjid mein namaaz padhe, aur Balaji mandir mein riyaaz kar liye (Took a bath in Ganga, offered namaz in mosque and did riyaz in Balaji temple).”
Khan was also known for his simplicity. Yatindra Mishra, in his book ‘Sur Ki Baradari’ narrates an interesting incident from the Ustad’s life where one his disciples tells him that people from across the world come to visit you, firr bhi aap fati tahmd pehna karte hain, accha nahi lagta (still you wear torn & old clothes, doesn’t look nice). To this Khan, replied, “I have got Bharat Ratna for my Shehnai & not for my clothes. Aaj Fati Hai Kal Sil Jayegi. Dua Karo Sur Na Fati Mile. (Today they are torn, tomorrow they will be fine, but pray that I don’t miss my notes)”.
Khan’s Shehnai wasn’t only full of emotions but it also had a perfect blend of melody in it which made anyone & everyone an admirer of his music.
Today on his 105th anniversary the thoughts & ideas of the great Ustaad have become even more relevant as the idea of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb seems to be gradually fading away from our country. Khan was one Indian in its truest sense.