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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Khan of Kashi: The Shehnai Lost its Breath

Khan Sahib’s music dissolves, defuses and dissipates in front of Gods to get recreated everyday.

Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib

(1916 –2006)

Dhvani – sound – makes even a child to jump into ananda more than the “form” – roop. It is the raga rather than the “colors” that enthralls us more – sways us in rasanubhuti – aesthetic pleasure. That could be one reason why we, while watching nature in all its splendor, dream how beautiful it would be if only all that we watch—the colors, the forms, the lights and shades, the images and their reflections—all these metamorphose into sound that we can listen.

Form appears as though belonging to this world whereas sound appears to belong to another world. Form can be seen with the eye. Anything that can be seen with the eye can also be seen through our other sensory organs – it can be touched by hand, smelt through nostrils and tasted with tongue. Whereas sound can only be heard: nostrils cannot smell it, hands cannot touch it and tongue cannot taste it. That’s why sound – dhvani, sounds more abstract. But it has laya – rhythm and rhythm vibrates the jeeva – life in the body. Thus, it itself becomes life – becomes one with the living, we.

Form is light and sound is breath. We can live without light for quite sometime but we cannot live without breath even for a minute. Listening to the “life” in the swaras set to rhythm of its own simply swings the heart in bliss. What else could be a greater praman – proof for the riches of ragabadha dhvani – rhythmic sounds that sway the soul in sublimity, than the shehnai of the Khan of Kashi.

It is Bismillah Khan’s shehnai that heralded India’s independence to the world at large from the ramparts of Red Fort on 15th August 1947. He – “an upaasak of Naad Brahma”, often made the world know that his shehnai playing is not out of “intellect” but a divine gift – a gift of Kashi Viswanath or Allaha or whatever you name it. For him, to sit before the splendor – the resplendence of Kashi Viswanath and play on his shehnai is like a child playing in the lap of a mother – the ultimate bliss that can alone evolve out of the interplay of the mother and child or the child and the mother.

Listening to his shehnai one often tempted to borrow Homer’s description of Demodocus in Odyssey to define the magic that Khan Sahib breathes into his shehnai: “God has given minstrelsy to him as to/none other to make men glad in what/way so ever his spirit stirs him to sing.” Indeed, he never followed the set vyakarna – mathematics – of music, but let his breath stir the shehnai in whatever way that sounded beautiful to the ear and that’s what he enjoyed himself with twilight in his eyes. For him, music is entirely manodharma-based or imagination-based, rather than programmed to preset rules.

That’s why, every concert of his is a new experience to the listener, for he was constantly in search of the right sur – to quote him, he was always searching for that “unstuck sound”.  And that was the delight the untrained listeners enjoyed in his music. His philosophy of pleasure in music is well captured in how he replied to a young listener’s question about the raga he just played: “Is the soul of the raga to be found in its name? Listen to it, listen to its heart; that is more important.” And it is with this that he spread the fragrance of his music far and wide and delighted his audience with a noble smile on his face. Such a divine smile from the stage of concert is only possible when the music player and his listeners are one with the other and that is what we the Indians enjoyed for the last six decades.

For him, his swaras are his namaz. They are his unblemished reflections in which sarvam ekamSaraswati, Balaji, Allaha – and everything fused into one and that fusion is the prana – the breath – that blew his shehnai. And obviously, the sur the rag that came out of it have universal charm that swayed everyone – child, adult, old, young, man, woman, Hindu, Muslim, Christian – for that matter every prani, the living being. And so only his music was a must to awake the Kashi Viswanath every morning from his cosmic sleep. For, it is only his shehnai which can breathe chaitanya into the sleeping god.

For Khan Sahib – the true embodiment of secularism – Kashi and the Ganga flowing through it is the culmination of all ragas, the rasas of all swaras, and the very abode of his music. Once, when an American University invited him to stay back as their musician-in-residence, Ustad said that he would if only his beloved Ganga could be brought there. That is his love for his river and for his Kashi.

That prana, the breath that blew through his shehnai is stilled on 21st August. And a music of silence pervaded the holy Kashi. The Gods on the ghats of Ganga seemed to have fallen asleep for ever. Ganga for a while stayed still as though no space was left for her swelling tears to flow. Everyone was left deaf and dumb.

His shehnai and his mischievous smile of a child are eternally enshrined in the minds of his listeners, his mourners!

- GRK Murty 


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