22 Aug 2006

Bismillah and his shehnai...

Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) passed away yesterday.

Ever since i (and whole generations) began to appreciate music, the name Bismillah was synonymous with the shehnai. i have persisting childhood memories of cool winter evenings, marriage receptions, the delicate fragrance of attar sprayed in the air and the sweet strains of the shehnai over the music system. The Ustad’s name slowly rotating on the red label on the LP record.

The last time i watched him perform with his entourage (his accompanists were all his family - sons, grandsons and cousins) was at the Music Academy in Chennai, Oct 2002. 

What magical melody and power from the lungs of the frail master ! The ragas leapt melodious heights the moment the rakish baritone of his shehnai joined in. i sat there awestruck, listening to his playful jugalbandi with the tabla.

He was already old and professed his inability to play continuously for very long. But even then, he serenaded us over a couple of hours. Sitting on the dais cross-legged and erect, his hallmark cap perched on his grey hairs, he belied his advanced age. He was 87.

He spoke to the mesmerized audience in earnest – and a child-like frankness - of his years of taalim and the time he spent in rewaaz everyday. How he wished there would be schools where pupils would learn music in the guru-shishya tradition. He lamented the young generation forsaking the country’s rich musical tradition and musicians eager for early commercial success without committing to the rigours of achievement. As always, he minced no words, he spoke straight from his heart.

The audience hosted two stalwarts of Indian music that evening - the Ustad and A R Rahman. Rahman could only speak Tamil and English, while Ustadji spoke Urdu and Hindi. As he wrapped a shawl around Rahman, the Ustad remarked that even though he did not remember listening to his music, he knew that AR was a famous and successful musician. Far more successful than he was himself ! An observation loaded with irony. The two maestros, from far ends of the Indian music spectrum, briefly exchanged pleasantries, with the compere for the evening doubling up as their interpreter.
That was not so long ago.

But writing these lines today, it is a sad realization that curtains have come down on another great act. Another pantheon of Indian classical music has succumbed to time - leaving behind memories and sweet music to the ears.

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