In a delicious paradox that can only be Indian, the man who best embodied the spirit of the holy Hindu city of Banaras was a Muslim. Although he was born in Bihar, Bismillah Khan moved to Banaras as a young man, and lived there until he died, spending some seven decades in an old, crumbling haveli, surrounded by his shehnais, a large extended family, and an even larger circle of hangers-on.
Bismillah came from a family of musicians who had traditionally been employed by the Kashi Viswanath Mandir in Banaras. His own identification with the city went beyond that. He went here and there to perform, but always returned to the soil, the air, and the water that nourished him and his craft. As he liked to say, he was a worshipper of both Allah and Saraswati. Once, a rich American university invited Bismillah to be their musician-in-residence, and asked him to state his terms. Negotiations were abruptly concluded when the musician replied that he would only come if he could bring his beloved Ganga with him.
That a Muslim musician personified Kashi so stuck in the gullets of Hindu bigots. Not that the orthodox Muslims had much time for Bismillah either. In the wonderful documentary that Nasreen Munni Kabir made of him—whose title I have stolen for this column—Bismillah explains how for some mullahs, music is the work of the Devil, ‘haram’. ‘Harrraaam’, he repeats, and then cackles delightedly. Then there was the little ear-ring Bismillah wore, this in violation of some versions of Islam yet a mark of the catholicism of his own, uniquely inclusive, spiritual tradition.
I personally owe Bismillah Khan a great deal, owe him my interest in classical music in fact. As a schoolboy I listened to film music and Western pop music, and nothing else. Awake one night owing to an attack of asthma, I was fiddling with the radio when I chanced upon the music of the shehnai. I listened, at first with boredom, and then with an increasing enchantment. Within minutes I could tell that this was altogether superior to the stuff I used to hear on the BBC’s ‘Top Twenty’ or Radio Ceylon’s ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. As the bronchodilators took effect and my breath eased, I immersed myself in the music. When it ended ended half-an-hour later, the announcer informed us that we had just heard Raga Durga, played on the shehnai by Ustad Bismillah Khan.
So, that was my first experience of Bismillah—listening to him between 2.30 and 3 a.m. on the General Overseas Service of All India Radio. I graduated to listening to him in the more conventional way—by going to evening concerts where he played. In the five years I spent in Delhi University I must have heard him play on at least four occasions. The one I remember best was at the Kamani Auditorium, where he played before the interval and M. S. Subbulakshmi sang afterwards, a true ‘dream team’, indeed, of two great musicians who were also great human beings—one man, one woman, one Hindu, the other Muslim, one North Indian, the other South Indian, and both born in the same year, 1916.
Twenty-five years after I first heard Bismillah, I was able to repay—in small measure—a debt that had by then accumulated beyond all repayment. A friend who was a high official asked me to write a piece for the press urging that M. S. Subbulakshmi and Lata Mangeshkar be awarded the Bharat Ratna. I accepted the commission, since I likewise believed that it was past time that India’s highest honour was rescued from the politicians, and returned to the artists and scholars for whom it was originally intended. However, when I wrote the article I strayed somewhat from my friend’s script, and added the names of Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan to the ones he had given me. All four, I am happy to say, were awarded the Bharat Ratna in due course.
Like so many other readers of this column, my life has been lived to the music of Bismillah Khan. We all have our memories of where and when we first heard him play. And we all have our own favourite compositions. The Bismillah melodies that I especially love are his Durga, naturally, but also his Shankara and his Kedar, and his Chaiti and his Pahadi dhun.
On Bismillah’s death the Government of his home state, Uttar Pradesh, announced that it would set up an Academy to honour its memory. As it happened, a better and more enduring memorial to Bismillah had already been set in motion. I refer, of course, to the magnificent response of the citizens of Banaras to the bomb blasts that rocked their city earlier this year. Intended to set Hindu against Muslim, the blasts instead reinforced the ties that bind the two communities in this irreducibly composite city. In affirming their trans-religious solidarity, the residents of Banaras took heart from the example of their greatest fellow townsman, who had himself refused to celebrate his birthday in protest against the terrorists. For the spirit of Bismillah is the spirit of Banaras, and, the rest of us willing, the spirit of India too.
Published in The Hindu, 27/8/2006