Monday, August 21, 2006


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The greatness of Ustad Bismillah Khan lies in the fact that he elevated a little known and obscure instrument to national and international glory. He shares this greatness with others like Shivkumar Sharma. But Bismillah Khan's task was even more monumental because in my opinion, the shehnai is hardly an instrument that is versatile or whose scope is expansive, much less expansive than even the santoor. The shehnai had become ubiquitous as the harbinger of soulful notes for weddings. It had also become strongly associated with mournful moods. Nobody thought that it could become a mainstream instrument that would dominate musical gatherings. Bismillah Khan single-handedly transformed it into a respectful work of art, and did so with extraordinary devotion.

The road must have been tortuous. Almost nobody I know can find it very interesting to listen to the shehnai for more than an hour, not because its notes are not sweet, but because of its inherent limitations. Unlike vocal classical music, or the sitar, the shehnai simply doesn't seem to pack enough of a punch, and it does not seem that it can last for more than an hour before the wind is knocked out of it (no pun). The sitar seems to find itself in a sea of uncharted riches, and it seems to have the opportunity to dance around this landscape. The shehnai seems more constrained to tread a narrow strait, expecting itself to improvise on the same kind of tone and notes again and again. A phrase in Marathi seems apt for it- "Tyacha jeewach tewdha aahe" ("It has only so much life in it"). It might be spirited as background music, but making it the centre of attraction seems to be a harsh task. Bismillah Khan somehow changed that, and metamorphosed and marketed the thin long pipe as an independent source of music and joy, with limitless potential. Even today, I cannot listen to the shehnai the way I would listen for three hours to Hindustani classical vocal music. But without Bismillah Khan, I might not have acquired the patience to listen to it for an hour.

Like many other famous artists, Bismillah Khan suffered from penury even when he became famous. Like Mozart depended on royal aid, Khan depended on an appeal to the Prime Minister to provide comfortably for his extended family. He himself probably did not need that money, considering the ascetic existence he lived. By all accounts, he was the epitome of simplicity. He might have been content in one singular fact, that he played on the eve of our independence day, a fact that would mark him as unique. That the shehnai was chosen to honour those moments again points to its raw emotional appeal in our culture, and the auspicious mood it evokes. He himself literally worshipped the shehnai, and I have heard that he always made sure that the elevation at which the instrument was kept was always higher than the elevation at which he slept in his bed. Maybe the movies banalized the instrument by flooding our ears with it when a Bollywood hero or his mother died; ironically, Bismillah Khan's notes stirred our senses in Gunj Uthi Shehenai, and that was all that he had to ever do with cinema. But that never diverted our attention from the genuine pathos in its notes that Bismillah Khan could summon forth. The Raga Vrundawani Sarang especially has become forever connected with the shehenai.

Bismillah Khan also is spoken of as someone who signalled communal harmony. I would go one step further and say that he and his ilk have demonstrated that religion, it's reconciliations as well as conflicts, actually have no place in sublime human achievement. This has always been the great virtue of the arts. Among all human endeavors, along with science, it's one of two of our explorations that has stayed pure, and utouched by our failings. No matter that politics has used both art and science for nationalistic propaganda, discrimination, rage and war. But the 'what is' of art and science has always remained austere.

Should we be surprised if someone riots now that he is no more? For what reason?? That's a moot question.


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