Bismillah Khan: The Maestro from Benaras By Juhi Sinha, Niyogi, Rs 795
Juhi Sinha’s appraisal of Bismillah Khan’s life and work is that rare thing: a critical biography. Singularly devoid of the hagiographic aura that typically surrounds most writing on music in India, Sinha’s book portrays the shehnai maestro as a man of many avatars — a musician par excellence, a benign autocrat, a loving patriarch, a devout Muslim sworn to secular ideals, a mercenary artist, and yet, also a man committed to a frugal, fakir-like existence.
At the heart of Sinha’s narrative lies the ancient city of Benaras, where Bismillah lived all his life, refusing to settle down abroad like some of his illustrious contemporaries. The vibrant syncretism of Benaras, its queer mix of spirituality and hedonism, of asceticism and commitment to the good life, gave meaning and form to Bismillah’s artistic pursuits. Nurtured on the thumri and ghazals of Dal Mandi — a street of ill repute, inhabited by baijis — and also trained by his uncle, Ali Bux, in a rigorously classical tradition, Bismillah was blessed with a magpie genius. He could regale connoisseurs with learned expositions of ragas and entertain the common man by playing in Bollywood films (most recently in Swades) with equal facility. Bismillah had the canny sense to judge the mood of his audience, and alter his register to suit it.
For all his catholicity and technical innovations on a non-canonical instrument, Bismillah usually confined himself to a limited repertoire. He routinely played a handful of sweet and pleasing ragas, focusing on the gayaki ang, the emulation of the human voice on the shehnai. Sinha does not exalt either the status of the shehnai as a classical instrument or Bismillah’s legacy, but she also does not trivialize any of it. Instead of waxing eloquent on the powers of Bismillah’s music, she lets his career do much of the talking. So, although bullied by some of his colleagues for being just another shehnai player — one who traditionally played at weddings — Bismillah had the singular honour of being invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to perform after his famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech on the eve of Independence on August 15, 1947. The master, who lived into his nineties, also had the privilege of playing on the 50th anniversary of the event.
Some of the details about Bismillah’s personal life and predilections are arresting. While discussing his colourful, and often contentious, friendships with female colleagues such as Begum Akhtar, Naina Devi and Siddheshwari Devi, Sinha reveals the unremarkable conjugal life that Bismillah had with his musically disinclined wife. But, as Sinha beautifully shows, Bismillah was gifted with a robust constitution and spirit, and he never let disappointments overwhelm him. He remained firmly dedicated to the well-being of his sprawling extended family, who lived with him, and travelled everywhere with his troupe of 8-10 musicians. His irrepressible joie de vivre drew its energies from the gregarious life of the community that unfolded every day around his Benia Bagh home. From his lifelong friend, Mannu Master, the tailor who stitched Bismillah’s trademark achkan and topi, to the local rickshawwallahs, Bismillah’s humanity embraced all classes, castes, gender and religious identities.
Yet, for all his humility and success, Bismillah Khan was not an easy man to live or work with. In Sinha’s analysis, the quirky edges of his exceptional personality come alive. But what one does not get to hear enough are the voices of Bismillah’s family members. The few times that his sons speak, they appear to be cowering under their father’s lofty shadow. Perhaps that, too, is one of the implied messages of this book.