The Shehnai is an instrument of folk origins. But, having been an integral part of religious and court ceremonies for centuries, it had acquired considerable stature in classical music well before Bismillah Khan's arrival. The patronage of the princely states and the wealthy temples of the pre-independence era had cultivated a substantial base of musicianship. It is significant that recording companies had published at least eight Shehnai players between 1920 and 1940. Amongst them was, of course, Bismillah's uncle, Guru, and later father-in-law, Ali Bux. Most of the music on these 78 rpm discs was serious raga music, rather than semi-classical or folk music.
If an infant recording industry could find eight Shehnai players to record, there were probably at least 100 credible classical Shehnai artists in the country when Bismillah was growing up. It was this rich heritage of Shehnai music that Bismillah drew upon, to build his magnificent edifice of musicianship. His contribution was to take the Shehnai to the peak of popularity on the concert platform. He was thus a part of the group of outstanding instrumentalists -- such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan -- who enabled instrumental music to match, and even surpass, vocal music in terms of stature and popularity starting from the mid-1940s.
During his performing career, Bismillah Khan managed to keep the Shehnai and himself in the forefront of the concert platform. However, during the same period, the decline of patronage and various other factors were clouding the Shehnai's future. By the time of Bismillah's departure, the Shehnai was losing its presence in the classical music market and had stopped replenishing its talent resource. At the time of writing, there are probably not more than five serious performers of classical music on the Shehnai. It appears that Bismillah will remain the last great exponent of the instrument, until another genius of his caliber restores it to its glory.
The making of a legend
Ustad Bismillah Khan was born at Dumraon in Bihar, the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan Bibi. His ancestors had been in the employ of the principality of Dumraon. He was named Quamaruddin, until his grandfather uttered “Bismillah” at the sight of the newborn. At the age of six, Bismillah was sent to Varanasi to study with his uncle, Ali Bux, who was engaged as a Shehnai player at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Ali Bux was later to become Bismillah’s father-in-law, and Varanasi to become the maestro’s home.
Varanasi was the principal centre of the Thumree and allied genres of vocal music, such as the Kajri, Chaiti, Fagun, Sawan etc. Under his uncle’s guidance, Bismillah mastered these genres, and also studied the Khayal, for which he plumbed the depths of many raga-s. It was at the All India Music Conference at Calcutta in 1937 (age 21) that Bismillah registered his presence on the national scene as a formidable classical musician, an Ustad. The All India Radio station opening at Lucknow in 1938 also turned out to be a powerful launching pad for him -- as it did for many other great musicians of that era. Thereafter, he rose so steadily in popularity and stature, that his Shehnai recital was the obvious choice for heralding the dawn of independence from the Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, 1947, and again at the launch of the Indian Republic of January 26, 1950.
By 1960, he was amongst the hottest selling recording artists in Hindustani music. By the mid-1960s, his long-playing records had made him an international celebrity. He had a fear of flying, which delayed the launch of his international concert career. It finally happened in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival in England, after which there was no looking back. He made immensely successful concert tours to the US, Canada, the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Far East. In addition to earning him acclaim and popularity, his musicianship also engaged the attention of trans-culturally sensitive and serious musicians in the West, such as John Coltrane, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley.
Repertoire and style
Bismillah Khan's repertoire was focussed almost entirely on popular raga-s, and the semi-classical genres of Eastern UP (see selected discography below). As was appropriate to a breath-driven wind instrument, he rendered his music in the vocalized idiom. However, he frequently deployed staccato intonation to create brief illusions of the "tantkar" idiom -- the idiom of the plucked instruments. His raga-s were rendered in the Khayal style. But, they often featured expressions and ornamentations from the semi-classical and folk genres. Both these excursions beyond the territory of classicism added immensely to his popularity.
The architecture of his Khayal presentation was immaculate. The slow-tempo, medium-tempo, and brisk-tempo movements were distinct, and perfect order without any regression. In the Bada Khayal as well as the Chhota Khayal, he kept his tempo moderate, thus ensuring that his melodic intent was always transparent, and his music engaged audience attention. His raga-grammar was, however, occasionally controversial. The totality of his impact was such that his contemporaries do not appear to have made much of this minor blemish in his musicianship.
The duet artist
Bismillah Khan’s career as a duet artist began when he played a very successful three-minute duet with the sitarist, Haleem Jaffar Khan for the feature film “Goonj Uthi Shehnai”. Sensing the promise of the combination, efforts were made to persuade Haleem Jaffar to record a long-playing disc (22 minutes each side) with Bismillah. Haleem Jaffar was skeptical, and the Sitar-Shehnai duet remained untested as a concert-length format for some time. A few years later, in 1965, Bismillah was paired with the ace violinist, Prof. VJ Jog with moderate success.
Bismillah’s breakthrough as a duet artist came when, after the Edinburgh Festival, the HMV office in London persuaded Ustad Vilayat Khan to team up with Bismillah Khan for their first LP, which was released in 1967. Thus was born one of the most celebrated and durable partnerships in the history of Hindustani music. In the ensuing four decades, Bismillah Khan was paired with several other musicians on stage. But, none of them has delivered the timeless quality of the music he created in unison with Ustad Vilayat Khan.
Bismillah Khan and feature films
In 1959, Ustad Bismillah Khan got involved with the music of the film “Goonj Uthi Shehnai” (Echoes of the shehnai) to create the songs for the film, and also to play for them. The music of the film was a tremendous success. But, Bsimillah Khan found it difficult to take orders from the music director, and thereafter avoided the Hindi film industry.
In 1976, Bismillah Khan did, however, warm up to involvement with a Kannada feature film, “Sanadi Appanna” (Sanadi is Kannada for Shehnai), a thinly disguised biography of the Ustad himself. The Kannada icon, Dr. Rajkumar played the title role, with Jayaprada as his heroine. GK Venkatesh was the music director, who roped in Bismillah Khan, and had him spend nine days at the Prasad Studios in Madras working with him on the songs and the music. During this sojourn, he developed very warm and harmonious relationships with the team. The film, released in 1977, celebrated a 100-day run.
Bismillah Khan, the man
He is reported to have appealed to the government to give a cooking-gas dealership to his grandson in order to help his family survive. Several leading musicians criticized him on the grounds that this appeal was below the dignity of a musician of his stature. In any event, the request was never granted. In 2003, Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Bajpayi sanctioned an ad-hoc grant of Rs. 500,000 to him by way of medical help.
Bismillah Khan was a deeply religious man, without a trace of religious bigotry, who found it impossible to separate his pursuit of music from his devotion to Allah and the Goddess Saraswati. He loved the city of Varanasi as much for its religious fervour, as for the fact that the sacred Ganga flows through the city. Even on his death bed, he refused to move to Delhi for treatment. His logic was – millions of Hindus would do anything to able to die in Varanasi; why should he then leave the city to die somewhere else?
During an interview with Indrajit Badhwar of India Today (July 15,1986), Bismillah Khan told him:
"When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this (my commitment to music despite Islam's aversion to it), I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal swaras. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)."
© Deepak S. Raja 2011
EALP 1272: Bismillah Khan, Film music
EALP 1279 Bismillah Khan &V.G. Jog: Kedara, Dadra, Chandrakauns, Light-Dhun.1963
EALP 1285 Shehnai Gat 1964
EALP 1289 Shehnai Nawaz 1964 Odeon
EALP 1294 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz : Gujari Todi, Shankara, Piloo
EASD 1299 Ustad Bismillah Khan / Prof. V. G.Jog. Jugalbandi
EALP 1315 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1967
EASD 1329 Raga Behag, Kalavathi,Dhun. 1969
EASD 1351 Yaman, Brindaban sarang.1970
EASD 1413 Desi Todi, Raga Madhuvanti 1975
EASD 1424 Madhmat Sarang, Bhairavi .1984
EASD 1483 Puria, Hamsadhwani 1990
EASD 1512 Bhupal todi,Bageshree 1973
EASD 1518 Gunkali / Raga Shudh Kalyan /Pahadi Dhun 1973
ECSD 2625 Bismillah Khan Shenai-Nawaz
ECSD 2797 The Magnificence of Stereo. Lalit: Dhun: Raga Multani: Dhun. Ghazal.1978
D/ELRZ 4 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1969
MOAE 113 Lalat, Madmat-Sarang
MOAE 120 Bismillah Khan
MOAE 122 The Magic Shehnai of Bismillah Khan
MOAE 128 Bageshri, Sohoni
MOAE 152 Malkauns, Des-Tilak Kamod. 1964
MOAE 170 Bismillah Khan Shenai Nawaz
MOAE 172 Bismillah Khan Shehnai Nawaz 1967
S/MOAE 178 Bismillah Khan /V. G. Jog Shehnai & Violin 1968
PSLP 3095 Vilayat Khan & Bismillah Khan Sitar & Shehnai 1989